The university and the city

On Sundays and public holidays, the University of the Philippines Diliman campus closes its inner streets to motor vehicle traffic, thus instantly transforming the entire tree-lined academic oval into a vast public green park.

Bordered by busy Katipunan (C.P. Garcia Avenue) and Commonwealth Avenue, the UP campus in Quezon City is probably the only remaining park of its size (apart from nearby La Mesa Dam Eco Park) that is open to joggers and cyclists, and visitors out for some fresh air and a leisurely walk. More and more families are drawn to the bucolic charm of spreading a mat on the grass under the trees, with a basket of snacks, instead of jostling for a table in a fast-food joint inside a mall. UP Diliman has also become a regular haunt of birdwatchers and nature lovers.

As a longtime resident of this beautiful campus, I am happy that UP could share this simple amenity — even if only on Sundays — with the surrounding community that has hosted it over the past 70 years. The university has so defined its role primarily in relation to the needs of the nation as a whole, that it has largely taken for granted its relationship to the city to which it is closely bound by history.

It was in 1938 when the UP Board of Regents made a decision to secure a 493-hectare site for a new campus on what was then a cogonal and mosquito-infested area called Diliman. That same year, Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon purchased a nearby 15-square-kilometer property from the Tuason estate, on which he would later build housing projects for the “common tao,” under the supervision of the People’s Homesite Corporation.

Quezon took an active part in the affairs of UP. He visited the old Padre Faura campus whenever he felt he needed to explain and defend his policies and programs to the nation. The university was his Plaza Miranda. He sometimes actually presided over meetings of the Board of Regents.

The clearing of the dense forest growth to make way for the new campus began in earnest in early 1939. At about this time, Quezon’s allies in the National Assembly had passed a law creating a new model city to be carved out of parts of Caloocan, San Juan, Pasig and Marikina. The city, named after Quezon himself, was conceived in anticipation of the country’s eventual emancipation from US colonial rule.

The country’s premier state university was to serve as the catalyst for the establishment of this modern city, so designed as to epitomize Quezon’s vision of a just social order under an independent Philippine Republic. The intervening war years, however, shattered that vision, of which the UP Diliman campus could be the iconic reminder of its grandeur and noble intentions.

Construction in the new Diliman campus began in 1939 with two buildings facing each other like identical twins. Designed by the renowned architect Juan Arellano, these original buildings (known today as Malcolm Hall and Benitez Hall) were ready for occupancy when the Pacific War broke out in December 1941. The invading Japanese forces instead used them as their headquarters for the next three years.

When the Japanese Occupation ended in 1945, American soldiers took over the Diliman campus and stayed until 1948. They left behind Quonset buildings and “sawali” huts that would serve as temporary academic offices and faculty homes when UP transferred to its new location in February 1949.

On July 17, 1948, one year before UP’s transfer to Diliman, President Elpidio Quirino signed Republic Act No. 333, proclaiming Quezon City as the country’s new national capital. A portion of land radiating from what is today the Quezon Memorial Circle was set aside for what was to be the capitol site of a free nation rising from the ashes of the war.

Vast tracts of public land were set aside as sites for the different branches and agencies of the national government. Two master plans had been drawn to guide the building of the city, named after their chief designers—the American architect Harry Frost and the Filipino architect Juan Arellano. But the resistance to transfer the seat of government was strong. Successive administrations played to this inertia, leaving the city’s growth to the vagaries of informal settlement and fraudulent land registration. Thus, the vision to make Quezon City the country’s new capital city was never consummated.

In 1976, Marcos issued a presidential decree ordering the transfer of the national capital back to Manila. There was really nothing to transfer. Much of the land set aside for the new government center had been put to other uses. Poverty and unrest in the countryside accelerated migration to the city. The common folk, for whom Quezon City was primarily intended, could not wait for the government to respond to their urgent housing needs. Many moved in as squatters, taking over prime land from a dream city that was not realized.

The UP Diliman campus was not spared from this unchecked land invasion, which was often led by syndicates that collected rent from informal settlers. They would literally swoop in from the fringes, usually under cover of darkness, unnoticed by an academic community that was content to pursue its routines in the splendid isolation of a self-contained campus.

The university has been a reluctant enforcer of its property rights and boundaries. Not wanting to incur the enmity of its own students who typically took the side of the informal settlers, the university has generally opted to treat this problem with benign neglect. It certainly could have done better if it had seen itself as a major stakeholder in the affairs of the city.