Thursday, May 07, 2009

Baguio: Is Baguio a hopeless case?

Baguio City is the only hill station in the Philippines. For those not familiar with hill stations, a hill station in Southeast and South Asian countries is a high-altitude town used especially by European colonialists as a place of refuge from the summer heat. It looks like the Spanish were not into hill stations since it was the Americans who established the first and only hill station in the country. And that’s why we have Baguio City which is celebrating its centennial this year.

Many of these Asian hill stations (such as Simla and Darjeeling in India, Cameron Higlands in Malaysia, Bandung and Bogor in Indonesia, Dalat in Vietnam, and May Myo in Myanmar) were able to preserve their character. But Baguio, sad to say, was not as the destruction of what makes it unique continues as we speak, with the uncontrolled development and short-sightedness of many businessmen who continue to erase the character of the city in the name of progress and wealth generation. I'm sure they're bound to realize that despite all their money, they can no longer bring back Baguio’s charm. I hope they realize that sooner than later.

There are still a few enclaves of Baguio’s original character such as Camp John Hay and the Teachers’ Camp area with towering pine trees and Baguio’s green and white architecture. Those are the colors that define Baguio just like white houses are characteristic of some Greek Mediterranean towns, or the bright pastel colors that define several Latin American capitals.

In fact, we’ve long been telling the city that a quick solution to beautify the deteriorating Baguio landscape is by repainting the houses in former mountain vistas using Baguio’s historical colors: white, brown or pink walls with green roofs. Imagine how Quezon or Aurora Hill would look like if all the houses there followed this color pattern? It would be an attraction in itself and worth taking pictures of, the same way we take pictures of mountain villages in Europe. And we are not reinventing anything since those are Baguio’s colors. Shouldn’t it be that when a tourist sees green and white houses and buildings harmoniously mixed with lush pine trees, one should know that he is in Baguio City?

There was actually a petition that went around on Baguio and it says:
“We believe that the City of Baguio is culturally, environmentally and aesthetically unique and different from other cities in the Philippines. We believe that Baguio is the nerve center of four rich and diverse cultures: the Filipino culture in general, the highland Cordilleran culture, the lowland Ilocano culture, and the heritage culture brought about by the Americans during the early 20th Century.

“We believe that in the past two decades, the City of Baguio has experienced a substantial degradation of its unique culture, environment and art. We believe that the approval of certain politicians with no respect for the aesthetics and the environment of Baguio to put up concrete structures such as malls, overpasses and flyovers only worsens Baguio City's lamentable decay as a "City of Pines." We believe that this overdevelopment and resulting pollution have to stop.

“We believe that due to its unique history and blend of cultures, Baguio can be to the Philippines as Barcelona is to Spain, Chiang Mai is to Thailand, and San Francisco is to the United States: a main center of arts, culture, philosophy, education, tourism, sustainable development and environmental awareness. We believe, therefore, that the City of Baguio deserves to be declared a "Special Heritage Zone," so that the degradation brought about by overdevelopment can be minimized and gradually controlled. We believe that Baguio City's heritage as a center of culture and environmental awareness is a valuable asset not just to the Philippines, but also to the world.

“We now respectfully call on the residents of Baguio and the Filipino people to sign this humble petition, and for the local and national governments concerned to implement and declare Special Heritage status on this unique mountain City as soon as possible, preferably before the Baguio Centennial in 2009, so no further destruction on its limited cultural, environmental and aesthetic resources may continue.”

But one thing about petitions is that while written well, are not addressed or sent to people who can make it happen. Plus the constant follow-ups and lobbying are not done too. So despite the wide and laudable circulation of this petition, I doubt if it has been sent to the right policy and decision makers.

It’s already centennial year and still there’s no one moving. Maybe someone out there is listening; someone who can push the national and city governments to make real efforts to preserve what’s left of Baguio’s charm. That being said, let me say that Baguio is not a hopeless case. Something can still be done. But we all have to realize that it’s the responsibility of all Filipinos to save the character that makes Baguio City uniquely Baguio.
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