6 Spellbinding Travel Destinations in the Philippines

Here are six jaw-dropping adventure spots in the Philippines.

1. Bohol

Bohol is known for glistening white sand beach resorts, extensive coral reefs, world class diving spots, the Chocolate Hills (near symmetrical mounds of limestone formations that look like Hershey’s Kisses), and the iconic tarsier (the oldest species of extant primate in the world). However, this large Philippine Island has lately been a recurring item in the global tourism grapevine for yet another attraction: the Danao Adventure Park. Managed by the local government with the aid of private advocacy groups, the adventure park has become the ultimate hub for eco-adventure activities. The park offers more than a dozen extraordinarily thrilling activities that leverage the nature park’s rugged and profoundly varied topography. Accommodating travelers of any stripe–from calm and composed bird watchers to extreme adventurers, Danao Adventure Park showcases the scenic Wahig River, a forested mountain range, a native cultural community, self-sustained organic farms, and cave complexes that provide hours of spelunking excitement. Popular activities include kayaking, wall climbing, trekking, camping, cave explorations, village tours, educational tours, and extreme in-the-park-only challenges such as the Ziplet, Skyride, Plunge, Suislide, Cliff Rappel, and Root Climb.

2. Davao

Very few places offer travelers the same level of profound thrills as the unique city of Davao. Dubbed the Eco-Adventure capital of the Philippines, Davao City is home to the country’s highest mountain peak and to the noble and extremely rare Philippine Eagle. Davao is thoroughly cosmopolitan, being the country’s third largest city and a regional economic player in Southeast Asia. Even then, only 7% of the city’s total land area is urbanized, with around 50% classified as forests or timberland and 40% appropriated by the state-of-the-art agriculture that has catapulted the city among the world’s top producers and exporters of fruits and flowers. Considered the cleanest, greenest and safest city in the Philippines, Davao offers some of the most unique and memorable travel experiences anywhere in the world. From mountaineers to beach bums, from extreme sports enthusiasts to cultural historians, and from artists to ecologists, tourists of every stripe flock to the city to experience its gripping cultural and natural wonders. Dotting its coasts are top-rated beaches and uninhabited islands while exotic plants and animal species dwell within the spellbinding topography of its interior.

3. Donsol

Donsol pulls and beguiles. For travelers who demand nothing but authentic and transformative experiences, the idyllic coastal town of Donsol in central Philippines provides a one-of-a-kind setting for unforgettable encounters. By itself, the town already possesses the attractions that make other destinations elsewhere a hit among global tourists: fascinating local culture, gorgeous beaches of fine sand, lush forests and stunningly rugged coastlines. At least for most travelers, these attractions are enough reasons to pack their luggage, book accommodations, and hit the trail. But Donsol offers a lot more. If nature had a soul, then Donsol provides a rare window from which to see it in perfect clarity. Something in the town attracts two sensitive indicator species that are disappearing in much of their former ranges. There are only a few thousand whale sharks left in the world and most congregate and frolic in the waters of Donsol. Meantime, as human development encroaches on natural habitats, fireflies are also becoming a rare sight and very few young people even remember seeing them. Fortunately, they are in jaw-dropping numbers along the course of the Donsol River. In Donsol, just a few hours after daybreak, people can literally swim at arm’s length with the gentle but colossal whale sharks. After the sun sets, on the other hand, when only the night sky offers some glimmer of light, thousands of fireflies synchronize their biolumiscent abilities to add a spectacular surreal gleam to the riverscape.

4. Coron

Combine seven lakes, coral reefs, mangroves, white sand beaches, a native islander culture, and more than a dozen islands to explore and you’ll get the phenomenal Coron experience. Isolated from urban centers by the windswept sea, Coron Island is one of the finest eco-adventure destinations in the world. The extensive reefs surrounding the island play host to highly acclaimed diving spots while sections of its coasts are protected by mangrove forests that also provide a secure habitat for different species of birds, reptiles, mammals and marine life. Sustainably managed by the peace-loving Tagbanuas–the native tribe that has ancestral dominion over the island–Coron Island is off limits to visitors at night while daytime excursions are carefully regulated. Fishing and tourism are the two industries that keep the island thriving and its precious natural resources conserved. Trekking, island hopping, scuba diving, swimming, and interacting with the natives are just some of the memorable activities that provide priceless thrills when done in Coron.

