Daniel Burnham’s plan for Manila designed for urban resiliency

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Second of two parts

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“The existing conditions with suggestions as to their most obvious possibilities, shows that improvements of great scope are attainable in Manila by reasonable means. On the point of rapid growth, yet still small in area, possessing the bay of Naples, the winding river of Paris, and the canals of Venice, Manila has before it an opportunity unique in history of modem times, the opportunity to create a unified city equal to the greatest of the Western world with unparelleled and priceless addition of a tropical setting.”
-Report of Proposed Improvements at Manila by Daniel Burnham and Pierce Anderson to William H. Taft, 28 June 1905

Cities are the major contributors to climate change. That is a fact. Throughout the history of urban planning there have been several movements and concepts aimed at improving the quality of life of citizens living in urban environments. The City Beautiful movement, the garden city, the healthy city, and now, the resilient city–there has been a clear change in priorities for planners today brought about by climate change and managing the urbanization in metropolises. City plans that address physical environment and economic growth of the city now need to mitigate public health issues and urban resilience as well.

Last week, I wrote about the City Beautiful Movement and its significance to the Plan of Manila and how many of the Burnham’s unrealized grand plans can still be applied today. Burnham’s ideas of “grand scale, wide radial boulevards, landscaped parks, and pleasant vistas” were not just meant to bring order, holistic, and aesthetic qualities to Manila, but it can be used to strengthen a city’s resilience too.

Consider this: Burnham, along with his colleague Pierce Anderson, proposed to create a boulevard along Dewey Boulevard, now Roxas Boulevard, that is 250 feet (76 meters) in width. Burnham considered clustering different institutions together on higher ground. For example, schools will be placed on Santa Mesa Heights, having the advantage of proper detachment from the city, safe from floods. The higher grounds north and east of Manila is well-adapted for parks and hospitals, asylums, and other semi-public institutions demanding a quiet location but still conveniently accessible from the city.

By giving emphasis on the water transportation, Burnham wanted to ensure that Metro Manila’s canals or esteros, with their “almost stagnant water and unsanitary mud banks” be turned into an element of beauty and economical vehicle for the transaction of public business. This would have allowed the proper widening, dredging, and maintenance of the waterways that would save lives during typhoon season. In fact, in the report, Burnham and Anderson indicated that “amplification of the estero system connected with the Pasig River near Santa Ana and opening into the bay through the San Antonio estero might serve by its independent channels materially to diminish the danger of overflow of the Pasig.”

When it came to the buildings themselves, Daniel Burnham had high respect for the already establish Spanish traditions that have become part of Metro Manila’s built environment.The first consideration in determining architectural style is the question of adaptability to local conditions. He recommended the use of long-lived Spanish tiles for permanent buildings over the galvanized iron to give respect to the Spanish tradition. “The old Spanish buildings with their wide arched arcades and large wall spaces of flat whitewash possess endless charm, types of good architecture that can hardly be improved upon,” writes Burnham. He was quick to point out, however, that the “alleged dangers of tile roofs in an earthquake country have been greatly exaggerated. The country’s tropical climate deem the use of granite marble or any other building stones that public buildings in Europe and America were made of would be out of place and costly. Burnham simply recommended flat walls of concrete with steel reinforcing rods to resist earthquakes.

These observations and recommendations are more than a hundred years old, but are still relevant to strike a chord with planners and architects in the Philippines.

However, it’s a bit saddening that elsewhere in the world, architects and planners are considered first-class citizens. In the Philippines, the first-class citizens are the politicians and the contractors. Planners and architects can help politicians and stakeholders ‘see’ what the scientists are warning us about possible perils climate change can bring to our cities in the coming years.

Burnham believed in the importance of this as well. He cited in the Report: “Any plan worth the making is necessarily proportioned to future rather than present requirements. The execution of a plan must begin early, even though left long incomplete, in order to avoid prohibitive future cost. If Manila is in future days to possess the qualities of beauty and convenience appropriate for the capital of a great nation, the present is the moment to take the initial steps in order that time with its inevitable changes may aid the work rather than oppose it.”

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2 Comments

  1. Richello Zamora on

    Daniel Burnham’s plan is great just like the Baguio Burnham park,the only thing is the restoration and continuing his tradition ia a key to make our city a nice place o live in.Proper gridding system and open spaces are needed so that the citizens wont feel the crowdedness and tightness.Ayala is doing a great job in planning with developments involving wide open spaces and greeneries.Modern architects need to develop complete cities around Metro Manila and neighboring provinces so development will be expanse and not jut concentrated

  2. Burnham had a hand in planning many beautiful areas for cities. His plan for Manila was and still is a grand one. One day we will get a leader with the vision to build for a future.