Zoom In, Zoom Out: Scalar Politics, Master Planning, and Environmental Justice Concerns (Thesis Report)

Zoom in, zoom out: Scalar politics, master planning, and environmental justice concerns

A case study connecting the Manila Bay Sustainable Development Masterplan to the small-scale fisherfolk and urban poor living along the coastline of Manila Bay

Thesis Report by: Lieke Brackel



Inhabitants of Metro Manila are confronted with challenges such as the overall congestion of the fast-growing city, ecological degradation, and aggravated exposure to natural hazards due to climate change. Stakeholders present in- and around Manila Bay have different interests and perspectives on how the coastline should develop, resulting in fierce competition.

This research focusses on two groups of stakeholders in particular: the urban poor and small-scale fisherfolk living along the waterways in Navotas. They express environmental justice concerns about decreased access to the bay and space for social housing (distribution), persistence of negative stigma and disregard for resource-based livelihoods (recognition), lacking representation, consultation, and information provision (participation), and the overall degradation of the Manila Bay ecosystem (ecological integrity). Most importantly, they experience distress as they are uncertain how their livelihoods and homes are influenced by development projects requiring land reclamations, construction of the dyke, and/or relocations.

The Manila Bay Sustainable Development Masterplan (MBSDMP) is initiated- and partly funded by the Dutch government. This consultancy project aims to advise decision-makers within the Philippine government to steer the development of Manila Bay into a more ‘sustainable’ and‘inclusive’ direction. The expectation has been raised, that the MBSDMP would be conducted in a ‘participatory’ manner, referring to the Dutch Delta Approach. Explicitly also including the small-scale fisherfolk and urban poor. And for that local view, you have to zoom in.

However, choosing to plan for the scale of ‘Manila Bay’ can (unintentionally) influence the rules of the game and/or be used as an active instrument to win that game. In line with political ecology, this thesis uses the theoretical frame of scalar politics to explore what the MBSDMP case-study could reveal about the main research question: ‘How does high-level, ecological delineated, and long-term planning relate to locally expressed environmental justice concerns?’

This qualitative explorative research project attempted to connect the local barangay level in Navotas with the high-level MBDSMP planning process: zooming in and out. Findings are based on a three-month fieldwork period in the Philippines including ethnographic observations of key events, document analysis, and 37 interviews. By literally jumping between these layers of governance, tensions and diverging expectations were encountered about the role of participation in- and the objectives and scope of the MBSDMP.

Moreover, this thesis describes how strategic master planning risks aggravating- instead of addressing environmental justice concerns as expressed by small-scale fisherfolk and urban poor. Issues most important to these groups can become sidelined by the choice for the bay-wide scale of governance. On the other hand, actors can try to use the created invited spaces of participation in the MBSDMP to bring back the human-perspective in strategic master planning. This is especially relevant considering the centralizing and militaristic trends in the Philippine planning context. Still, the high-level, ecologically delineated, and long-term orientation of the planning exercise does pose challenges for the practical organization of participation. Hence, it depends on the theory of change assumptions of actors involved whether (and if so, how) they believe the MBSDMP could be a useful instrument to address environmental injustices. This thesis does not draw final conclusions about the particular case of the MBSDMP, as the planning process was highly dynamic and still evolving when the fieldwork period ended. Yet, the dilemma’s described can inform and support general reflection by scientists and practitioners on the politics of choosing ecological boundaries as scale of governance, also in other strategic master planning processes. This thesis emphasizes the need to not only zoom out, but also zoom in.


View, read, and download the full thesis here.