5. Cordillera Highlands

The imposing Cordillera Mountain Range courses through much of the north central part of Luzon and is the prominent terrain for the autonomous region that takes after its name. The area showcases the profoundly inspiring natural and cultural voices of the Philippine highlands. Given the region’s rugged beauty and the fascinating highland tribes that lend it an extraordinary character, tourism ranks high among the top sectors that provide the stimulus for the regional economy. Waterfalls, mountain forests, millennia-old rice terraces, folk art, burial caves, and nature trails are the irresistible attractions that draw local and foreign tourists to the Cordilleras. Diverse and colorful, the region’s richness permeates the traditional summer capital of Baguio City, the ecologically fascinating Mount Data National Park, the moving aura of Sagada, and the magnificent expressions of folk art in Bontoc and Batad. But perhaps the most well-known landmark in the area is the sprawling Banaue Rice Terraces, an engineering and agricultural marvel that has been carved by hand from the slopes of the mighty Cordillera Mountain Range several thousands of years ago. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the rice terraces continue to nourish the unique tribal cultures that inhabit the region. Memorable Baguio hikes, challenging bike trails, waterfall and cave explorations, nature trekking, bird watching, white water rafting, rappelling, cultural/historical immersions, and meaningful village interactions await travelers who are looking for unforgettable and extraordinary experiences in this one-of-a-kind location.

6. Palawan

Unforgettable. Beguiling. Palawan. Three interchangeable words as far as natural splendor is concerned. Voted by Conde Nast as the destination with the best beaches in Asia, Palawan offers more than pristine sands and one of the richest reef ecosystems in the world. Isolated from the Philippine’s major urban centers, Palawan retains much of its old-growth rainforests that shelter a surprising number of exotic and endemic species. Extensive mangrove areas hedge its coasts while lush canopies lend a rich verdant accent to its rugged interior, attracting a wide variety of plants and animals that call Palawan their home. Across its beaches are magnificent limestone islands that jut out of the surf to play a breathtaking symphony with the sea, while farther across are marine sanctuaries that international teams of experts consider unparalleled in terms of species density. Hosting the primary airport of the island province, Puerto Princesa is the gateway to the Palawan experience and the hub for numerous initiatives on nature conservation and biodiversity protection.

It is also just a few kilometers from the world-renowned Underground River, a ribbon of crystal clear water that flows through spectacular limestone formations over an area that fully encapsulates a mountain-to-sea transition. Because of its unique richness, the Puerto Princesa Underground River was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site and was just recently included in the Seven Natural Wonders of the World Project. There are countless ways of experiencing Palawan. Aside from taking a breathtaking journey across the Underground River, travelers can explore the exotic string of islands that provide a profound natural contrast to the placid contours of the sea. Travelers have the option to go midpoint between sea and sky by para-sailing or reacquaint themselves with the element of water by exploring the destination’s unmatched snorkeling sites. Scuba-diving is also a popular attraction, especially to those who wish to interact with the stunningly colorful denizens of the coral reef. Simply put, Palawan is the epitome of a tropical paradise and is unmatched by any place in the world for its ruggedly beautiful terrain, breathtaking seascapes, world class diving sites, exotic wildlife, nature trails, extensive sanctuaries, and fascinating native cultures. Nature trekking, swimming, snorkeling, island hoping, local dishes & delicacies, scuba diving, bird watching, parasailing, tattooing, ecological research, bar hopping and photography are just some of the experiences that become strangely distinctive when done in Palawan.

Implementing New Urbanism – Chapter One – Results of Land Use


As a result of homogeneous suburban neighborhoods and highway commercial sprawl, a strong emphasis is being placed upon the design and form of our built environment. One of the driving influences is to design places for people instead of the car. Vast seas of asphalt in front of stores or a line of barren garage doors on a residential street is vehicle based design. Interesting streets designed for pedestrian comfort is today’s vision of placemaking. This article will first look at land use growth management, its beginnings and the resulting urban form. Then an alternative growth management technique using the form of development will be examined.

