How do we build cities inclusive of street vendors?

Angelica Sinay
How do we build cities inclusive of street vendors?
People Make Cities, a group of urbanists led by planner Julia Nebrija, hosts a discussion to answer: 'Who are our streets really for?'

MANILA, Philippines – Street vendors are part of the informal economy, making them difficult to monitor and regulate. While this allows them to dodge tax payment, this also means they lack legal protection, making them vulnerable.

In his first 10 days as Manila mayor, Isko Moreno cleared streets in Divisoria and other areas of illegal vendors. (READ: Isko Moreno’s clearing operations: Which Manila areas have been covered?

While many praised Moreno for his prompt resolution of one of Manila’s long-standing problems, some of the displaced vendors were expectedly dismayed. Moreno had assured them that there will be space for vendors in places designated by the city government.  (READ: Divisoria vendors to Isko Moreno: ‘Give us another chance’)

“Bibigyan naman po natin ang ating mga vendors na makapaghanapbuhay doon sa mga pupuwede pa na mga lugar. And, hopefully, pangalagaan na nila iyon at isaayos na nila iyon (We will give our vendors a designated place where they can sell. And, hopefully, they will take care of it and keep it in order),” Moreno told reporters in a recent news briefing.

Moreno said his long-term plan was to build a new shopping area where vendors can set up shop permanently.

In light of these events, People Make Cities, a group of urbanists led by planner Julia Nebrija, hosted a discussion on July 13 to answer a long-standing question: “Who are our streets really for?”

Street vendors joined professionals, students, and concerned urbanites in the roundtable event.

Contributor to economy

Before address the issue, the group acknowledged that street vending is illegal. But the group also noted that street vendors form part of the country’s larger informal economy. It contributes P5 trillion to the economy – more than a third of the Philippines’ gross domestic product (GDP).

The participants discussed the importance of the vendors based on their interaction with them in daily life, and the barriers  that the sector have to overcome to become legal vendors – poverty, inclusivity, and accessibility. 

Street vendors are being blamed for disorder and garbage on the streets, and are even suspected of being part of crime syndicates, they said

“There are also generalizations that some street vendors are also drug dealers or part of syndicates [in] Manila, this thinking is understandable. But equating the entire sector to crime is misguided; many street vendors are simply trying to make ends meet,” said urban planner Ragene Palma, one of the organizers of the forum.

 “Their lack of protection, which is provided in formal industries is worsened by our general perception, making them all the more vulnerable,” Palma added.

Nebrija and Palma also pointed out that street vendors have no access to sanitation facilities.

Palma asked, “How can one even expect vendors to uphold cleanliness in cities when they don’t have access to proper facilities of sanitation? There are no public toilets and barely any waste bins in many public areas.” 

While it’s true that informal vendors further tighten already tight spaces and cause traffic, are streets only for those who can afford a car? Are they for those who regularly use the streets, vending, buying, and walking? Is the answer to this problem really to exclude street vendors from our cities? 

A society inclusive of street vendors

A quick show of hands in the room made it clear that street vendors are integral to people’s everyday lives in Metro Manila. Almost everyone buys meals, office supplies, and even clothes from their regular vendor on the streets.

Others agreed and explained how street vending is not only convenient, but also provides character, community, and vibrancy to cities.

“It’s the people that make the place alive,” Nebrija said.

Louie, a participant who has worked in the housing sector, said:  “There’s a sense of vibrancy in the way people interact. There a level of ethnicity because people are approachable.”

Another participant shared about “eyes on the street,” a basic urban studies concept where shopkeepers at the street-level contribute to the safety of passersby because of their constant presence and familiarity in a place. A street vendor who joined the discussion affirmed this, saying: “Sa may pwesto namin noon, kapag may snatcher, isang sigaw lang galing sa amin, mahuhuli na iyon. Ngayon, makakatakbo na kasi walang haharang.”   

(In our stall before, whenever there’s a snatcher, one shout from us and he would get caught. Now, they can easily escape there are no more obstructions.) 

The group talked about the difference between customers of street vendors and those in malls. Street vendors are able to access a totally different market – one that is more inclusive and accepting. 

Some participants talked about how Filipinos also have a “tingi (retail)” culture out of economic necessity. 

“People just buy enough to get by for the day,” said Nebrija. She also talked about how this affects where vendors place themselves to sell goods. “People wouldn’t go all the way inside a huge mall supermarket to buy two pieces of garlic.”

Nebrija also pointed out how the openness caters to the majority of consumers. “In some planned areas, you would notice how street vendors crowd around because they’re not allowed inside. For example, in Rockwell, taho vendors and those who sell viands are on the periphery. Also, not everyone would feel comfortable entering a mall like Power Plant,” she said.

Urban planning

The first step is to try. Suggestions from the room included providing proper sanitation facilities, formalization of street vending, improved public transportation, and dedicating public spaces for vendors to address continued urbanization. 

Parallels were also drawn between the Philippines and countries like Thailand and India where change happened when vendors were treated as partners instead of problems.

While India created vending zones or dedicated spaces with proper facilities for their street vendors, Bangkok in Thailand mostly integrated vending into its prime tourism experiences, and allowed it to continuing  public spaces given strict regulation on sanitation, among other set standards.  

Planner and architect Paulo Alcazaren joined the discussion to share about more inclusive designs, some learnings on the Singapore hawkers’ strategy, and how one can move forward in the context of Metro Manila. 

Towards the end of the discussion, the group was asked, “India isn’t any less hectic nor problematic of a country as we are. If they can do it, why can’t we?”

What do you think? Who are our streets really for? And how can we make this happen? –

Angelica Sinay is a Rappler intern and studies Math at the University of Pennsylvania.