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Manila 3rd Most Densely Populated City

Updated on July 14, 2018
Sue Adams profile image

A recent trip to Manila reveals how globalization in the growing number of mega cities in the developing world affects the local population.

What could have been...
What could have been...

Manila, capital of the Philippines, is the third most densely populated city in the world. Greater Manila is home to 20 million people, rising by another quarter of a million every year. With more people migrating to cities for jobs worldwide, we look at Manila’s problems of housing, transport, pollution, health, education and poverty as an unacceptable scenario for a likely future for city dwellers around the globe. Is such a place really a "good opportunity" for capital investment?

At current growth rates the number of people on the planet will rise from 6.8 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050. Most of the 10,000 babies born every hour in the world are going to grow up in cities. More than half the world's population now live in cities, and that will rise to 70% by 2050. In developing countries, mega-cities (more than 10 million inhabitants) like Manila, are popping up like mushrooms. In 1985, there were globally nine mega-cities. Today, there are 26. More than half of the city dwellers will be poor by 2025.

Filipina actress, commercial model and music producer, Katrina Halili.
Filipina actress, commercial model and music producer, Katrina Halili.

The Economy

To potential foreign investors, the Philippines sells itself as having a "thriving economy, a multitude of vibrant cultures and a friendly, hospitable population". It is also one of the world’s most urbanized places, with 65 percent of its population living in cities. The retail industry in the Philippines is an important contributor to the national economy as it accounts for roughly 15% of the Philippines' total Gross National Product (GNP) and 33% of the entire services sector. It employs some 5.25 million people, representing a significant 18% of the Philippines' work force, which means roughly 2 of every 10 workers is employed in the retail industry. But enough statistics, what is Manila like, living there on the ground?

Traffic Jams

I am stuck in a taxi, in a traffic jam from Manila airport into the city. Outside, a skinny old man on bare feet is pushing a heavily loaded handcart. He overtakes us. Half an hour later, when he is slowing down uphill, our taxi catches up with him. The old man is still moving steadily, slightly faster than the traffic, since we are not moving at all. It takes 3 hours to get to my host, a journey that would normally take 20 minutes on a clear road. Drivers in Manila spend an average of 1,000 hours per year stuck in traffic jams, and even when cars are moving, they crawl at less than 10 km an hour. On the upside, the experience gives me plenty of time to observe my new surroundings under a polluted sun-setting sky.

Upon entering the city, three different basic types of accommodation emerge along the blocked arteries of dense traffic.

1. Shanty towns

2. Skyscrapers

3. Gated "villages" for the super rich

1. Shanty Towns, Garbage Dumps and Graveyards

For someone who has never been to Asia, the first impression, the biggest difference, is perhaps the closeness of rich and poor co-existing side by side. A third of the population live and sleep like sardines in self constructed tin-roofed plywood shacks on any bit of spare public land.


People live on the banks of the dead Passig river, along railway lines, under bridges, by flood defences or in cemeteries. Manila is so overcrowded that the living share space with the dead. Large families live in crypts in cemeteries, no bigger than a garden shed, but furnished with fridges, televisions, electric fans and laptops.

Living Among the Dead

By Jenny Kleeman - The Guardian:

“In the heart of Manila's vast North Cemetery, Ricky Baking is hunched over a tomb with a hammer and chisel. He opens the rotten coffin to reveal the skeleton of a man, dressed in his burial suit and shoes. Stepping into the tomb with bare feet, he reaches for the bones. This isn't a grave robbery – it's an eviction. Like everywhere else in Manila, the North Cemetery has run out of space. Up to 80 funerals take place here every day, and the demand for plots is so high that most people can only afford to rent tombs. If your relatives fail to keep up the payments, another body will take your place. It's Baking's job to clear this grave so another coffin can be lowered into it later this afternoon. He has done this so often, it's almost mundane to him. Baking's family of seven have set up home in the cemetery. "It's much better living here than in a shanty town," he assures me as we clamber over densely-packed tombs on the way to his home. "It's much more peaceful and quiet.”

The people in this first category of living in shanty towns, garbage dumps and cemeteries are ordinary people, often with paid jobs, who cannot afford to live in better conditions if they want to stay in the city.

2. Skyscrapers

Skyscrapers are for business and private apartments for the middle classes and the rich.

