There’s a science to urban planning as much as there’s an art to it. We see the impeccable interplay of these two in virtually all of the most admired (and developed) cities in the world.
In so many ways, urban planning is among the most challenging undertakings for any individual or group. In places and sprawls where millions upon millions of human beings and their complicated lives intertwine and interact with infrastructure, the possibilities for success and growth are endless.
But so are the risks for degradation and decay.
There is one architect, urban and transport planner who could most likely be having her brightest lightbulb moments when she’s on the saddle of a bicycle, as she has used her own experience as a bike commuter to advocate for more pedestrian- and bike-friendly cities.
Her name is Derlie Mateo-Babiano, and with her love for cycling, this multi-degree holder has been able to provide balance to the numerous interrelated forces at work in urban and transport planning.
Mateo-Babiano is a senior lecturer in Urban Planning at the prestigious University of Melbourne. She is an architect, urban planner and transport planner by training, having completed her PhD at the University of Tokyo. Both her undergraduate studies in Architecture and Master of Arts in Urban Planning were completed at the University of the Philippines. She also graduated from the Philippine Science High School, and earned a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education at The University of Queensland, Australia, a PhD in Civil Engineering (major in Transport Planning) at The University of Tokyo, MA in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of the Philippines, and a BSc Architecture (cum laude) also from UP. At the national Architectural Licensure Examination in 1998, she placed sixth.
Amidst all of her achievements in the academe, riding a bike must have been one of the most difficult for Mateo-Babiano to learn.
“I remember learning how to ride a bike when I was 10 against the wishes of my father. Riding bicycles wasn’t something that girls were particularly encouraged to learn. In fact, in some countries it would be illegal for girls to cycle,” she shared in an interview with Inquirer Motoring.
Everything fell into their proper gears, so to speak, when Mateo-Babiano made the links in the chain that connected her love for cycling and her passion for learning at the universities.
At the University of Melbourne’s website, under the “Find an Expert” tab, Mateo-Babiano’s work is described as such: “As a scholar in sustainable transportation science, she has advanced a significant body of knowledge in active transport, particularly bicycle sharing and pedestrianization, gender and transport, indigenous transport, transport history, with theory and policy implication within the Australian, but more extensively, in the Asian setting.”
The body of knowledge that she has advanced is documented in the almost 100 publications that she co-authored with other researchers and scientists, many of them Filipino. Mateo-Babiano has linked her publication list at the Unimelb site and at Google scholar.
Female transport leaders
She leads the Women in Transportation Leadership in Australasia, a knowledge network solely dedicated to empowering women and developing a critical mass of female transport leaders in the Australasian region.
She teaches and coordinates several urban planning subjects both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Subjects include “Placemaking for the Built Environment”, “Cities without Slums”, “Urban Design for People”, and “Places and City Leadership”.
Early this year, Mateo-Babiano was a visiting scientist (“Balik Scientist”) of the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development (DOST-PCIEERD), Eastern Visayas State University, and UP.
Then CoViD-19 broke out.
“I was in the Philippines between January and March on several projects. However, this was cut short because of the imposition of the community quarantine, and I had to return to Australia to be with my family. While here in Australia, I still continued my communication and work with my two host institutions,” narrated Mateo-Babiano.
“With UP, we have now developed a placemaking training course for environmental planners and architects. Participants in the course will be able to earn continuing professional development points,” she disclosed.
In 2017, she was also a visiting scientist of the DOST-PCIEERD as consultant for the development of UP’s pilot bicycle-sharing program.
Cycling and the female psyche
Life in Australia made Mateo-Babiano much more aware of the intricacies of urban cycling, and how gender plays a role in its experience.