Chapter One; Results of Land Use

Land use controls began in New York City in the 1870’s with the Tenement Acts and have been the primary growth management method in this country ever since. Like any system, there intended and unintended consequences inherent in the application of a process. In the case of land use growth management, the results have created many soulless places oriented to the auto. This chapter explores the history of our current condition and examines our behaviours and thoughts as a consequence of land use growth control.


1916 New York; the Equitable Building

The Equitable Building was constructed and its significantly large scale caused a public outcry. Opponents of the building were outraged at the unprecedented volume of the building which cast a 7 acre shadow on the surrounding streets. In response, the city adopted the 1916 Zoning Resolution which limited building height and required setbacks for new buildings to allow the penetration of sunlight to street level. Specifically, new buildings were required to withdraw progressively at a defined angle from the street as they rose, in order to preserve sunlight and the open atmosphere in their surroundings for the good of city residents.

Zoning Codified; Euclid v Ambler Realty, 1926

Ambler Realty owned 68 acres of land in the village of Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland. The village, in an attempt to prevent industrial Cleveland from growing into and subsuming Euclid and prevent the change in character of the village, developed a zoning ordinance based upon 6 classes of use (residential, industrial and commercial), 3 classes of height and 4 classes of area.

The property in question was divided into three use classes, as well as various height and area classes, thereby hindering Ambler Realty from developing the land for an industrial use. Ambler Realty sued the village, arguing that the zoning ordinance had substantially reduced the value of the land by limiting its use, amounting to a deprivation of Ambler’s liberty and property without due process. The Court decided that the zoning ordinance was not an unreasonable extension of the village’s police power, the ordinance did have a rational basis and did not have the character of arbitrary fiat and thus the zoning ordinance was not unconstitutional.

Colors on a Map

At the time of Euclid, zoning was a relatively new concept, and indeed there had been rumblings that it was an unreasonable intrusion into private property rights for a government to restrict how an owner might use property. The court, in finding that there was valid government interest in maintaining the character of a neighborhood and in regulating where certain land uses should occur, allowed for the subsequent explosion in zoning ordinances across the country.

Results of Land Use Control

Planning has long been dominated by land use issues which are an awkward means of growth control as evidenced by our miles of highway commercial sprawl and auto dominated life. The main consideration with land use control is that adjacent land uses need to be compatible with each other. As a result, vast stretches of similar land uses have been developed all in the name of compatibility. This has then caused a total reliance on the auto to travel from remote suburban homes to jobs, shops, schools and entertainment.

Suburbia begins

The word suburb was first used in the 14th century to describe a residential area outside the wall of the city; between the city and the countryside. These first homes outside the urban area were for the underprivileged and the agrarian workers outside the safety of the town. With the advent of the industrial revolution, cities not only became denser but less healthy and dirty with primitive sanitation. The rich were the only ones who could afford to escape these early urban conditions by moving to the country in the original suburban developments. The first suburbs consisted of large lots designed in the English Landscape School such as Riverside outside Chicago and Llewellyn Park outside New York. Preserved open space systems, curvilinear roadways, emphasized view sheds all in a natural setting become the suburban design model for these early subdivisions all in a very park like setting.

A Better Suburban Model?

In 1929, Clarence Stein and Henry Wright designed Radburn, New Jersey twelve miles outside New York City. Known as the first “Garden City” in America because of its open space system, Radburn promoted itself as the “Town for the Motor Age”because it was the first community that planned for the automobile. Radburn broke with the established low density suburban practice by offering small lot sizes. Average lot sizes were forty-five hundred square feet fronting on a street and on an interconnected open space system to the rear. The open space system connected to commercial or civic uses providing a strong community pedestrian circulation system which was separate from the vehicular circulation system. The primary technique for separating pedestrian and autos was known as the superblock; a large block of land surrounded by main roads. Houses are grouped around small cul-de-sacs, each connected to a main collector road, introducing the cul-de-sac concept to suburbia.