I am staying in a luxury skyscraper apartment building, in Makati, the afluent financial centre of Manilla. On the inside, the skyscraper is beautifully fitted with tiled floors, marble walls, thick mirrors and security glass. On the 7th floor, there are lavish gardened grounds for two swimming pools.

The first impression is of luxury. Until I notice that the skyscraper is actually designed like a traditional prison. A large opening in the center of the building forms the upward spiraling car-park. The apartments, like prison cells, are reached through a metal-grid corridor that surrounds the large center space. So what you see when you enter or leave the apartment, through the grids of the corridor, is the car park. Great!

Risen Above Poverty

Where is the Sky?

One day, I walk to the end of the corridor outside the apartment where I can see a ray of sunshine through a metal grid. Unfortunately, another skyscraper is being built in that gap across the road. They have already reached up to the 8th floor as proudly marked by huge red number signs on every floor constructed so far. Soon that piece of sky too will have vanished from view.

The Apartment

My host’s rented apartment in the skyscraper is expensively furnished with a lot of chrome, black wood, large white tiles and glass-work. The surface area of this apartment unit is about 100 square meters over two floors. Well the second floor is a mezzanine, leaving a very high ceiling for the main room downstairs. Very posh, with floor-to-ceiling windows of which only one small section can be opened slightly. The aircon is blasting noise and cool air into the room. But hang on, where is that air coming from? It is a cooler version of the unbearably polluted outside air.

Servants for the Middle Classes

Mina the Daily Help
Mina the Daily Help | Source

Cheap Labour

At 9 am the next morning Mina, the daily help, comes in for a 10 hour shift to wash last night’s dishes, pick up the clothes, tidy up, clean, do the washing, ironing, shopping, and cooking and say “Thank you Mahm!” six days a week, with a smile of gratitude on her face for 8000 pesos / $ 100 a month. Mina is a single mum in her forties with three adolescent children in college. The rest of her family live in a village where floods have destroyed the rice crop. From her meagre wages, Mina pays for her children’s education and sends money home to feed her siblings, parents and grand parents.


Jeepney -  most common means of transportation  in Manila. Originally the Jeepneys were made of leftover U.S. army Jeeps after the 2nd world war.
Jeepney - most common means of transportation in Manila. Originally the Jeepneys were made of leftover U.S. army Jeeps after the 2nd world war.

Cars - The Maths Don’t Add Up

There are 50 floors in this skyscraper with 50 apartments on each floor, with parking for two cars per unit. That makes 5000 cars. But down below, the streets are already chock-a-block full of cars stuck in traffic jams. The maths don’t add up. There is no room for these 5000 cars outside in the street, especially when you consider all the other adjacent skyscrapers. Aware of the problem, local government has put a law in place that allows drivers to only drive their car every other day. But people have to go to work every day... So they use two cars on alternate days! More cars, Duh!


I cannot get in or out of the skyscraper prison without the use of a white plastic card. Being only a temporary guest, I don’t possess such a card and feel trapped, having to wait, like a domestic dog, for someone with a card to be “let out”. But then again, why would I want to leave the air-conditioned high rise building anyway? Outside in the damp, dirty and sticky heat, I cannot breathe. Once outside, I quickly run, holding my handkerchief against my nose, to the relative safety of an air-conditioned shopping mall across the fuming road.

Typical Villa in Lorenzo Village, Makati
Typical Villa in Lorenzo Village, Makati

3. Gated "Villages" for the Rich

The villages for the rich are enclosed behind high security walls, iron gates and armed guards. These villas have servants quarters, well tended private gardens, swimming pools, and garages for between two and five cars each. After a few days, I notice that the always smiling and very friendly indigenous population communicate with us on a servant to master level. With their constant subservient “Yes, Sar!”, Good mornin Mahm!”. I cannot help feel like a wicked colonial.



Shopping Malls

Manila has the third largest shopping mall in the world where noise, light, and non-organic matter rules to violate the senses. When I enter one of the automatic doors to various sections of the giant shopping mall, my bag is searched by guards. Stuff, noise, fast food, solarium, ice-skating, play-halls, children’s “fun”, bowling, you name it, the shopping mall has it all. Like in a perpetual fun-fair, with bright lights and loud music blasting out in competition from every establishment, over-excited children throw tantrums, parents shout to be heard above the unsafe levels of decibels. Have I really traveled half-way across the world to find the same advertising logos, the same brand images and products that the multi-national corporations offer me at home?

