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The Shapes of Philippine Streets

November 18, 2021 blog-post rose-plot open-source spatial

Every city has its own unique design and story. Let’s dive into four Philippine cities to learn more about how history and topography have influenced the streets we navigate today.

Take a closer look at our cities and you'll notice how they're all shaped differently — some are griddy, some are concentric, and others are a mix of both. Every city has its own unique design and story. Let’s dive into four Philippine cities to learn more about how history and topography have influenced the streets we navigate today.

We visually analyzed street grid patterns in 20 cities using OpenStreetMap (OSM) and Geoff Boeing’s methodology in “Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy.” We represented each city’s spatial order with a polar histogram (also known as a “rose plot”), which visualizes the proportion of streets that run along a given direction.

Each bar stands for a street direction, and its length represents its relative frequency compared to other directions. The plots are symmetrical because each street goes in two directions, forward and back.

For a city following a perfect grid, we would only see four main bars (see Chicago below), while for a city with streets running in many different directions, we would see many different bars of comparable length (Charlotte).

Early Roots, Early Routes

The orientation of Manila’s streets has literally shifted throughout the city’s centuries-long history, driven by political and economic shifts, rising land prices, and even war. From a city literally enclosed behind walls, Manila eventually became the place to which all Philippine roads lead.

The streets of the walled city of Intramuros were originally oriented northwest, facing the port which was the commercial hub of the city centuries ago. This pattern persists today in the streets of Manila’s 5th District, which encompasses Intramuros, Ermita, Malate, Paco, San Andres, and the Port Area.

As the city expanded beyond its original walls, new roads were built to connect the national capital to different parts of Luzon. Present-day Manila now has more roads traversing from north to south and converging with the Pan-Philippine highway, the country’s longest highway network.

City Beautiful by the Uplands

Baguio’s mountain-adaptive road networks are multidirectional, as reflected on its polar histogram which also implies concentration of road networks traversing eastern and western parts of the city.

Baguio’s umbrella-like plot, with roads running in almost every direction, might seem chaotic at first glance, but naturally fits the city’s mountainous terrain. American urban planner Daniel Burnham designed the streets of the Summer Capital to merge flawlessly with Benguet’s mountain landscape. Roads on steep slopes are curved instead of straight, to create a more manageable incline for vehicles. Baguio’s road system also provides sight lines towards municipal government buildings near Burnham Park.

Where Land and Water Converge

The square-like plot of Cebu City highlights the skewed and multidirectional road networks in the city, tapering in areas near mountains and the coastline while densely concentrated within the city proper.

See the lines where the mountain meets the sea? That’s the heart of Cebu City.

With the city sandwiched between mountainous land and coastal waters, Cebu’s city planners had to strike a balance between navigating elevated terrains and maximizing land near the port.

Roads are sparsely distributed in the mountainous landscape to the north of the city, connecting the city to campsites, hiking trails, and coffee shops with a view. This street network is multidirectional, similar to Baguio.

Near the coastline, a denser network of streets connects east and west coasts, port facilities, and railways to establish the city as the main trading center of the Philippines1.

City Living by the Bay

Pasay’s rose plot, though quite tilted, implies a grid-maximized road network with most roads traveling across the eight main ordinal directions of a compass.

Pasay City’s streets follow a more structured grid compared to the rest of Metro Manila. After the Second World War and throughout the 60s and 70s, national developers rebuilt the city from scratch and even reclaimed land from Manila Bay. Pasay’s streets are long, straight, and built around large, flat swaths of land used for numerous parks, Ninoy Aquino International Airport, government buildings, and coastal ports.

Are grids “better”? Not necessarily.

Street orientation reveals something about a city's history and natural landscape, but doesn’t necessarily reflect the experience of living in that city. Cities with more grid-like street networks aren’t always more liveable than cities where the streets move in diverse directions. Cities like Seoul, Singapore, and Stockholm are not griddy, but still have some of the best-designed mobility systems in the world. Designing infrastructure and streets for people— with trees, sidewalks, ramps, active mobility spaces, and sustainable infrastructure — makes all the difference.

The complex road networks in cities like Seoul, Stockholm, and Singapore reflect disorganization when analyzed through rose plots, though being mobile cities both for vehicles and pedestrians.

Curious to know what your city rose plot looks like? Freely-available and open source data from OpenStreetMap allows anyone to explore rich insights from the streets and landmarks we pass through everyday. With this data, anyone can uncover fascinating patterns that underlie our country's biggest cities.

Interested in using geospatial data for your use case? Schedule a consultation here!


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