A river runs through: Saving the waterways of Pasig, City of Los Angeles

Tears streamed down the face of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission’s (PRRC) Executive Director, Ramil Tan, as he recalled the neglected and polluted state of the waterway the Philippine government had tasked him with restoring.

The Pasig River had been compared to the Grand Canal of Venice before the expansion of commerce and the population drastically reshaped the Metro Manila region.

Over time, the river took on a foul odor and murky green hue due to years of environmental damage wrought by the byproducts of industry and dense urban dwelling along its banks.

In addition, no funding from the Philippine government had been allocated in 2015 to support the PRRC’s efforts to rehabilitate what ecologists have regarded as one of the Philippines’ dirtiest rivers since the 1990s.

“Lahat … grime, dirt, it’s all there” Tan told Southern California city officials and urban planning experts at Marsh Park in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 22. “It’s dead, biologically.”

Yet despite its challenges, in the past year, the commission managed to establish Environmental Preservation Areas (EPAs) protecting more than 1,700 linear meters of the Pasig River. The PRRC revitalized more than twice the amount of land the government had set as the commission’s goal for 2015 by directing public agencies and securing funding via private partnerships.

Tan related the commission’s achievements during a signing event celebrating a new “Sister River” partnership between the PRRC and the Los Angeles County Board of Public Works (LACBPW).

Over the past few weeks, he and a delegation representing the commission journeyed to Paris and Los Angeles in hopes of expanding the Philippine agency’s network of support to the global community.

The signing of the sister rivers agreement on Saturday coincides with both Filipino American History Month and Architecture Month in Los Angeles.

It also marks the beginning of a multifaceted exchange between communities surrounding the Los Angeles and Pasig Rivers, two urban areas of starkly contrasting ecosystems and circumstance that face similar dilemmas.

“The issues moving forward (for the LA River) are exactly the same as what the Pasig was going through: community engagement and accessibility,” said Alex Anamos, the studio director for the Culver City-based architectural firm, R&A Architecture + Design, during a panel discussion ahead of Saturday’s signing.

Although construction projects involving the LA River have garnered millions of dollars in public funds, private citizens and businesses had been slow to embrace its development, according to Anamos and other panelists.

About 10 years ago, many LA residents didn’t even know a river ran through their city, according to Ben Feldman, a principal with the architecture firm Mia, Lehrer and associates, whose work includes a variety of improvements to the river’s accessibility. He said that in recent years, however, the river has drawn the attention of developers who view the river as the city’s “next coastline.”

“Forces are making this river an amazing amenity that’s really starting to bloom,” said Anamos on Saturday.

But as the LA River takes on greater prominence in the city’s landscape, concerns associated with gentrification like public accessibility and the possible displacement of existing communities have arisen.

“Projects have to be focused on the population,” LA Board of Public Works Commissioner Joel Jacinto told the Asian Journal following the river dedication. “They have to benefit the people and they have to be owned, maintained and sustained by the people.”

He concurred with other panelists who stressed the importance of ensuring that improvements enhance rather than disrupt the lives of the people who live and work along the banks of the L.A. River.

In Metro Manila, many shanties erected by informal settlers are so close to edges of the Pasig’s waters that they are at risk of being swept away during severe rains. Most of their occupants live far below the poverty line; these flimsy structures are often all that they can afford. Under Philippine law, residents must be provided with an alternative living arrangement before their makeshift homes can be demolished.

A portion of land cleared by the PRRC is always reserved for the construction of new housing as part of their mission to transform communities along the Pasig River.

Tan told the Asian Journal that, last year, the committee managed to relocate almost 80,000 shanty dwellers into more secure structures.

In addition, revitalization plans often incorporate features like hyacinth gardens which not only beautify neighborhoods, but also provide raw materials for artisans and a boon for regional commerce. The PRRC also collaborates with local organizations to create training programs that teach relocated community members how to take advantage their newly developed resources while preserving regional sustainability.

“That’s how we maintain and sustain the developed the esteros (river developments),” said Tan, citing the importance of getting individuals to take a personal stake in their neighborhoods. “We design all of these esteros…in such a way that, there must always be a community participation and engagement.”

He added that 90 percent of affected residents approved of the improvements in surveys conducted after the completion of estero development projects.

The PRRC managed to accomplish all of this at no cost to the Philippine government in 2015 thanks to collaborative efforts between the committee’s supporters from the private and nonprofit sectors.

Experts and local officials in attendance on Saturday said they were astonished by the progress the PRRC had achieved. Some went as far to say that policy makers in California had much to learn from the methods employed by the Philippine commission.

“This was a huge inspiration,” said Culver City Council Member Thomas Small. “they’ve been able to do in Manila in such a short time [what] we can’t seem to accomplish in Los Angeles and Culver City even though we’ve been talking about it for years.”

He referenced Ballona Creek, an 8.8-mile-long waterway running through the southwestern portion of the greater Los Angeles region that Small called a tremendous untapped resource for his constituents. He was proud to mention the implementation of a bike path along the channel in Culver City, but said much more work needed to be done to realize the creek’s potential.

Meanwhile, ongoing revitalization efforts at the LA River  are having a real positive impact, according to recent research and representatives of Carollo Engineers, a firm conducting flow studies as part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “One Water LA 2040” initiative.

“It’s not dead. It’s improving; it’s thriving,” said Carollo Engineers Client Service Manager, Pavitra Rammohan.

Though there was much left to be done, she said, “but there’s immense, incredible work and now we have all these…different stakeholders interested in sharing the vision and making it a huge success.”

Optimism also characterizes future prospects for the restoration of the Pasig, thanks to the results the partnerships and results the PRRC had managed to forge in the past year. Tan told the Asian Journal that the progress the environmental organization has made will encourage the Philippine government to offer more money for revitalization projects.

He added that the group’s outreach to international bodies has resulted in funding pledges from officials in Spain and France.

On Saturday, Jacinto hailed the new bond between Angelenos and Manileños and predicted a future of mutual learning and growth.

“By that international agreement we have learning, we have exchanges, we have ideas, we have cooperation,” he said after the partnership document’s signing.

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