A Guardian article once declared, “In Manila, malls aren’t passe – they are the city itself.” And it’s true. Malls offer free air-conditioning, and convenience in terms of doing the groceries, shopping, watching movies, hearing mass, paying the bills, and availing of government-related services like applying for an NBI clearance or renewing a passport. But in a country where there are at least 16 “supermalls,” I tend to avoid malls as much as I can. So where do I go when I just want to hang out? I go to parks.
I avoid malls during payday weekends or when there are events nearby. I also avoid specific malls like Festival Mall, Megamall, and TriNoMa, some of the most crowded malls in Metro Manila. I don’t go to malls not because I’m a misanthrope, but because I get claustrophobic when I’m in congested places. I find it hard to breathe when I have to navigate through a sea of people. My worst nightmare is to use that escalator in Megamall where there are security guards controlling the flow.
Parks in the Philippines are the complete opposite. Because we live in a mall culture, not that many people appreciate the calming nature and exquisite beauty of being surrounded by trees. I can go there and expect to find an empty bench where I can sit and hang out, either by myself or with friends. And if all the benches are taken, the grass is free to sit on. Unlike malls, you’d have a hard time finding a place to sit. And if you’re lucky enough to find an empty table, you have to pay.
A park’s mood can depend on who you’re with. It can be a calming retreat if you go by yourself. I’ve spent many enjoyable moments in parks armed with a good book and the sound of rustling leaves above me. It can also be a romantic spot with a date or a partner. It can be a venue for friends to hang out. Families can also visit with their children and pets. Parks are the most democratic space in a city, where both the rich and the poor can sit side-by-side, and with no judgmental security guard eyeing you warily if you’re not dressed.
There are many of them. Makati and Bonifacio Global City are dotted with green spaces. There are also urban parks, nature parks and reserves, plazas, and community parks all over the Philippines.
So what can you do when you’re in a park? Plenty of things. You can read there. You can hang out with your family and friends. You can even set up a picnic. The last time I went on a picnic at a park, I brought pasta, some sandwiches, and bags of chips. If you don’t feel like going through the effort, you can go to a coffee shop or a convenience store, get some food to go, and find a cozy spot.
Even businesses can thrive in parks. In Bangkok, oil-and-gas company PTT has sponsored Metro Park, a sprawling eco-system that resembles a forest. Victor Civita, a Brazilian magazine publisher, partnered with the São Paulo administration to create Praça Victor Civita, a public space that holds outdoor cinema screenings. And closer to home, we have the Ayala Triangle, which has a host of restaurants for park-goers.
Probably the only reason why Filipinos don’t hang out in parks is because “it’s hot.” But trees regulate temperature and offer shade. And if you have an ice-cold drink in hand, it’s already the recipe for a perfect day. Most importantly, you don’t have to deal with the hundreds of people who go to malls. In 2012, SM Mall of Asia estimated 500,000 visitors on weekdays and 1 million on weekends. I’m already running out of breath just thinking about it.
Time to head to my favorite park (which is a secret).