Resourceful To The Limit



It is sad to see that Western values are being adopted the world over. Everyone who lives in the slums wants to have money but do they know that nothing is worth buying at the cost of losing the fundamental riches of life? The most valuable things have vanished from my periphery. Help! I want silence, fresh clean air, butterflies, wind, sky and stars above my head.


And Big Business Wants More People!

Totally ignoring the crippling overcrowding that causes the majority of the population to live in slums below the poverty line, big business continues to build more skyscrapers to attract more people to Manila. Will the lucky workers who serve the new high rise buildings sleep in a crib in the cemetery tonight? Or will they go back to a shanty town? As the following hard sell video shows, the image of jumping in bed with the beautiful presenter in a high rise paradise is sold to the super rich; never mind the lack of space and clean air on the ground. Some use helicopters and never reach the infested ground below where you cannot breathe.

Hard Sell Real Estate to the Rich

Always Cheerful, Come What May


Overpopulation and Population Density

With its Spanish influenced history, Manila is a predominantly catholic country. One step in the right direction would be to encourage the people to have fewer children with free contraception. The problem is that short-sighted politicians cannot afford to lose the catholic vote. Environmentalists and women’s rights campaigners have yet a long way to go before the Filipino government shifts its interests from corporate money to their own people.

Extremely Resourceful


More Globalisation?

You may naively think that Manila's problems are exceptional. Come off it, the Manila model is exemplary of all mega-cities popping up like mushrooms in developing countries. Why? The world is ruled by big business flirting with corrupt governments.

Good Cuisine

Delicious cuisine from any country.
Delicious cuisine from any country. | Source


You can eat good cuisine, from almost any country in the world in the shopping malls and exquisite roof-top restaurants. Yet sitting like a queen in one of the highest terrace restaurants, my meal is spoilt by the view of the shanty towns in the far distance. Where are the representatives in government who are supposed to take care of the people living in them?

Historical Landmarks In the Old Town of Manila
Historical Landmarks In the Old Town of Manila | Source

To Conclude

While Mina’s grandmother is still picking her daily handful of rice to feed her family in a remote village, a European tourist is unable to adjust to the spoiling waste of such a beautiful country. Have I got anything nice to say about Manila? Yes, it has history, castles and churches. The people are fit, good looking, polite, and extremely resourceful perhaps because of the ordeal of living in a, for me, insupportable environment. But what strikes the visitor most of all is that despite the overcrowding and poverty, the Filipino people are the most ebullient, happiest, most friendly and hospitable people I have come across anywhere.

PS: Short Update

Shortly after publishing this article, still overwhelmed by my experiences in Manila, I posed the following question to HubAnswers:

Would a couple of acres of land per family fill up the globe?

Or, in other words: What is the real problem, over population or over condensation of population?

To my great delight, mathematician co-Hubber Ngureco came up with this brilliant answer:

"Area of earth’s land is 150,000,000Km².

The world’s population is 7,000,000,000 people.

If you divide global land area by number of people, each person should get 0.0214Km². One square kilometer is equal to 247.11 acres. Therefore, 1 person should get 0.021 x 247.11 = 5.2 acres.
If you have a husband/wife and two children, then, your family should be entitled to 20.8 acres.

Are you having your rightful share?"

Please share your thoughts in a comment.


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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      All these places you mentioned are familiar to me. I lived in San Lorenzo for many years but when I get back to the Philippines now, I go straight to Iloilo. The beaches are beautiful. There are too many people for a country such as the Philippines to support. Add to that the typhoons that happen each year. Many of these Filipinos in gated communities are very much aware of the problems and have gotten out of their comfort zones to help. I can give many examples of these. However, I don't deny the stark reality of the social inequality that Manila represents. It is sad.

    • Sue Adams profile imageAUTHOR

      Juliette Kando FI Chor 

      5 years ago from Andalusia

      Hi Crafty,

      It is very sad that money rules the world. We can all do our bit by boycotting multi nationals and putting our money to useful causes instead, like buying local products, eating real food etc. Things have to change. Each and everyone of us can help change the world with the silent revolution, acting at grass-roots level.

    • CraftytotheCore profile image


      5 years ago

      I'm rarely speechless Sue, but this one got to me. I have some very dear friends from there. I've never been there, but I have traveled and seen other parts of the world where people live on riverbanks such as pictured above.

