Postcards from the future: Revisiting Burnham’s plans



“Make no little plans: they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work. Remember that a noble logical diagram, once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever growing insistence. Remember that our sons and daughters are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and beacon beauty.”
—Daniel Burnham, Urban Planner and Architect

CALLED the Pearl of the Orient Sea, the Philippines is gifted with natural resources–first in marine biodiversity, second in geothermal energy, third longest coastline, fourth in gold reserves, and fifth in all other mineral resources. The Philippines is also twelfth in human resources, fourth in shipbuilding, second in business process outsourcing, first in voice call centers and in sailors and seafarers. Filipinos are known to be skilled musicians. And if you lay down the map, notice that the Philippines is strategically placed at the center of the world. With such a long coastline, the Philippines in ancient times was a center for trading; we had long been trading with our neighboring countries. Truly, our country is very blessed, which was why the big countries wanted to colonize the Philippines during the age of exploration.

In 1909, the American architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham had planned for a beautiful and efficient Baguio, an ideal city for a population of 25,000. After 111 years, Baguio’s population has risen to 345,366. Burnham’s plan has become outdated, yet no updating and upgrading was done to accommodate the growing population, leaving Baguio in its current state–overpopulated and sprawled out. Despite this, many people still go to Baguio to cool off from the rising heat in Metro Manila, and more infrastructures will be built by the profit-minded with no consideration for the environment issues nor the traffic problems they will cause. Will Burnham’s big plans for Baguio be able to live and assert itself?

Burnham’s plan for Manila was inspired by the rivers of Paris, the canals of Venice, and the bay of Naples. Likewise, the plan for Baguio was inspired by the Seven Hills of Rome, with national buildings on Governor’s Mountain, and municipal buildings along the northwestern ridge of the valley. Burnham Park lies between the municipal buildings and national building, creating the main axis of the city. Large parks were provided to give a sense of community in the city. Important institutions were properly located.Focal points were provided at the intersections, where water could be used and effectively distributed.

Sadly, Burnham’s vision for Baguio was not fulfilled. Instead, the once green scenery of Baguio is now being rapidly replaced by rusted roofs, oceans of asphalt and concrete, the smell of gasoline and crude oil, air pollution, and poorly planned road networks. And with more people coming into Baguio, more and wider concrete roads were created to accommodate the vehicles, instead of the sidewalks being widened and the people encouraged to walk and enjoy Baguio’s natural scenery. Baguio is quickly becoming congested and polluted. Some pine trees are gone and more are being cut. Burnham had intended his plan to guide the urban planning and development of Baguio. City ordinances, planning, and urban design should have adapted to the rapid population growth and urbanization, but still keeping in mind Burnham’s vision for Baguio.

By comparison, Burnham’s City Beautiful and City Efficient plans for Chicago have prevailed despite the changing times. Burnham envisioned Chicago to be one of the finest commercial cities in the world. He designed Chicago after his urban planningwork for Washington, D.C. (1901), Cleveland (1903), San Francisco (1904), Manila (1905), and Baguio (1909).

Still, it is not yet too late. During a recent talk I gave at the University of the Cordilleras, attended by students from different universities as well as leaders of government, business, and civic communities in Baguio, I said that the city of Baguio still has hope. Forty years ago, Singapore was more corrupted than the Philippines; 35 years ago, Hong Kong was more corrupted than the Philippines; and Dubai’s state in 1977 was worse than Baguio, with scant natural resources, few paved roads, and an airport that was about a hundred years behind the Philippines. Today, these places are among the top 10 cities of the world. Dubai is no longer dependent on oil, and will soon be operating the biggest airport in the world.

Who is to say all is lost for Baguio? With proper planning and zoning, Baguio can emulate how these cities transformed themselves despite their past challenges.

The same can be said for the whole country. All is not yet lost, as long as we start now.

During the Spanish period, the Spaniards created the Intramuros, a city within a city, where the rich and powerful gathered, while the lower class, the slaves, the natives were left outside. It has been years since the Philippines declared its independence from Spain, yet we have not moved on from the past, and have kept this mentality.

For Baguio, I imagine Session Road to be pedestrian-oriented, with wide sidewalks, and a tram or organized mass transit system. I also envision that parks should be rid of their fences and installed with more lighting at night. To be able to alleviate the increasing volume of cars in Baguio, I propose that intermodal and inter transit stations and parking lots be situated in the peripheries and not in the center of the city. Walking and biking must be the first two modes of transportation, followed by public transport. Private cars should be the last priority.

With strong political will, visionary leadership, good planning, good design, and good governance, I believe that Baguio and the rest of the country can join the First World well into the 21st century, and hopefully realize the CityBeautiful and CityEfficient plans created by Daniel Burnham between 1905 and 1909.


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  1. Orderly city planning is the beneficial colonial mentality trait we Filipinos failed to acquire.

  2. ricardo domingo on

    i am from baguio , imiss the time in my younger yrs how beautiful baguio is in the late sixties as a teen.
    i hope and believe in your vision..and look forward that plan someday