“New urbanism” is a relatively young term, introduced in the early 1980s in the United States to call forth the need to create pedestrian and transit-oriented neighborhood design and a mix of land uses towards more cohesive communities that conventional, suburban development popularized after World War II.
Suburban development, more commonly known as ‘urban sprawl,’ contributed to the emergence of a culture of automobile dependency. Such development planning mentality was adopted (and adapted) in the Philippines until it was clear that the suburban model cannot sustain another generation of growth. It was not until renowned architects and town planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, through the invitation of Toni Yulo Loyzaga of the Luis Yulo Foundation, visited the Philippines to introduce a game changing movement called the New Urbanism in the late nineties.
Introducing new urbanism in the Philippines
Palafox Associates is privileged and honored to have worked with architects and town planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk for a pioneering new urbanism project in Laguna. Palafox Associates went to Miami, Florida during the initial stages of the project to contribute our expertise and learn from New Urbanism exponents Duany and Plater-Zyberk Architects and Town Planners (DPZ) on the principles and applications of New Urbanism. After a successful design charrette in Florida, the Foundation once again invited DPZ & Company in June 1998 and Feb-Mar 1999 to share their knowledge on Urbanization and the emerging movement of New Urbanism in Asia, which I was lucky enough to attend and be part of as well.
Under the guidance of the Yulo Foundation and client Terelay Investment & Development Corporation, Palafox Associates then collaborated with Duany, Plater-Zyberk Architects & Town Planners on the master plan of Dos Rios, a masterplanned community in Cabuyao and Canlubang in Calamba, Laguna.
The Dos Rios project, meaning two rivers, is a pioneering project that underscores the concept of New Urbanism and involves designing habitable spaces wherein people live at the upper floors and shop and work below. Inspired by architectural principles of the bahay na bato, Spanish-colonial architecture in the Philippines, which is prevalent in the architecture in Vigan and Taal, the project is a contrast from sprawl development. Essentially a mixed-use development, the plan makes use of arcaded walkways to keep the eyes of people on the streets for improved security. Residences are planned in such a way that the town square is just five minutes away through a road network capable of supporting developments like universities and churches.
The neighborhood, the district, and the corridor
Then called ‘neo-traditional planning,’ New Urbanism addresses many of the ills of our current sprawl development pattern and returning to the traditional compact and close-knit community.
In 1991, the US Local Government Commission, a private nonprofit group in Sacramento, California, invited architects Peter Calthorpe, Michael Corbett, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides, and Daniel Solomon to develop a set of community principles for land use planning. Together, they founded the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in 1993 and created three essential elements now described in the charter of the CNU: neighborhoods, districts, and corridors. They united around a shared vision of promoting traditional urbanism as an antidote to conventional sprawl. Throughout the 1990s, new urbanism increasingly became a predominant development practice, repackaged as ‘masterplanned communities’ or ‘lifestyle centers.’
In their essay, The Neighborhood, the District, and the Corridor for Peter Katz’s pivotal book The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community (McGraw-Hill, 1994), Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk laid out the fundamental organizing elements of the New Urbanism. These are: the neighborhood, the district and the corridor.
“Neighborhoods are urbanized areas with a balanced mix of human activity; districts are areas are areas dominated by a single activity; corridors are connectors and separators of neighborhoods and districts. By contrast, suburbia, which is the result of zoning laws that separate uses, is composed of pods, highways, and interstitial spaces.”
According to the duo, there are five principles of an ideal neighborhood design. The neighborhood has a center and an edge; The optimal size of a neighborhood is a quarter mile from center to edge; The neighborhood has a balanced mix of activities—dwelling, shopping, working, schooling, worshipping, and recreating; The neighborhood structures building sites and traffic on a fine network of interconnecting streets; and the neighborhood gives priority to public space and to the appropriate location of civic buildings.
Meanwhile, the district’s organizational structure parallels that of the neighborhood and similarly, for a good fit within the greater region, relies on its relationship to transit. Last but not the least is the corridor. The corridor is a significant element of the New Urbanism because of its inherently civic nature. In the age of the metropolis, with villages, towns, neighborhoods and districts aggregated in unprecedented quantity, the most universally used public spaces are the corridors that serve connection and mobility.
“Of the three elements—the neighborhood, the district, and the corridor—the latter, in its optimum form, is the most difficult to implement because it requires regional coordination,” observes Duany and Plater-Zyberk.
Six years later, in the monumental book that Andres Duany, Elizabath Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Beck authored (North Point Press, 2000) called Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, they posited that we live today in cities and suburbs whose form and character did not choose. They were imposed upon us, by federal policy, local zoning laws, and the demands of the automobile. If these influences are reversed—and they can be—an environment designed around the true needs of individuals, conducive to the formation of community and preservation of the landscape becomes possible.
Even renowned writer Jane Jacobs, in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, criticized the single-use housing projects and large car-dependent thoroughfares that had become the ‘norm’ in American society. With New Urbanism, it aims to advocate what pattern of development is the most environmentally sensitive, socially responsible, and economically sustainable for a community.
“Historically, we have rebuilt our nation every fifty to sixty years, so it is not too late,” says Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Beck. “The choice is ours: either a society of homogenous pieces, isolated from one another in often fortified enclaves, or a society of diverse and memorable neighborhoods, organized into mutually supportive towns, cities, and regions.”
Growth is inevitable, growth is necessary. In setting the framework for land development and redevelopment, we must focus on practices that are environmentally sound, economically vital, and that encourages livable communities—in other words, smart growth and new urbanism.
Our country is an urban laboratory for the mistakes made and lessons to be learned in urban planning and real estate development. Our Asian, European, and American heritage in a developing country setting makes us uniquely different. Some of the best practices elsewhere in the world can be appropriately applied to address the country’s urban issues and challenges and to make Philippines more livable and globally competitive.
How do we untangle the urban mess we are in today? How do we see ourselves today? One such way is by adopting, adapting, and applying the principles of New Urbanism.
(Note: This article has been previously published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer Business Section last July 29, 2013.)