BGC and Makati exist side by side but impossibly divided. BGC is one of Manila's most exclusive, and wealthy, neighborhoods.

The towers of BGC gleam in the distance, an impossible dream for the residents in the low income neighborhoods next door.

Welcome to Manila, the sprawling capital city of the Philippines. Home to over 13 million people, this city is the epitome of contrast, where towering skyscrapers shadow humble shanties, the wealthy minority lives alongside the majority living in poverty, and modern architecture coexists with dilapidated buildings. This dynamic mosaic paints a stark picture of the socioeconomic and environmental inequality that pervades Manila. 

A low income neighborhood sandwiched in between two of Manila's most famous areas - Bonifacio Global City, or BGC, and the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.

Warehouses built specifically to accommodate the adjacent neighborhood, on the border between Metro Manila and Central Luzon.

The Port of Manila is one of the world's busiest, but that hasn't stopped hundreds of thousands from living in informal conditions adjacent to, within, and on top of Port-controlled land. 

Heavy truck traffic is constant, with the port entrance accessible via the the road which bisects the adjacent neighborhoods. 

The first pieces of the infrastructure needed to connect the new Skyway 4 express highway with Arca South are being laid. 

As the city expands, the urban environment grows haphazardly and inconsistently. This has given birth to a unique architectural panorama; on one hand, there are upscale condominiums, futuristic office buildings, and state-of-the-art shopping malls. On the other; large informal settlements, known locally as 'barung-barungs', marked by squalor and congestion.
Manila's urban landscape mirrors the city's socioeconomic disparity. The architectural contrast between gleaming glass towers and makeshift shanties reflects the wealth gap. The fact that these structures often stand only meters apart from each other emphasizes the stark segregation of wealth and opportunity in the city.
On one hand, the city's architectural boom provides opportunities. It has spurred economic growth, attracting investments and creating jobs. High-end commercial and residential developments cater to the growing middle and upper classes, and international investors. This scenario is also transforming Manila into a cosmopolitan city, with world-class hotels, restaurants, and shopping malls.
However, the current trend of urban development also exacerbates inequality. The real estate boom has primarily catered to the upper class and expatriates, leading to a rising demand for luxury condos and gated communities, such as in BGC and Makati. This not only widens the economic divide but also the spatial divide between the rich and poor. Additionally, these developments often displace the city’s poorest residents, who are then pushed towards the periphery of the city or into already crowded informal settlements.
Efforts have been made towards inclusive urban development, but these are often overshadowed by the pace of rapid urbanization. The demand for affordable, secure housing far outstrips the supply, underlining the urgency for sustainable and inclusive urban planning strategies.

The gleaming towers of BGC next to South Cembo.

An informal ferry transports residents across the Pasig River to the gleaming towers of Makati.

Dense tangles of electrical wire (called "spaghetti") are a ubiquitous feature of the landscape in informal Manila.

The Pasig River divides Malanday from Loyola Heights, in eastern Manila.

Manila's environmental scenario is also a reflection of the inequality it harbors. The rapid urban sprawl coupled with unregulated development and poor waste management has given rise to significant environmental issues. While the affluent can escape the city's polluted air and litter-strewn streets, the poor bear the brunt of these environmental hazards.
Moreover, the city is increasingly vulnerable to climate change. Manila sits in a low-lying coastal region, and informal settlers often live in areas prone to flooding and landslides. The wealthy, on the other hand, reside in areas equipped with better infrastructure and disaster mitigation strategies.

Gleaming towers and humble homes line the Pasig river near Guadalupe. 

A dense jumble of informality at the Port of Manila. 

Informality and industrialism coexist within one unique, symbiotic organism, called the Port of Manila. 

The Manggahan Floodway, choked with water lilies.

On September 26, 2009, at about 6:00 pm PST, the 50-mph "Tropical Storm Ketsana" (called "Ondoy" in the Philippines) hit Metro Manila and dumped one month's rainfall in less than 24 hours, causing the Marikina River system, including the Manggahan Floodway, to burst its banks very rapidly. It is thought that blocked pipes and a poorly maintained sewer system, along with uncollected domestic waste, were major contributory factors in the speed with which the flood waters were able to engulf the surrounding area. The illegal settlers especially were blamed for flooding since their houses reduce the effective width and blocked the flow of the floodway.

The road to the port traversed by heavy trucks and endless spaghetti wires.

The port, with floating informal communities growing on the side.

Extreme crowding near Manila's port.

Social housing near Manila's port looks almost dystopian, especially juxtaposed with the dense crowding and colorful nature of the surrounding informal area. 

Heavy trucks snake through the neighborhood near Manila's port, belching exhaust and creating noisy traffic jams within meters of tens of thousands of people. 

The Church of Christ in Manila's port district. The Philippines is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, with some 78% of the 108 million people in the country identifying as such.

The politics of inequality in Manila further exacerbate this divide. Patronage politics often trump good governance, feeding the cycle of poverty. Political dynasties thrive, benefiting from the nation's wealth while the majority remain in poverty. 
President Rodrigo Duterte's War on Drugs has been one of the most controversial facets of his administration since he assumed office in 2016. This campaign has sparked intense debate regarding its effects on inequality in Manila, and the broader Philippines.
Duterte's hardline approach was framed as a public safety campaign, aiming to eradicate the drug trade and the associated crime. However, the way it was carried out has raised significant human rights concerns and exacerbated the city's existing inequalities.
Primarily, the campaign has disproportionately targeted impoverished communities. The urban poor, particularly in Manila, bore the brunt of the aggressive drug war. Thousands of extrajudicial killings have occurred, often justified with dubious evidence. Families were left grieving without closure, as perpetrators mostly remained unpunished.
Almost everyone I spoke with mentioned the War on Drugs as fundamental to understanding the grievances of the city's poor.

Division in Mandaluyong, Manila.

Housing upgrades involve tearing down dark concrete blocks of overcrowded flats and replacing them with more modern housing near the port. 

Mandaluyong, looking toward Makati.

Pembo, with the wealthy neighborhood of BGC behind it.

Dense neighborhoods in Pembo, Manila.

Typhoons often bring heavy rainfall to the region, and with the city's vast concrete landscape and insufficient drainage, this quickly translates into extensive flooding. In the case of the Manggahan Floodway, it was designed to divert excess water from the Pasig River to Laguna de Bay, and then to the sea. However, it has not always functioned as planned, and numerous factors contribute to the exacerbation of flooding.
Firstly, informal settlements along the floodway have led to obstruction and congestion of the water channels. These settlements, born out of the city's vast socioeconomic inequality and lack of affordable housing, are often built precariously close to the water's edge. They contribute to a narrowing of the waterways with waste and debris, which reduces the carrying capacity of the floodway, and hampers its effectiveness during typhoons.
Secondly, climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of typhoons hitting the Philippines. The warming ocean temperatures provide more energy for storms, causing them to bring more rainfall. This means that even with a functioning floodway system, the volume of water might exceed what the infrastructure was designed to handle.
The effects of these floods are devastating and disproportionately affect the city's poor. Residents of the informal settlements along the floodway are often the first victims. Their homes, built with makeshift materials, stand little chance against the violent waters. Displacement, loss of property, and even loss of life are frequent during these calamitous events.

Floating homes next to the container terminal.

Seaweed fishermen make their living on the island of Mindanao, in the far south of the Philippines.

The Pasig River, artery of Manila, is heavily developed, much of which is low income or informal homes built alongside the river banks.

You may also like

Back to Top