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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Metro Manila’s Rise to Megacity

(This article was originally published in 2019 but is still relevant today)

Welcome to Metropolitan Manila, the national capital region of the Philippines, population 24.3 million, and one of only 37 megacities in the world.

A megacity is an urban area with a total population exceeding 10 million people. It is an area, meaning it could be an agglomeration of multiple cities that converge such as Metro Manila which is composed of 16 cities, but could also be a single city such as Tokyo. When the term was first coined in the early 1900s, the United Nations use it to define a city with more than 8 million inhabitants. At present, megacity uses a threshold of 10 million.

According to National Geographic, there were only 3 megacities in 1975 namely New York, Mexico City, and Tokyo. In 2005, just thirty-five years later, the number has increased to 20. Manila was first listed as a megacity in the year 2000, being the 18th city to join the list. However, in the same thirty-five-year time span Metro Manila experienced a population growth of 2.54 percent, higher than the average growth rate of the world’s urban population of 2.4 percent. Unsurprisingly, World Urbanization Project noted that the cities who experienced the same sudden boost in population belong to developing third world countries such as Dhaka in Bangladesh, Lagos in Nigeria, Delhi in India, Karachi in Pakistan, Jakarta in Indonesia, and Mumbai in India.

At present, there are 37 megacities in the world 23 of which are belonging to Asia. In fact, the top 5 most populous city are in the continent namely Tokyo-Yokohama, Jakarta, Delhi, Manila, and Seoul-Incheon with a population of 37.9 million, 31.8 million, 26.5 million, 24.3 million, and 24.1 million respectively.

Out of the top 5, Manila has the highest population density. Its total area is estimated to be at 1,790 square kilometers, meaning a density of 13,600 per square kilometer.


The sudden boom of Manila might be a great opportunity for the country what with all the industrial growth and the number of foreign businesses it rakes in. However, it also opened a lot of problematic concerns for the government, including but not limited to the growing number of homeless people and those living in slums, difficulty in security and crime prevention, and traffic congestion and pollution as well as many other environmental concerns. Manila might be a huge help for the economic growth and globalization of the country, but it is not doing the Filipinos who live there any favors.

According to Gil-Hong Kim, an infrastructure expert at the Asian Development Bank, cities need leaders capable of implementing a vision in order for it to be successful. In just 17 years, Manila went from the 18th   largest megacity to the 5th. With its current state, one could assume that vision and planning wasn’t involved. In fact, the huge population of Manila is seldom mentioned in the country, and even more rarely is it considered a problem.

Meanwhile McKinsey Global Institute points out that growth of most urban centers is bound by an inability to manage their size in a way that maximizes scale opportunities and minimizes costs. Without skillful management, the cities are bound to end up in decay.


Being the center for growth and development, cities naturally attract people. In the Philippines, many folks from the provinces migrate to Manila to work because it’s where most job opportunities can be found. While that may work for college grads and working professionals, the same can’t be said for those who do not have the right educational background. Many end up working as maids or doing labor jobs, while others remain unemployed.

The not so fortunate are referred to as urban poor, although it is simply a better term used to describe squatters, slum dwellers and illegal settlers. In Manila, there are at least 4 million urban poor, but what more can you expect? Metro Manila is only roughly 0.5 percent of the country’s total land area and it caters to 24 percent of our total population.

One of the biggest problems of those living in slums are access to water and electricity, as well as sanitation and other basic necessities. Since the houses are made of perishable materials such as plywood and cardboard and are stacked on top of each other, the spread of contagious diseases like tuberculosis, diarrhea, and dengue is also a huge concern.

Crime and Security

The ideal police to people ratio is 1:500. In 2012, former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas proposed to reach the ratio, but the Philippine National police claimed it impossible to fill due to budget cuts and difficulty in recruitment. Add that to the millions of starving Filipinos with no other choice but to turn to shady jobs, and you get a city with unbelievably high crime rates.

All types of crimes increase in fast growing communities, but urbanization causes faster increase due to the emergence of different classes of people. In most megacities, robbery and theft remains to be the most registered crime committed. Cases of murder, homicide, rape, and vehicular crimes and accidents are also prominent.

Poor areas in Manila also remain to be one of the most dangerous areas in the country, being a breeding ground for drug and substance abuse and being the nest of mobs and other organized crimes.

Traffic congestion

In the province, a 26-kilometer drive would take an average of one hour to finish. The same distance in Manila would take half a day or more. Again, this isn’t a surprising feat for a place so densely populated. Traffic jams and long queue are the norm in the Metro, especially along EDSA.

Manila’s public transportation could only be described as undisciplined and unruly. The city has too many forms of public transportation that stops, loads, and unloads whenever they please. It is littered with too many jeepneys and dilapidated buses to regulate. Just along EDSA, there are 266 different bus companies and another 1,122 buses that travel throughout the city. Still, these aren’t enough to accommodate the millions living in the area.

While Manila may have two railway systems – the light rail transit (LRT) and metro rail transit (MRT) it gets so crowded during rush hour that people could barely move inside the carts. What’s worse is before you could even get inside, you’ll have to wait in a line that can sometimes reach up to a kilometer long.

The growing number of families owning cars also adds up to the problem. Land Transportation Office (LTO) noted that the number of car owners in Manila increased from 1.7 million in 2008 to 2.1 million in 2015. That is a 26 percent increase within 7 years!

On average, a commuter in Metro Manila spends 1,000 hours each year on the road. That is 700 more hours than an average commuter in other cities. In fact, the traffic in Manila is so bad that according to Japan International Cooperation Agency, this is causing at least 3-billion-peso loss each day – a lot of money that could’ve been used for the betterment of the community instead.

What we can do

The simplest solution would be to stop the migration to megacities, but then again it is not that simple. In order to stop people from migrating, living conditions in their provinces or villages need to improve. That means creating better job opportunities in smaller, more manageable cities and promoting their growth in order to bring more economic opportunities.

The government should also focus and creating a more manageable environment in Manila. That means creating laws and ordinances that could actually be implemented and doesn’t just look pretty in writing, especially with regards to the issue of public transportation. Housing projects, helping and relocating the poor, and crafting better working opportunities should also be prioritized in order to improve the living conditions in the area. The problems may be quite challenging but with proper services and funding it would be impossible to overcome.

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