Suburbia HO!; 1945

After World War II, there was a dramatic, national housing shortage. The lack of housing construction during the war coupled with the return of millions of young men, many who were starting families, created a critical shortage of housing. Between 1950 and 1960, new suburban developments on the outskirts of America’s cities drew 20 million inhabitants. One response to the suburban housing demand was to develop new communities of primarily single family homes. The development pattern of these new subdivisions borrowed from the historical suburban antecedents; unfortunately, most of these suburban design ideals were lost in translation while preserving only the design techniques.

The war effort had caused industry to be more efficient (production lines) and produce much more cost efficient products; particularly true for automobiles and housing. While the suburbs had historically been the exclusive domain of the wealthy, they were now open to the working class. Thus, cars and the freedom they provide opened up the now suddenly affordable new suburbs to middle America.


Abe Levitt built mass produced housing for the war effort. He translated this affordable product to a potato farm on Long Island with Levittown. It became a 14,000 home community loosely based upon the historic suburban model; however, lost in the translation were the open spaces, preservation of natural systems, pedestrian orientation and emphasized views. All that really remained were the curvy streets.

The houses were small two bedroom, one bath homes with the kitchen on the street side, no garage or carport, on a quarter acre lot. The price was affordable, breaking from the elitist past of earlier communities. It became a sign of status for the working man to be “admitted” to the heretofore unaffordable suburbs. To conjure up the vision of the exclusive, high priced suburbs of the past, streets were laid out in the English Landscape School’s curvilinear pattern. However, because it had been flat farm land, there were few natural features to provide a basis for site plan organization. The curvilinear pattern of subdivision design was for mere effect without the design purpose of Riverside or Radburn.

The Ranch House; 1954

Levittown also introduced the ranch house (wide not deep) illustrating the suburban mantra of cheap, abundant land. The rearranged floor plan moved the kitchen to the rear for a backyard view while adding a carport to the front. This built upon the Radburn model of making the backyard the family’s private retreat while the front yard was the domain of the auto (the primary transportation option) which was proudly displayed in front of the home.

Resulting Suburban Form

By coupling the lack of a strong pedestrian orientation with mandatory carports or garages, the Leavitt’s refitted suburbia for the auto. Curvy streets were for autos. The front yard had no purpose other than parking the car and ceremonial aesthetics while the family retreated to the private sanctity of the backyard. The new and prevailing suburban model had emerged. Vast stretches of mono land use (which are thus compatible with each other) all connected by a dendritic system of roadways (arterial, collectors, locals) which are incompatible with residential use. This leads to a linear configuration of commercial uses along major roadways and then leads to the scale of the car being the dominant development theme for the highway commercial strips.

Results from Colors on a Map

Land use compatibility requires different land uses to be physically separated as a mitigation measure. This in turn causes similar land uses to cluster together thereby separating housing from jobs from retail from civic uses. The only means to get between land uses requires travel; usually by car. This exhibit is an example of “compatibility” from a land use/zoning perspective. In the adjacent aerial photo, single family homes in the background are “buffered’ from the commercial use by a wall and physical separation. However, the only way to go buy a quart of milk at the nearby store is to drive your car out onto the collector streets to circle around to the arterial street and reach the commercial uses which are actually proximate to the housing. Because similar land uses are considered compatible, vast areas of a community end up with the same land use. With little diversity of use, basic needs are excluded from residential areas. The classic example of this homogenous land use pattern is single family sprawl stretching across the landscape. Adjacent land uses all being similar causes far greater problems than the mixing incompatible uses; poor and expensive public services, expanding carbon footprint, increased fossil fuel consumption and wasted time in traffic all result from this development pattern.

Colors on a Map Epiphany

Colors on a map do little to nothing for compatibility. I learned this when homeowners were arguing with me that the proposed 75 foot wide lots behind a wall with landscaping were still incompatible with their 90 foot wide lots. Land use compatibility is all a sham.

