Townships: Peek into future cities
Township development has been creating a buzz in the local property sector for over a decade. Big real estate players include in their portfolio a few townships, which have become a symbol of elite development due to their scale, complexity and their ability to generate demand and increase value.
Townships can be more accurately referred to as large-scale, integrated, mixed-use developments. While there is no strict definition on the size of a development to be considered a township, the more meaningful qualification is that there is a mix of uses that are integrated.
While variants of such developments like tourism townships or leisure townships have joined the lexicon of property development, townships are more conventionally urban in character.
Townships should also be distinguished from vertical mixed-use developments found in cities where several uses are stacked on top of each other in a single structure. Townships are usually built from scratch in greenfield sites, often outside the urban core, masterplanned as a mixed-use district. They typically have scale and density and aspire to balance living and working in a well-planned environment.
The appeal of townships stems from its promise of a complete community. Buyers and investors are attracted to the idea of living in “the next Makati” or “the next BGC” and the perceived benefits of value appreciation, quality urban living and prestige of address.
Effectively, townships are purpose-built cities, built over time, guided by a vision and regulated in implementation. They offer a snapshot of what the future can be like, free of the disadvantages of less organized locations, and give a flavor of how it can be to live and work in such an integrated environment.
From a less abstract perspective, developers use townships as platforms of business where they can expand their property portfolio to include a variety of products over the long term, thus allowing them to continuously capture new markets. Doing so reduces risks inherent in large-scale developments.
Bringing complementary uses together creates synergies that help market individual products as most people want to live close to places of work, schools, shops, churches and recreation areas. Similarly, commercial areas want to be close to population centers. Thus, by bringing complementary uses together, townships make each use and the overall development more marketable in a virtuous loop of mutual reinforcement.
Mixed-use townships, particularly those of appropriate density, are also more sustainable and inclusive than conventional suburban developments since the adjacency and diversity of activity encourage pedestrian mobility.
Their densities make transit and high performance infrastructure more feasible, or at the very least, reduce travel by car. They provide a variety of products that attract people of various ages, income groups and needs. They generate jobs and offer housing options.
Diversity of use also encourages round-the-clock activity which makes places safer and allow for more optimal use of infrastructure along with the less tangible benefits of idea exchange, social cohesion and higher productivity that comes with mixed use environments.
From an urban perspective, townships encourage a more polycentric pattern of urban development, breaking the tendency of homogenous sprawl, characteristic in primate cities such as Metro Manila. They encourage economic activity in the hinterlands, reduce reliance on (and congestion in) the city center, improve jobs-housing balance in the suburbs and attract investment.
Township development is not a silver bullet, however. It is not a cure-all, build-it-and-they-will-come, that can magically transform any location into a central business district. Townships are effective under specific conditions and locational attributes. Among these is the presence of a large population base. Even greenfield sites rely on mature markets.
A plotting of many townships outside of Metro Manila will reveal that they still occur at municipalities with a large population where the mature residential communities fuel the higher-order commercial uses.
Another important ingredient is the availability of regional access. Townships need to interact with other centers of business and need regional reach. Again, a mapping of townships in the metropolis will reveal that many of them are along regional transportation routes and close to transport hubs of various modes (or are transport hubs themselves).
Above all, townships require a compelling vision—one that resonates with markets and that the developer is willing to commit to and deliver in the long term.
The development of townships requires resilience. They should be able to speak to current markets while addressing the needs of future generations. While master planning is never static and should always be flexible to be resilient, they should be guided by a singular vision whose impact will reach far beyond its boundaries and well beyond its time.
The author is the founder and principal of Joel Luna Planning and Design (JLPD) and has led the masterplanning of numerous township developments. He continues to design townships and mixed use estates for several property development companies.
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