Revealing the complexity behind the simple
As the main man behind Urban’s big boss, Aldrin Plaza has a lot to show for – and does he deliver, with a long list of accomplishments from a military defense base in Saudi Arabia to housing in Ghana, as well as a wish for his country's own capital, Metro Manila.
“Don’t let my appearance fool you,” joked Aldrin Plaza. He loves to play tennis and basketball, he said. But more importantly, there is indeed more to Aldrin than meets the eye.
An urban development officer and one of the national staff helming the Urban Sector Group (USG) Secretariat, Aldrin supports operations and coordinates the work of the trust funds under the Urban Financing Partnership Facility. He also manages the knowledge work of the sector, lately supervising the development of the Livable Cities website envisioned by USG chief Vijay Padmanabhan. In addition, Aldrin is quite the prolific blogger. His most recent piece on solid waste management in the Philippines drew various news outlets, such as the Philippine Star and Xinhua News, to republish or report on the issue. His blog on traditional laws of indigenous peoples was also one of the most visited pages in ADB Blogs in 2016.
However, beyond this gist of responsibilities, which he took on since joining ADB permanently in 2015, lies a wealth of experience that needs unraveling.
Born in Manila to a family of four, Aldrin is a licensed mechanical engineer and urban planner (specifically an environmental planner). He holds two master’s degrees, one on urban planning from the University of the Philippines (UP) and another on urban management from Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. He has done numerous engineering design projects and city master plans over the course of a 17-year long diverse career in private design and engineering firms, government, and the academe, as well as three years as an ADB consultant.
Contributing to the development of cities is his biggest accomplishment, he said. Some of the cities he has helped include Abra de Ilog in Mindoro; Baybay, Leyte; Makati City; Navotas City; and Quezon City, all in the Philippines. He also worked on the environmental impact assessment of the redevelopment of the airport in Coron, Palawan, and the master planning and detailed design of international airports in Cairo (Egypt) and Jeddah (Saudi Arabia). He was also part of the team of engineers that designed the Light Rail Transit (LRT) Line 2 in Metro Manila.
Aldrin, also a musician on the side, now enjoys the steady pace of work in ADB. While he misses being on the field, his current environment allows him to relish his other role – that of being a husband to his wife Ivy and father to his baby girl Mira. Here below is an excerpt from our interview:
“I believe urban tourism is a sustainable development platform to build on as it poses a big potential for cities to attain a high level of social inclusion by building on its strengths and economic advantages.”
Urban Development Officer,
Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department (SDCC)
You’ve done several notable projects locally and abroad. What made you leave the engineering design field?
Aldrin: Don’t get me wrong, it’s actually very professional work but its routinely nature made me feel 5 years is enough, that I wanted a career shift. I felt like I knew the work already and so I went ahead and looked for a new and different type of work. That’s when I landed in the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), working for this executing agency on an ADB-funded project, the Mindanao Basic Urban Services Sector Project.
Is this the type of work you wanted when you left, when you wanted a change?
Aldrin: To be honest, I don’t know [laughs]. When I was searching for a job, it so happened that the father of a good friend of mine was an assistant director for DILG and he saw I had an engineering background, so I was recommended for the role. But I was hesitant at first—it was the government. My perception was the typical negative connotation that people in government are too lax. Add to that how my take-home pay would go down. Nonetheless I still said yes.
However, I was actually wrong. When I worked for the government, that’s when I saw the many good people working for the government and that those people usually seen in the news are the ones who are inclined to grandstanding, showmanship without substance.
What made you focus on urban development?
Aldrin: When I joined DILG it was an entirely new world for me. I didn’t know what the work was about or what had to be done, since it was far from the job I used to do. For instance, when they were talking about classifications of LGUs [or local government units], I didn’t know what those were. And around this time I was with DILG, there was a three-month intensive training on urban planning at the School of Urban and Regional Planning in UP, so I enrolled. Finally, I was able to understand the context of the development work.