Auto Dominance; Commuter’s Behavior

The only possible land use compatibility measures are physical separation or similar land uses being grouped together. This has led to vast stretches of homogeneous land use which created a complete reliance on the auto for everyday activities like getting to work, shopping, school or entertainment. Listed below are commuter behavior patterns:

• About a third can be classified as aggressive drivers.
• Six in 10 concede they sometimes go well over the speed limit.
• Sixty-two percent occasionally get frustrated behind the wheel.
• Four in 10 get angry.
• Two in 10 sometimes boil into road rage.

As a commuting mitigation action, the following behaviors occur:

• Take a less direct route 68%
• Leave earlier or later 60%
• Skip a planned stop 40%
• Changed work schedule 24%
• Moved closer to work 20%
• Changed/left a job 14%

If transit is available, Americans still choose to drive their autos even at significant cost:

• Six in 10 Americans have public transit available
• Just 10 percent use it regularly.
• Ninety-three percent call driving more convenient.
• Eighty-four percent drive alone to work.
• 80 percent of solo drivers aren’t interested in car pooling.
• Switched to transit 4%

Auto Dominance; Roadway Design

The auto dominance is so complete that development codes are written to ease the use of the auto at the expense of people. Development engineering standards geared to vehicles is now the standard for our communities. Wider roads need wider safety margins so buildings are moved away from the street as a development requirement. Roadways become congested and need to be expanded. The increasing number of travel lanes allegedly can move more cars faster but the homogeneous development pattern only creates more and longer trips. Typical development standards are as follows:

Orange County, Florida Building Setback Standards

Principal arterial, urban   70 ‘ from the right of way

Minor arterial, urban 60 ‘ from the right of way

Collector, urban   55 ‘ from the right of way

Auto Dominance; Development Standards

With the heavy dependence on the auto for mobility, roadways and the surrounding development evolved to match the scale of wide, high speed roadways. The scale of roadways was “improved” to better fit the maneuverability of the auto and as such the orientation of development also switched to parking lots on the street side with buildings at the back of the lots out of view. Lack of visibility was resolved with large, attention grabbing signs scaled to high speed.

Auto Dominance; Compatibility

These roadway development standards have resulted in creating an environment for the auto. The roadway is a noxious use from a compatibility standpoint so line it with similarly noxious uses (auto dominated commercial) all designed to non-human scale. No wonder residential uses need to be physically separated from this “place” in the name of compatibility. Roadways only become more noxious; thus the land use option is to line roadways with similarly noxious uses such as commercial all in the name of compatibility. The suburban model is dominated by the need for autos with resulting suburban design standards based around the dimensions and maneuverability of a car and the human is relegated to second class standards.

Land Use and Auto Use

Land uses are categorized by trip generation and uses are then more or less intense by the number of trips generated by that use. The auto is the common denominator in all land use equations. This can be witnessed with trip destinations as well. The shortest average trip destination is 6.9 miles due to homogenous land use pattern.

Trip type % Miles driven

Commute 18 11.9
Shopping 20 6.9
Recreation 27 11.0
Other 38 9.3

Auto Dominance; Wasted Time and Money

For the nation as a whole, the average daily commute to work lasts about 24.3 minutes; thus, Americans spend more than 200 hours commuting to work each year. This far exceeds the two weeks of vacation time frequently taken by workers over the course of a year. The average commute costs $6.00 a day or $1,500 a year. Over the course of a working lifetime, this would equate to $800,000 if invested wisely.

Predominant Housing Choice

Single family subdivisions have evolved in the last 100 years from the domain of the wealthy to the predominant housing choice for most Americans. In 2002, the National Association of Home Builders stated “American homebuyers prefer large houses and large lots and are willing to live in distant suburbs and accept longer commutes in order to have more space inside and outside the home. 76% prefer a conventional single family detached community.”

Time for a Change

There is a growing sentiment to resolve the ills of suburbia and its absolute reliance on the auto. There needs to be an alternative to land use based growth regulations and one such alternative comes from the New Urbanism development model.


