Murder by numbers

JP Alipio

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Uprooting the trees to give way to a green mall is like taking out your lungs and replacing them with an electric fan

JP Alipio

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – By far, Friday’s January 20 rally was one of the biggest in the history of Baguio. 5,000 people and not just anyone, it was everyone! Young children on strollers, artists, film makers, teachers, mothers, fathers, students, deans and chancellors, the elderly, and even some of the business owners in SM itself. The only people missing from the biggest rally in more than two decades were the people who run the city of Pines, not one showed up but everyone who voted for them did.

The reason for all this: 182 trees and 1,500 square meters of open space. To be replaced by a parking structure for 1,500 vehicles. SM says that their aim is to decongest the city, and the Mayor Mauricio Domogan supports this, saying that the city is in urgent need of parking spaces. A green building, with a green roof, and a water catchment area. So why did everyone from the oldest to the youngest come out to declare his or her displeasure with the local government and SM Supermalls?

Mike Arvisu, in his speech during the protest, sums it all up elegantly. “Uprooting the trees to give way to a green mall is like taking out your lungs and replacing them with an electric fan.”

Moving past the emotional sentiment of the day, does it really make sense as the mayor of the city so adamantly proclaims that it is a necessity?

Lets look at the numbers.

Traffic congestion – Solving traffic problems is more often than not mistaken by many public officials as making roads wider for cars, increasing parking spaces, and closing down pedestrian lanes in essence increasing the flow rate of traffic for cars which have an average of 2 passengers each. In truth what is needed is volume reduction. Sustainable cities do not have giant parking lots, instead investment is put into pedestrian walkways, public transportation, and cycling paths.

Increasing the road and parking spaces for cars will only induce more vehicles to come into the central business district, when what needs to be done is to reduce the volume of private vehicles and increase the efficiency in public and alternative transport such as bicycles. The construction of a 1,500-capacity parking structure will increase the private vehicle loading on Baguio’s streets by that same amount or even double that. And because economic activity is concentrated in the mall, congestion problems will surely arise as opposed to decentralizing business activity to other parts of the city.

Pollution – The creation of a parking facility that houses 1,500 vehicles in addition to the 800-vehicle capacity of the current parking lot will not only increase the volume of cars and corresponding traffic in the central business district, but will also increase the amount of pollutants in the air. Consider that at maximum capacity, both parking areas will contain 2,300 vehicles, with each vehicle using about one liter of fuel while parking.

One liter is equal to 5.5lbs of carbon dioxide (CO2). This means that at any given time, the parking lots are releasing 1,2650 lbs of CO2 per hour. Multiply this by the number of hours the mall is in operation (12) and you have 151,800 lbs of CO2 per day being produced by SM’s parking lots. Even just 50% percent of this is deadly. Who would want to park here with these numbers in mind. In fact, it would be almost suicidal to live within spittting distance of the mall, not to mention shop inside it.

Pollution and the trees – SM intends to cut or ball 182 trees. Whichever the case, 90-100% of these trees will end up dying. They plan to replace the trees with a LEED certified building that is supposed to be more environmentally friendly, but not more than the trees. Each tree here can absorb as much carbon dioxide in a year as a car driving 40,000 kilometers. The 182 trees SM intends to kill can absorb the CO2 emissions of cars going back and forth from the moon 10 times!

Water catchment and water conservation – Part of the building structure will be a water catchment facility which will reduce consumption of water from the city wells and reduce runoff into the streets of Baguio, reducing the risk of flooding. The question here is what about the city’s aquifer? With the increasingly diminishing forested areas, the recharge of the city’s aquifers is no longer meeting the amount of water being extracted from them. Further reducing the city’s green spaces will enhance the negative effects on the sources of water in the entire city. 

Baguio is a mountain city that has always had a history of water shortages; the reason for this is geographic due to it’s elevated location. But more recently the reasons for the shortages have included an increased demand due to overpopulation. During the dry months the city relies solely on its wells which are recharged by the forested areas still existing within the city limits. The reduction of these forest areas and consequent conversion into cemented surfaces prevents recharging of these natural aquifers, leaving less water available to the population each dry season. SM contends that the water catchment, as well as their conservation measures will allow them to solve problems such as this. But SM is now also the largest user of Baguio’s water supply — a demand which, when taken away, can supply water to a significant number of homes within the city.

Increasing the size of their business, even with their conservation measures, will have a corresponding increase in demand for water as opposed to the building remaining a green space. Another point is that the water catchment only provides water for their use during the wet months, when water volume is high. But due to their high water consumption rate, it is unlikely that water stored during the rainy season will last till the dry season. Thus, they will still revert to using the city wells for water, leaving less and less water for the residents of Baguio and its surrounding municipalities.

Trees and water – The destruction of the forest around SM will not only affect the city’s aquifer but will also increase the surface runoff of water into the streets of Baguio. This will increase the incidence of flooding in the central business district. Aside from absorption, each tree is also able to transpire up to 150 liters of water per day. The forest area with 182 trees could potentially absorb 27,300 liters of flood water each day. Once the trees are cut, this amount of water flows into the streets and accumulates, causing massive flooding.

People – The last element to this problem is people, 5,000 people. But then an interesting thing happened Friday, January 20. The passion and emotion of 5,000 people dancing on the streets to the sounds of drums and gongs were amplified a hundred-fold through the power of social media. It was no longer just 5,000 people screaming to save Baguio’s trees. At one point during the entire event, a huge number of people online simultaneously screamed to save Baguio’s forests, making the cause, #saveBaguiotrees, the Number 1 trending topic on Twitter nationwide.

It was a strong message to the government to save Baguio’s trees, and in fact it is enshrined in the Philippine Bill of rights (Article III, Section 4) that we, the people, have a right to petition the government for grievances which we think must be addressed. In this case, the petition came through social media, Twitter and Facebook. Liliputian effort against Goliath, and the Mayor should take notice, that there is in fact something they can do.

Here are the numbers clear and simple. Throughout the protest in front of SM, it was about community and being a part of it. Saving the forests for many of those who came was about saving that sense of community and family that exists in this mountain city. The forests are our family, they are our fathers and forefathers. And in these mountains our elders are the most respected members of our society. Who here is older than the trees? –

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