BENJAMIN DE LA PENA | De-populate NCR? Move the capital? Australia and Brazil tell us: Don’t do it!

January 27, 2014 - 1:20 PM

This is a part two of a continuing critique of two recent opinion pieces with the same title, “Decongesting Metro Manila”, by two management experts and business school deans. The two deans prescribe cures for “congestion” in Metro Manila that are really about depopulating our megacity. DLSU Business School Dean Andrea L. Santiago prescribes new growth corridors; MFI Farm School Dean Jose Rene C. Gayo prescribes relocating the capital.

Read Part 1 of this series here.

“Congestion” is a term traffic engineers use to describe traffic delays. The two deans confuse traffic congestion with overcrowding (otherwise known as density). In my previous article, I showed that all vibrant urban economies suffer traffic congestion. I also showed that cities that are depopulating are cities in serious economic trouble. The two deans are serving Metro Manila nothing but bad medicine because they don’t understand enough about cities, urbanization and urban dynamics.

In this article and the next, I will explore the hollow logic behind their prescriptions. Neither of their ideas is new. Other countries have planned growth corridors or created new capitals.  Since their prescriptions are about decongesting Metro Manila, let’s look at the experiences of these countries. How long did it take them to build the new city and did they decongest or at least slow the population growth of their primate city?

Let’s start with Gayo’s proposal to relocate the capital. Gayo enthusiastically prescribes a location: “An area covered by the towns of Amlan and Pamplona and the cities of Bais and Tanjay in Negros Oriental.” Why this place? Because he’s looking for a place “not frequented by typhoons, on an elevated ground safe from floods and storm surges, with large open space for expansion where a new city can be built without worrying about [an] existing urban population.”

He says Metro Manila can stay as the business capital pointing to other countries: “Australia has Canberra as its political capital, Brazil has Brasilia, China with Beijing, and the United States with Washington, D.C. Such countries have a tandem city as the business capital with Sydney, Rio de Janiero, Shanghai, and New York, respectively.”

Because they were both built in the last century, let’s look particularly at Canberra and Brasilia

Australia’s experience

Australia began building Canberra in 1913 as the new federal capital in its own district (the Australian Capital Territory) to settle the debate about whether the new capital should be Melbourne or Sydney.

It took Australia more than five decades to build the capital and move most of its national agencies. For most of those years, the state of the capital was deemed an embarrassment, described as “several suburbs in search of a city.” Canberra finally got organized and moving in the late 1950s with the creation of the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC), with executive powers to re-plan and fully develop the city.

From a population of 60,000 in the 60s, Canberra now has about 340,000 residents. Meanwhile, Sydney’s population, which was about 625,000 at the time of Canberra’s creation, ballooned to 4.5M by 2010 and is estimated to keep growing to 6.5M by the middle of the century. Melbourne, Sydney’s erstwhile rival, was similarly not decongested by Canberra. It had 1.5M residents in the 1950s; it has 4M residents now; it will have 6.7M residents by the late 2050s.

Brazil’s experience

Brasilia, Brazil’s federal capital was created out of whole cloth for the same reason as Canberra: to balance the competing interests of Sao Paolo, Rio and Salvador. The new city is located at the center of the country triangulating between the rival cities. Brazil did much better than Australia, building out the capital in 4 years, not 4 decades.

There have been lots of papers and books written about the failure of Brasilia’s modernist plan. It cost the country billions of dollars to build. During construction, Brasilia’s planned marvel began to be ringed by informal settlements with more residents than the yet to be completed capital. By 1970 they had to build a separate new city, Ceilandia, to relocate the informal settlers. Today, Ceilandia has more people than Brasilia.

Meanwhile Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro grew into megacities. Metro Sao Paolo, with a population of 20 million, is one of the most populated megacities in the world and is the 10th largest urban economy with a GDP of $230 billion. Metro Rio has a population of 7 million and a GDP of $195 billion.  (Yes, Dean Gayo, Sao Paolo is Brasilia’s “business tandem”  – if there is such a thing – not Rio.)

Metro Brasilia, by comparison is the 4th largest in Brazil, coming behind Salvador, the state capital of Bahia. It doesn’t seem to have done much to “decongest” Sao Paolo or Rio, neither stalling nor arresting their growth.

Lessons for Dean Gayo

Canberra and Brasilia were both built to balance the political interests of competing cities and to carve out a federal capital. The growth of either city didn’t seem to “decongest” the primary cities. The building of both capitals was saddled with problems that stretched for decades.

(The new capitals didn’t solve traffic congestion in the older cities either. Sydney still has traffic jams; Melbourne’s congestion is getting worse. Sao Paolo’s traffic jams are so bad, millionaires travel by helicopter, while Rio is listed as one of the 10 worst cities for traffic.)

Here’s one last hitch to Dean Gayo’s prescription: research that came out last year shows that remote state capitals are often more corrupt. At least in the US, “isolated capital cities are robustly associated with greater levels of corruption.”

The Washington Post described the research: “The authors [Filipe R. Campante of Harvard Kennedy School and Quoc-Anh Do of Singapore Management University] found that state capitals located in remote areas tend to receive less newspaper and media coverage. What’s more, voter knowledge about the goings-on in these isolated statehouses tends to be lower.”

Could we do better than Australia or Brazil? Could we create a new capital, stick to the construction schedule, not have cost overruns and not have to deal with informal settlements? Could we build a separate capital that is not “robustly associated with greater levels of corruption”? I think even the most optimistic Filipinos would find it difficult to say, “yes.”

More importantly, could a new capital “decongest” Metro Manila? Brazil and Australia’s experience resoundingly tells us, “NO.”

Next: Let’s take on Dr. Santiago’s proposal. ‘Alternative growth corridors?’ Paris and Cairo have painful lessons to share.

Benjamin de la Peña currently serves as the director of community and national strategy for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.  Most recently, de la Peña served as associate director for urban development at the Rockefeller Foundation, where he supervised programming related to: urbanization; the emerging science of cities; the role of informality in cities; cities and technology; bus rapid transit (BRT); innovations in informal mobility; and transportation and urban policy.