The City Beautiful Movement and importance of breathing spaces


I was invited to be the guest speaker at the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) last October 14 to speak on Daniel Burnham’s Plan for Manila, and on our firm’s rehabilitation and restoration of the Army and Navy Club in Manila. Showing images of Burnham’s inspirations for Manila, like the Bay of Naples, River Seine, and the canals of Venice, I said that it is quite evident that the City of Manila could have been at par with the best cities in the world today. Add to that the success and sustainability of cities similarly planned by Burnham like Chicago and Washington DC.

Daniel Burnham was one of the proponents of the City Beautiful Movement, launched at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition with the construction of the fair’s temporary city, the so-called “White City,” where visitors were treated to a harmony of Neoclassical and Baroque architecture from the collaborative designs of architects from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The landscape for the Exposition included lagoons and big green expanses and was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., most notable for designing New York’s Central Park. The concept behind the City Beautiful Movement was an environmental, sociocultural, and aesthetic movement. These planning concepts are not new, and were primarily conceived to emulate European city planning, and its principles can be still found in many cities in the United States, Canada, Australia, and of course, the Philippines.

For example, in 1902, Washington DC became the first city to follow the principles of the City Beautiful design. It imposed building height limits and positioned new structures and monuments throughout the city to create a balanced aerial composition. The cities of Cleveland, San Francisco, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Chicago followed suit.

Breathing spaces
What is important to understand is why the City Beautiful Movement came about. It was born out of the need to change the way citizens thought about their cities. In the late 1800s, cities in the US were finally seeing the effect of the increasing urban population, which had begun to outnumber the rural population. The rapid urbanization caused its cities to become congested, polluted, and unsafe–and to look ugly. Sanitation and traffic were approached haphazardly. Moreover, the city’s public spaces had started to disappear to make way for the influx of immigrants.

Burnham worried about the problems that “congestion in city streets begets; at the toll of lives taken by disease when sanitary precautions are neglected.” Through the City Beautiful Design, Burnham believed that it can provide ‘breathing spaces’ for healthy activities to those citizens who could not afford to travel and heavily reliant on the city to provide recreational and cultural enrichment.

Thus, it was only appropriate for Burnham, upon his visit to Manila in the early 1900s and seeing the urban blight it became due to lack of sound planning and discipline, that the principles of the City Beautiful Movement be applied. This was evident in the 1905 report on the Plan for Manila by Burnham and his collegue, Pierce Anderson. when he put breathing spaces first in the report:

“The architects of all periods have recognized the fact that a building however beautiful in itself must fail of its highest effect unless provided with an appropriate setting.The older cities of the world present numberless examples of the value of open spaces used to dignify important buildings, and in the arrangement of the proposed plan of Manila, the most noteworthy examples have been frankly followed. Park spaces, small in extent, in the shape of plazas, circles, esplanades, parkway boulevards, have been laid out so that in any quarter of the city future buildings of importance may find already prepared for them a location susceptible of adequate treatment in its approaches and surroundings.”

For Burnham, the value of these wholesome “resorts” in the center of a densely populated city cannot be overestimated. “Experience has shown that they almost entirely eliminate certain classes of crimes and that their general effect is a marked improvement in the moral tone of the neighborhood.” Moreover, parks with water features or built near water features help ease the discomfort of Manila’s tropical climate during the summer months.

Daniel Burnham’s visions as a city planner aimed to merge the commercially-efficient and the beautiful in order to create the ideal city, and transform Manila into the “Pearl of the Orient.” Though Burnham’s plan remains a “what could have been” for Manila, there is also an opportunity for us to revisit and update his plan. It is hoped that with strong political will and collaboration with urban planners and architects, Burnham’s vision for Manila will materialize.

(Part 2 next Thursday)


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  1. Burnham’s Plan for Manila was only partially implemented with the Luneta and the surrounding national govt offices (e.g., post office, Manila City Hall, the National Museum – formerly Congress -, the DOF, DOT,etc.), and t side boulevars in the vicinity of the Lneta. It s good thatwe hve Intramuros nd the Muni Golf Links, otewise, hos open spaces would hav gone commercial, lso. We cannot revive the Burnham Plan for Manila anymore. Much construction has been done and to clear them out would be beyond affordability. What we can o is build another “city beautiful” outside Metro Manila and entice investors and residents to move there. These satellite cities can be planned with generous avenues an open spaces, even parks and man-made lakes. The rivers ad creeks can be set-back to afford linear parks. These MM satellites should be inked with MM by high-peed rail and wide hi-ways. They shuld not be too far nor to near MM – say 100 kms. Existing cites like Batangas City Tarlac, and San Pablo (Laguna) could be candidates. The Plan should be legislated and a criminal provisions included where any act (s) that will deviate from the Plan may be prosecuted with imprisonment and fines long and large enough to discourage our politicians with monkeying with the Plan. The Arellano Plan for QC was great -but never implemented because politicians destroyed it. No sanctions were meted to the guilty politicians and national govt executives.