Arts & Culture
February 13, 2024
5 minute read time

Take a Walk: Navigating Manila by Foot

Lex Celera
Photos by
Javier Lobregat
Illustrations by
Ivan Grasparin

When we think of cities, we usually think of them as separate from nature. Demarcated by a system of roads and channels, the city trades contact with nature for infrastructure, economic function, and symbolic status.

Historically, a place becomes a city when the privilege is granted by an authority. But there is a metaphor that considers the city as a living organism which plays around with the idea that the city isn’t just an occupied material space but something close to a living, breathing space. A city wouldn’t be a city if it weren’t for the people inhabiting the space.

These people interact with each other everyday, creating a wide network that regularly moves and intersects. It’s people that give the city life, that make it breathe.

The best way to witness a city “breathing” is to walk and witness events as they occur on the ground.
“The city is to bring nothing but the basis of stimuli to the population and it is the people who are responsible for making it come alive and giving it meaning,” writes scholar Michel de Certeau in his essay “Walking in the City.” In his essay, de Certeau posits that people who walk are who give the city life. As each person encounters the city while walking, they create their own stories, their own history, which when pieced together create a patchwork of interpretations, opinions, and ideas.

I’m familiar with this part of Metro Manila enough to keep a few landmarks in my memory:

the line of jeepneys outside the bank in the corner of Leon Guinto and Ocampo. The row of seedy college bars across one of the bigger condominiums in the area. A hidden party spot only accessible through one of the eskinitas. There are some places I have only seen at night.

These landmarks aren’t really markers known to anyone but myself.

The perspective provided by walking around idly means that I get to see things that I haven’t noticed before, like how there’s not enough time for pedestrians to fully cross the street between Torre Lorenzo and the Jollibee branch; the green pedestrian sign counts down the seconds faster, and if you’re slow enough you’ll be caught in the tiny patch of concrete below the LRT line. Or how there’s a clear difference of environment between the college grounds and the street outside. The walkways in front of the Henry Sy Sr. Hall, visible from outside the fence, are made naturally from people walking along the grass.

We’re rendered invisible, anonymous, and even disconnected from life despite crossing paths with hundreds, if not thousands of people in a day.
Walking can only take you so far; as much as we traverse the city streets we are also constricted by it. In this part of Taft Avenue, and most likely a big chunk of Metro Manila, pedestrians struggle. There is no such thing as a sidewalk in Metro Manila, unless you’re in one of the more posh neighborhoods. Between the buildings and the road, it is only parking for cars, motorcycles, and pushcarts peddling kikiam and mangga with bagoong.

For the majority of the city’s inhabitants, me included, this is how we experience the city— looking down, seeing things as they are and as they happen. But even then, we’re not aware of our role as storytellers because we are just living our everyday routines. The dreadful normalness of going through the same routes everyday is heightened when everyone else does it too.

If I was a tourist, my unfamiliarity with my surroundings prevents me from experiencing the city as it is because I am experiencing it for the first time mostly in contrast with what I am used to. Despite living in various areas in Metro Manila for 10 years, the city capital still manages to surprise, in both good and bad ways.

Hong Kong is dense like some parts of Metro Manila, and though the streets are a little confined, there’s a vibrant sense of life permeating in the air. Singapore is efficient, sanitized, and like Bonifacio Global City, bereft of any historical sense of place. Global cities like New York and London are very cosmopolitan, cities bigger than themselves.

Metro Manila, at worst, is a Frankenstein’s monster of multiple urban blueprints overlapping each other through time. At best, it’s a story of resistance. We resist anti-pedestrian architecture. We resist the uncaring regular loss of public space. Every now and then the news cycle churns out stories of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) demolishing stalls that riddle the sidewalks, or the police forcefully evicting residents from informal settlements.

When you check Taft Avenue in navigation apps like Waze or Google Maps, you only see shapes in gray, white, brown, and green. Even in interactive technologies like Google Instant Street View, you only see a facsimile of what is really there; the angles are warped, the view static.

The living, breathing city is something you can only see when you walk, even if you walk without purpose.