Mayor Mary Jane Ortega on Communicating and Educating in the Philippines

Mary Jane Ortega, the former mayor of San Fernando, speaks about her experience learning to communicate with citizens, empowering women, and fighting to keep her city sustainable. (Photo: barrera_marquez2003 / Flickr)

Mary Jane Ortega was formerly the mayor of San Fernando, a coastal city located about 270 km from Manila, in the Philippines.  During her mayorship, Ortega earned several awards for her achievements in city management and – despite leaving the office in 2013 – still works with the city’s administration. Currently, Ortega serves as the Special Advisor of the Global Network for Safer Cities, is a member of the Resilience Committee on the Future of Public Places, and is the Secretary General of CITYNET.  “My husband would ask me: ‘why are you involved in all of these things?’ You don’t finish your advocacy once you are out of office. You still continue with your advocacy, even if you’re already out of public office.”

In September, Mary Jane Ortega will travel to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Mayors´ Summit.

This event is hosted by WRI Brasil | EMBARQ Brasil as part of EMBARQ Brasil’s 10th year celebration. Below is an exclusive interview for WRI Brasil | EMBARQ Brasil with the former mayor.

What would you say were the main achievements of your administration?

Mary Jane Ortega – The UN Habitat Scroll of Honor Award was for my work on the empowerment of women and at the same time for adopting a city development strategy. That would be one. The second was when I received an award from Konrad Adenauer for Merit of Excellence on Governance. And a third one was when I was given an award by the World Bank, which was presented by the president James Wolfensohn, for the city development strategy. I also received a grant from the Japan Social Development Fund because they liked my project on relocating fishermen who were informal settlers.  Even now that I’ve been out of office for eight years, what we started has been institutionalized. Right now I’m working on improving the quality of basic education. I’m a mentor for not only one city but also for local governments units in the northern Philippines.

How difficult was it to manage the city and its problems?

MJO – This has been a “macho” city, so for the mayorship they only looked at men. They have always thought that only men could handle a city, so when I was elected mayor they thought I would only work on culture. They were quite surprised that we were able to decrease crime, eliminate dynamite fishing, and combat drug use among youth. Once they were able to see that a woman was just as capable as a man, they were ready to give their whole support.

What are some of the biggest problems that Asian cities face?

MJO – Especially in the Philippines, we are facing the effects of climate change. We can’t predict what our rain risks are, and we are not prepared for the eventuality of earthquakes. We want to prepare our citizens to be ready and to be resilient. We try to help Asian cities develop the means to bring down crime rates and make cities safer, especially for women and the marginalized. We should create public places—every citizen should have access to public parks and they should be socially inclusive. There’s a problem in the Philippines and in Asian cities where populations are so big that we only have access to very few green parks. We are also trying to show that streets are not only for cars. Most of Asia’s cities are polluted; the air is bad. Consequently, I was able to convince 1400 operators to change from two-stroke to four-stroke tricycles. Overall, I was able to take a very holistic approach to governance.

How is it possible to keep an economy growing without harming the environment and urban life?

MJO – We have to create and maintain green jobs. So whenever there’s construction it should be green construction. When we foster this mentality and people start investing, the economy also improves. For example, we are now pushing for the use of solar energy. It’s expensive. Therefore, we call local governments that have the money to invest in solar power because they are the ones able to reduce their energy consumption by 35 percent. This is just one example of how we encouraged cities to spend on renewable energy, rather than just leaving the money in the bank. Once money begins rolling the economy becomes dynamic.

In terms of cities and transport, what are the main demands of the citizens in the Philippines?

MJO – What we are now pushing is walking. If you can ride a bicycle, then you ride a bicycle. If you are able to take transport, then you take the transport. These are the basic routes we have available for transport. One frustration I have is that in the Philippines we don’t have trains—we have very limited access to trains. So this is something that we thought that our country should have.

What have you learned serving as mayor?

MJO – You have to learn to communicate, communicate, and communicate. Communication is the best way to encourage and educate people. I have also learned that aside from communicating, you have to educate. If you communicate and you educate, the effects will be long lasting. We hope that people will be able to internalize this and begin participating in their communities. Right now, for the city, I’m chairman of the Multi-sectorial Governance Council, an oversized committee of private individuals. This is how I’m staying involved with my city, beyond my time in office.

As you are coming to Rio for the Mayors Summit and the Cities & Transport International Congress, what are your expectations for these events?

MJO – My expectations are that I will learn from the lessons learned in the Americas, and that I will be able to bring [these lessons] back to the Asia-Pacific region. And perhaps, there are also lessons that we can share from our experiences. I will be very glad to share that.

What is the phrase or the idea you want to spread to the world?

MJO – I would like to share that we have only one world; we have to take care of it. We may have to cross cultural differences and be united in our goals to preserve the world.

About the Mayors’ Summit: Hear from over 80 experts about successful strategies and best practices for making innovative and sustainable urban solutions work on the ground. Join as Jaime Lerner, Ken Livingstone, Enrique Peñalosa, Mary Jane Ortega, and other internationally recognized mayors speak about their experiences. See more and register at, and use #CTBR2015 on Twitter.

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