    • Sue Adams profile imageAUTHOR

      Juliette Kando FI Chor 

      6 years ago from Andalusia

      Yes, I was very shocked to look out onto shanty towns from my luxury high rise building and felt guilty.

    • ketage profile image


      6 years ago from Croatia

      Interesting hub, Sad to see the disparity in living standards between the rich and the poor.

    • Sue Adams profile imageAUTHOR

      Juliette Kando FI Chor 

      6 years ago from Andalusia

      Hi Ephrine,

      Many poor people in the provinces are desperate to move to the city. The main reason people are moving to large cities is to find jobs. If they can't find jobs, at least there are trash cans with thrown away food they can eat and bridges to sleep under. It's a sad fact of life that self sustainability without education and without an income is virtually impossible.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      It's easy to blame the government for their inadequacies, but people are to be blamed as well. People come from the provinces and to the big city in hopes of striking a fortune but instead end up as squatters.

      While I know that people wish for a good life, living in the province (like I do) is much better. The food is cheap, and the sources of energy in the province is also cheap, the air is fresh and clean, and life there is simple. I know that, cos I live in the province. So I don't understand why many people from the provinces still want to cram in the already hugely-populated Manila. They don't know what they're missing.

    • ajwrites57 profile image


      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      The big corporations are partly to blame in the Philippines. In 2000, they were till using leaded gas! Who knows what else they are doing to those people.

    • Sue Adams profile imageAUTHOR

      Juliette Kando FI Chor 

      6 years ago from Andalusia

      This partly why I wrote the article AJ. As a warning to us all.

    • ajwrites57 profile image


      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Sue Adams, I visited Makati and other cities on the major islands 6 times in 5 years, for a month at a time in the late 1990s. Traffic problems and overcrowding were beginning to be a problem. Every year there were more skyscrapers, more cars, more malls, and more shanty towns.

      The current portrait you present of Greater Manila makes me sad and even depresses me a little. I love the Filipino people and my heart breaks for them in light of this report. Yes, we are blessed, but with more illegal immigrants pouring through our porous borders, I'm afraid the USA is in for more of the same--mainly in our larger cities. Thanks for sharing!

    • Sue Adams profile imageAUTHOR

      Juliette Kando FI Chor 

      6 years ago from Andalusia

      I believe you are correct tanveerbadyari. You can sell anything there, even investments in dodgy deals, because restrictions are not as tight there as in Europe or America.

    • tanveerbadyari profile image


      6 years ago

      Philippines is a hub for call centers

    • Sue Adams profile imageAUTHOR

      Juliette Kando FI Chor 

      7 years ago from Andalusia

      Well Steve, Manila will surely be an eye opener for you but yes, you will enjoy the islands more. Travelling is the best education.

    • STEVEW13 profile image

      Steve Wright 

      7 years ago from Norwich, England

      Great Hub Sue, I have always wanted to visit the Philippines, more so for the islands and the natural beauty it has to offer, I would still like to experience Manilla though. Thank you for sharing :)

    • tapasrecipe profile image


      7 years ago from Spanish tapas land

      Hi Sue,

      Really well researched hub, many thanks for sharing your knowledge, I will share and vote up as well, many thanks

      Carrie ;-)

    • Sue Adams profile imageAUTHOR

      Juliette Kando FI Chor 

      7 years ago from Andalusia

      Thank you Thelma,

      Maybe Manila is just another hell's hole one has to pass through to reach better places. It sure brings to the forefront how privileged we are.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 

      7 years ago from Germany and Philippines

      Hi Sue! A week ago, I was still in Manila and I could not wait to leave the loud and overpopulated city. I was only 2 days there waiting for my flight to Amsterdam. It was so hot (at least 36°C) that I was glad to be inside the taxi with aircon, heading to the airport with a long ride due to the long traffic jam. I am lucky, I don´t have to live in Manila.

      Your article is telling the truth about Manila. Thanks for sharing. Have a lovely weekend!

    • Sue Adams profile imageAUTHOR

      Juliette Kando FI Chor 

      7 years ago from Andalusia

      Yep! Curiad, unless the people wake up and start boycotting unwanted goods and services? The problem is not so much overpopulation as over condensation of population. Would a couple of acres of land per family fill up the globe?

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Wow Sue, I have never had the opportunity to travel outside the U.S. I am amazed at the way you show what it is like in Manila. I would assume that there are many places in the world like this and that we all are heading toward this type of "Civilization."


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