Since we were graduates of the short course, SURP told us we would be exempted from the entrance exam if we decide to apply for the master’s program and our admission would only be subject to work experience validation and a panel interview. Only two of us went ahead. After DILG, because I had classmates from government offices and consulting firms at SURP, I tried to do consulting work. I became a consultant on urban planning and social development for the government of Makati City, among other consultancy projects after.
How did you end up in Africa?
Aldrin: While I was at Erasmus University taking up another master’s degree – this time on urban management and development – an internship opportunity in Africa opened up. And because I wanted to gain international experience in my field, I applied and got in. We were 10 students from our program, including another Filipino, five Indonesians, and one American. Part of the deal was we would do our thesis there, based on our internship. I was in Ghana for two months, researching and working on slum upgrading. By the way, we entered this thesis project in an international urban design competition, the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, and we placed second.
Why did you join ADB? Were you ingrained into development at this point?
Aldrin: Bigger pay? [laughs] Although let’s be honest, that is part of the reason why most people work here. But even when I was still with DILG, since it was an ADB project, we would have meetings here from time to time. I thought, hopefully, I could work in ADB eventually. I wanted to try and work from the financing or donor side, and also work on more projects not just in the Philippines.
Before ADB, you became a research fellow in Viet Nam. Tell us about your interest in heritage conservation.
Aldrin: Even before I received this fellowship, I had already been to Hanoi. It was very interesting then because you could see how it was gradually booming, yet you could still see a lot of temples and these cultural vestiges, the French quarter… It was a combination of the colonial and the traditional influences and it made me wonder what would happen to it all, especially as development continues. Would they be able to retain or sustain these, or will it be consumed by all the changes brought about by the city’s economic gains?
My research interest there stemmed from my UP colleagues who were working with the Intramuros Administration*. That’s sort of how I began to have an interest in cultural heritage. Interestingly, when I was in Hanoi and analyzing the temples, I had to study Buddhism to understand the temples, such that I knew why the design had a turtle, crane, tiger, dragon, or why the roots of a tree had to be adjacent to a water body... There were so many things. It was interesting to learn for me, and in a way I do want to see preservation applied here in the Philippines. I think there’s increasing awareness now, although there’s still a lot we have to catch up on.
What do you think is the biggest constraint to Metro Manila’s urban development?
Aldrin: I think the biggest constraint here is we have 17 LGUs, each with their own mayor, and we have a Metropolitan Manila Development Authority that has no political authority over them. Unlike in the time of [former President] Marcos, Imelda was the Metro Manila governor and she had political say over the mayors. So after that, for a time you had [former Makati mayor] Binay against [former MMDA chair] Bayani Fernando. Anything MMDA would do or impose, Binay would not do. I think the metropolitan structure is weak, and our metropolitan approach is lacking. It has to be strengthened and maybe our old governance system should be revisited. There should be an overarching political authority over the 17 mayors for things to work together. For instance, that’s the problem of EDSA, how many cities that thoroughfare has to pass through and every time there is a problem, MMDA, the mayors, and DPWH [the Department of Public Works and Highways] keep pointing blame to each other. So if this charter change does happen, I hope this is something they would consider.
What would you still like to do in the future?
Aldrin: In terms of career, there’s nothing more I could ask for. I think I’ve done a lot of things before landing in ADB. I’m just thankful that I’m here and that I’m still able to work in the field of urban development. At this stage, it’s more about sharing my experience, especially since we’re also in the knowledge business in SDCC. It’s also why I write blogs.
Eventually maybe I’d like to go back to the academe, but I think it would be better if I have field experience again. An ideal project would be something like what Steven Schipani does, the Greater Mekong Subregion tourism projects. I believe urban tourism is a sustainable development platform to build on as it poses a big potential for cities to attain a high level of social inclusion by building on its strengths and economic advantages. It’s not just ADB investing on pipes and concrete. Based on my observation, when most projects talk about economic analysis, they’re just talking about opportunities or jobs during construction. But what do they do once it’s over? They’ll have no more jobs again. With tourism you have opportunities during construction and after when they sell goods or are trained as tourist guides… It’s about building opportunities for the people.
*Intramuros is the walled city in the city of Manila, a remnant of Spanish colonial past—ed.