Philanthropy continues to play a big role in addressing broader, pressing issues in asian societies. while philanthropists fund an array of social causes, one of them has focused on supporting livable, green cities.
Architect Felino “Jun” Palafox, Jr., who was named a Forbes Asia 2013 hero of Philanthropy, believes that philanthropy is a vital vehicle for driving sustainable urban development forward. Jun is the Principal architect-Urban Planner and Founder at Palafox associates, a Philippine firm with a mission to jumpstart a social and environmental renaissance through innovative and sustainable architecture and planning in cities found in 38 countries worldwide. The firm provides pro-bono architectural and interior design under the blanket of its philanthropic efforts.
Jun goes into more detail on his vow to help create sustainable cities in the Philippines and beyond.
What is the motivation for your philanthropic work?
It is my spiritual upbringing and education. Apart from being an architect, as well as an urban and environmental planner, I was also a former seminarian. While at a Roman Catholic seminary, my mentors told us that the sin of omission is as bad as a sin commission.
At Harvard University, my professors used to tell us that if you work in a society that does not address poverty and protect the environment, one must practice architectural activism, architecture for humanity, interfaith architecture, democratic architecture or philanthropic architecture.
At Palafox associates, we have a triple bottom line approach: People/Social Equity, Planet Earth/Environment and Profit/Economy. In every project that we do, it is always people first—we consider how a project will create jobs, alleviate poverty and help the underprivileged members of society. Then we talk about the environment and, finally, about prosperity or economic goals. We also have heritage, culture and spirituality as goals. We seek a balance.
We practice green urbanism and green architecture. We walk the talk.
As far as I know, I am the only Filipino architect who has signed up for the 2030 Challenge, a commitment to make all new buildings and developments carbon-neutral by the year 2030. As the saying goes, “We borrow the environment from future generations. We are only its stewards.” A big part of my professional practice and spirituality is taking care of the environment. It is not only about becoming successful, you also have to do significant work.
Can you walk us through your work in sustainable urban development?
During the early years of my career as an architect and urban planner, I had the opportunity to witness the best practices of successful cities.
I was an urban planner for Dubai back in the 70s. For more than 44 years of being in the architecture and urban planning professions, I continue to look at the evolution of key cities around the world and attempt to adopt their development strategies, visions and plans in our projects here in the Philippines and in 38 other countries.
In one of our initiatives, Postcards from the Future, we presented various ‘uglifications’ of our cities and our recommendations for addressing these. Our staff took pictures of the ‘uglifications’ and then re-imagined these images into beautiful and more functional places for people, which we call Postcards from the Future. I also shared a ranking of cities according to the principles of green, smart, livable, sustainable and resilient planning and design. These cities include asian cities like hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore as well as a number of western cities. These cities share some things in common: prioritizing walking, biking and public transit as the main modes of transport, and valuing green and open spaces.
There are so many lessons to be learned from these cities. We do not even have to reinvent the wheel—we just need to go global, then local.
We need strong political will, visionary leadership, good planning, good design and good governance to address stumbling blocks in development and bring about positive change.
Our developmental plans and actions should not just be short-term and opportunistic, but also long-term and visionary.
Making urban centers in the Philippines and other developing nations sustainable seems to be a major undertaking. Where do we start?
We begin with a balanced plan. The plan should be comprehensive in terms of discipline, urban planning, architecture, engineering, economic development and social economic demographic. when you plan, you design it not just for the current generation but for future ones. Planning is also connectivity and convergence.
Unfortunately, the way the Philippines is planned and developed, for instance, has led to unbalanced growth and development. Manila is no longer sustainable, for everything is concentrated and congested while the provinces and cities outside it remain underdeveloped. The creation of urban growth centers outside Manila is also a measure of sustainability, because it will act as counter-magnets to the primacy and attractiveness of Manila to migrants.
What is holding us back in this area?
Corruption, criminality and climate change are not being properly addressed. Our government leaders should be the exemplar, not exempted, in tackling these issues. We should have more social justice, not only selective justice to protect the very few. Hopefully, the leaders we have now have the heart and skills to address the stumbling blocks that are holding us back in order to implement genuine change and reform.
Open spaces are the lungs of a city, the central business district is the heart of a city, while the roads and waterways are its arteries.
Today, crucial open spaces are being sold and developed. In the case of Manila, it is a dying city because it has no lungs and its heart is being strangulated by congested arteries.
Overpopulation is a major problem in many Asian cities. How can it be managed?
The solution to overpopulation does not lie in controlling the population, but instead in a better distribution of the population. If the rest of the world follows the density of hong Kong, for example, the world’s 7 billion population can fit into the U.S. state of Texas. It is because hong Kong is made up of 70 percent of open space.
Overpopulation can be managed through urban planning and regional development. In the Philippines, I support the federalism initiative of the new president, which will help good urban planning and regional development by creating more urban growth centers outside Manila like Batangas, Cebu, Davao, Ilocos, Iloilo, Subic and Zamboanga.
In your opinion, how can Asia’s philanthropists help create sustainable cities?
We have to be more generous in our philanthropy, similar to the Buddhists and Taoists of Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as the Americans and the Europeans. We should be more patriotic and contribute to the development of our respective countries. When we see wrongdoings, we should not be afraid to report them.
At Palafox associates, we have put forward more than 300 recommendations on how to make our cities more sustainable, more resilient, smarter and safer. Still, many government policies, particularly in the Philippines, lead to the ‘uglification’ of our cities. We must re-educate our government and business leaders.
Photo: Palafox Associates