The Evolving Urban Form: Manila


The Urban Area: The Manila urban area ranks as the world's fifth largest urban area (area of continuous urban development) with a population of approximately 21,000,000 (Note 1) covering a land area of 550 square miles (1,425 square kilometers). The urban population density sits at approximately 38,000 people per square mile (14,500 per square kilometer).

Like nearly all major urban areas of the world, Manila has experienced substantial suburbanization over recent decades and substantially falling urban population densities. In 1950, the core municipality of Manila had a population of under 1 million people, and it represented approximately 60 percent of the urban area population. Over the intervening years, the core of Manila grew by approximately 700,000 people, while the balance of the urban area added nearly 20,000,000 people (Figure 1).

A Forbes article indicates that Manila is the highest density major municipality in the world with a population density of nearly 115,000 per square mile (45,000 per square kilometer). This is more than double the population density of ville de Paris. The core has a population of approximately 1.7 million in a land area of 15 square miles (39 square kilometers).

The densest district reaches nearly 180,000 people per square mile (70,000 per square kilometer). Even so, this is far less dense than some parts of Hong Kong (more than 1.1 million per square mile and more than 400,000 per square kilometer). Even higher densities existed in the early 20th century Lower East Side in New York (according Jacob Riis, author of A Ten Years' War: An Account of the Battle with the Slum in New York). Even higher densities were reached during the late 1980s in Hong Kong's now demolished Kowloon Walled City, variously estimated at up to 5 million per square mile (2 million per square kilometer).

The inner suburbs, the balance of the National Capital Region now have approximately 10,600,000 residents. The population density drops substantially from the core to the inner suburbs to approximately 45,000 per square mile (18,000 per square kilometer).  The outer suburbs, which are composed of the portions of the urban area outside the National Capital Region, have a population of more nearly 8.5 million and a considerably lower density at 28,000 per square mile or 11,000 per square kilometer (Figure 2).

As early as the 1950s, the suburbs have captured most of the urban areas growth. Between 1950 and 1980, the core municipality attracted between 10 percent and 20 percent of the urban area growth. The core municipality of Manila reached a population peak of nearly 1.6 million in 1980, which it has only been recently exceeded. From 1980 to 2000, virtually none of the urban growth took place in the core of Manila, though it captured roughly 2 percent of the growth from 2000 to 2010 (Figure 3).

As of 2010, it is estimated that eight percent of the population lives in the core municipality of Manila, 51 percent in the inner suburbs and 40 percent in the outer suburbs (Figure 4).

The Metropolitan Area: Unlike urban areas, there are no international standards for the delineation of metropolitan areas (labor markets including extensions beyond urban areas). Serious attempts to compare international metropolitan area data have been rare (Note 2). Nonetheless, the evolution of Manila as a metropolitan area can be independently reviewed based upon a provincial level analysis.

The Manila urban area occupies all or part of six provincial level jurisdictions. The largest population is in the National Capital Region, which is somewhat misleadingly referred to as "Metro Manila", despite being only a part of the metropolitan area. This is similar to Tokyo, where the prefecture of Tokyo is referred to as the "Tokyo Metropolis," yet represents only one third of the metropolitan area population. The metropolitan area also extends into the provinces of Rizal (from which the National Capital Region was carved in 1976), Cavite, Laguna, Bulucan and Batangas. The total population was estimated at 26.5 million in 2010 (Note 3).

The metropolitan area's population growth is strongly moving toward the outer suburbs (the five provinces outside the National Capital Region). Between 1970 and 1990, the inner suburbs captured 61 percent of the metropolitan area growth, compared to 36 percent in the outer suburbs. Between 1990 and 2010, the outer suburbs accommodated 64 percent of the metropolitan areas population growth, compared to 34 percent for the inner suburbs.

Commercial Development: The suburbanization of Manila has not been limited to residences. New, world class commercial cores have been developed that have displaced many of the traditional functions of the older commercial core of Manila. Makati, a municipality to the east of Manila and within the National Capital Region now has the largest business district (photo), while a nearly as large commercial core has developed in Ortigas, just to the north (photo). There are other developing office centers such as the somewhat more distant commercial center near the southern border of the National Capital Region in Muntinlupa. This is similar to the kinds of newer commercial developments that have supplanted traditional business districts in urban areas such Mexico City (Reforma and Santa Fe) Sao Paulo (Paulista and Luis Carlos Berrini) and Istanbul (Levant).These developing country cities have experienced an economic decentralization of business that surpasses that of American edge cities.




Manila's Ominous Future? Manila faces an especially difficult future. The Philippines is projected to have one of the strongest urban growth rates in the world over the period to 2050. Since 1950, the Manila urban area has captured nearly 50 percent of the urban population growth of the nation. If this rate were to continue, the Manila urban area would reach a population of between 45 and 50 million by 2050. This is approximately 10,000,000 more than live in Tokyo, the world's largest urban area today.

But Manila faces even greater problems, related to the intense poverty of much of the population migrating to the urban area from the countryside. The Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) estimated that 4 million of the 11.5 million residents in the National Capital Region lived in slums (shantytowns or informal settlements) in 2010 (Photo).  PIDS indicates that this population is increasing at a rate of eight percent annually and is expected to reach 9 million by 2050. This would be nearly 60 percent of the projected population at that time, and does not include slum populations in the extensive suburbs beyond the limits of the National Capital Region.

As if the poverty were not enough, Manila has been plagued by disastrous slum fires, the most recent within the past week. According to the Manila Times up to 10,000 people were left homeless by this most recent fire, which was in Makati, home of the metropolitan area's largest and most prestigious business district.

Manila also experiences some of the world's worst traffic congestion, as people increasingly travel by car on its largely substandard road system. Perhaps even more surprisingly, a substantial number of detached housing communities have been developed, especially on the urban fringe.

Manila's challenge will be to accommodate the millions more who will seek a better life in the urban area and to do so while materially improving the standard of living as urgently as possible.


Note 1: This urban area population is considerably above the figure reported by United Nations (11.6 million). United Nations figure is for the National Capital Region, which is also referred to as Metro Manila. In fact, the urban area stretches well beyond Metro Manila. This population estimate is based upon a build-up of smaller area population totals within the continuously develop urban area.

Note 2: By far the most comprehensive attempt to apply consistent criteria to international metropolitan areas, was by urban expert Richard L. Forstall (who ran the Rand McNally "Ranally" international metropolitan area program), Richard P. Green and James B. Pick. The complexity of the research is indicated by the fact that their list is limited to the top 15 in the world. 

Note 3: The metropolitan population is estimated by applying the 2000 to 2007 annual growth rate to from 2007.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life

Lead Photograph: Urban fringe development: Laguna province (outer suburbs). All photographs by author.