“As an academic, I was very interested in devising ways to encourage active travel through walking and cycling. When bicycle sharing was introduced in Brisbane, I thought it was a cool strategy to encourage more people to ride. What was interesting, however, was that 45 percent of those who signed up were women. However, only 31 percent actually used the scheme. It made me wonder. Clearly, women were interested to cycle, but somehow along the way between planning and doing, they falter. My curiosity led me to research the barriers, facilitators, issues and challenges that women face when cycling. It led me to study about the perception of transport safety of college students. In the process, I learned more about the difference in how men and women travel. For instance, I learned that women differ in their decisions and what influenced those decisions. They also often have different transport needs because of their carer’s responsibility,” Mateo-Babiano revealed.
That Brisbane experience illustrates Mateo-Babiano’s message to other urban and transport planners on the importance of “creating a just and sustainable transport which does not discriminate because of someone’s gender, status, age, or income level. As researchers and scientists, we need to always challenge the deepening inequalities that are inherently attached to our transport system and we must always frame transport as a socio-spatial justice issue that persists in our (unsustainable) cities.”
For aspiring transport planners, Mateo-Babiano is emphatic in her call for them to experience things as they are on the ground. “Walk the talk. Practice what you preach. If you encourage walking, walk. If you talk about the value of cycling, ride a bicycle, too. I, too, commute by bicycle.
“I also believe that experiential learning is at the heart of translating theory to practice. So, when I ran an early career research forum for transport planning students in Vietnam. The first thing that we did was ride a bicycle around Ho Chi Minh City. Several people got scared, but I think it was worth it. They now know how it is to be a vulnerable road user.”
Mateo-Babiano continued, “When we design our transport system, we must think of our users. They are not a homogenous group. They have different needs and requirements. We need to think about how we can support the mobility of those who are most vulnerable—the elderly, our children and women. How can we design a transport system that can accommodate the different needs of its user? So, our transport system must be welcoming, supportive and responsive.
“We need to conceptualize our transport not just for movement but also as place. What is ‘transport as place?’ We need to think that often, transport hubs have become important destinations, too, as meeting places and where social interactions happen. So, we should think about these spaces as places, too.
Of the transport situation in the Philippines, Mateo-Babiano observes, “I think there are several ‘wicked’ challenges that the Philippines is experiencing. In relation to transport, the number one challenge is convincing the people of shaping a more sustainable mobility culture.”
Women in transport
Among the numerous international projects Mateo-Babiano has been part of, she said she is proudest of two, the Women in Transport Leadership Knowledge Network (WiTL) and Place Agency’s Placemaking Sandbox.
Mateo-Babiano led the creation of WiTL, in partnership with domestic transport societies in Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Australia to encourage women to seriously consider transportation as an educational and professional pathway.
She said that a key objective of WiTL is to advance collaborative, cross-disciplinary research on women’s issues in transport. WiTL developed a region-wide research agenda on gender and transport, probing the persistent inequalities found in transport systems as a means to achieve just and sustainable transport.
“We direct our international research activities and outputs towards building the evidence base to assist gender-responsive planning and to influence national policies in creating more gender-equal transport systems,” she explained.
For Placemaking Sandbox, Mateo-Babiano explained, “Placemaking is about place co-production. I joined the Place Agency Consortium, where I took an active role in collaborating with academics from seven Australian universities and 16 industry partners across Australia to develop teaching modules in placemaking, which are free to download at https://teaching.placeagency.org.au/.”
Mateo-Babiano shares that the most influential persons for her, apart from her parents, would be former US Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“for her contributions to gender equity”), Mother Teresa (“for her compassion and humanitarian work”), and Jane Jacobs (“a great inspiration in urban design and planning”).
And let’s not forget the humble bicycle, which, no doubt, has helped shape Mateo-Babiano’s personal and professional life, and will certainly continue to lead her to many more discoveries that will ultimately benefit urban denizens.
On a personal level, cycling takes her back to those giddy times when she was able to balance herself on two wheels for the first time, and moving on just her own power.
“People who cycle get a lot of benefits: Better health, savings, and they are the happiest commuters,” she quipped.