Humans have been gathering in urban areas for thousands of years; from early Greek cities to mid-evil fiefdom towns to pre-auto industrial revolution cities in the US. These cities were for people prior to the introduction of the auto. Yet there are many examples of successful urban places which conformed to the auto yet kept the original human scale.

The food bounty from organized agricultural practices allowed people to start living together in hamlets, villages, towns and, ultimately, cities. These were the first urban places as, prior to this time, all life had been in a rural setting. These urban places became denser as the population grew and the cities were organized around the street as a place for multi-modal transportation including walking, wagons and rail.

Savannah, Georgia 1733

Historic antecedents for city planning are found in Savannah, Georgia. This City was planned from scratch with a different motif than today; placemaking. There is a balanced land use program with the emphasis on creating great people oriented spaces for the residents, workers and guests.The city of Savannah was founded in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe based upon a repeating pattern of squares. Each square sits at the center of a ward. The lots to the east and west of the squares, flanking the major east-west axis, were considered “trust lots” in the original city plan and intended for large public buildings such as churches, schools, or markets. The remainder of the ward was divided into four areas, called tythings, each of which was further divided into ten residential lots.

Washington, DC 1791

Pierre L’Enfant developed a Baroque plan for Washington that features ceremonial spaces and grand radial avenues while respecting natural contours of the land. The result was a system of intersecting diagonal avenues superimposed over a grid system. The avenues radiated from the two most significant building sites that were to be occupied by houses for Congress and the President.

Chicago 1891

In 1891, Daniel Burnham was the lead planner for the 1893 Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago. Burnham’s concept called for a plan suggesting permanent buildings of a monumental scale; a dream city. Burnham used classical motifs as the general aesthetic of the fair grounds and structures so as to better blend with other architectural styles.

Garden Cities by Ebenezer Howard

Howard designed a prototypical city on 6,000 acres with a town center of about 1,000 acres and a population of 30,000. On the outer ring of the town there were to be factories, warehouses, etc., fronting on a circular railway. The remainder was to be an agricultural estate developed for agricultural purposes.

Historically, city design was form based to create memorable, endearing places. Land uses were an issue but the primary design principle was form. Older cities have had to deal with retrofitting the urban fabric to make room for the auto. Greenfield development has taken the opposite approach; development acknowledges reliance on the auto and is scaled to the auto with a corresponding loss of places for people.


A Dramatic Change; Seaside 1982

The history of Seaside began in 1979, when developer Robert Davis inherited 80 acres of oceanfront land. Davis hired Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk to make his vision come true. They toured communities like Key West, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia and the adjacent Grayton Beach to reveal the physical fabric that produced both the visual comfort and social interactions that made these communities famous.

New Urbanism

Traditional Neighborhood Design or New Urbanism was a reaction to the state of suburban development. In the 1980’s, designers started to question sprawling suburbia. Multiple car dependent residents living in single family homes spread across the landscape has placed an increasing demand on roads and the resulting roadway congestion has proved irresolvable. Other public infrastructure, such as schools and parks, fell below acceptable levels of service. TND was a modern adaptation of the historic pattern of development from small town America’s past; compact development with a full mix of compatible uses oriented to the street with a strong pedestrian orientation.

The most dramatic New Urban factor is the change from auto dominated design standards to human and pedestrian oriented design standards. Couple this with regulations geared toward the form of development (not land use) and there is an entirely different mindset on growth management. This new thought pattern is being implemented as evidenced by Miami 21; Dade County’s Form Based Code adoption in September 2009. There are now entire New Urban communities offering the advantages of New Urban design principles as compared to land use controls. One of the key differences is that compatibility is handled through the intensity of development and not by use. Denser areas of the community transition to less dense areas. This is greatly enhanced by controlling street design with two lane streets. By controlling the size of roadways, there are less noxious uses needing significant compatibility measures. In fact, the scale of New Urban communities is for the human; the pedestrian. The auto is still easily accommodated but not at the expense of the person living in the community.


According to National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth America; 2004, 61% of soon to be home buyers would prefer to buy in a Smart Growth community with following community characteristics:

• Mix of housing types
• Sidewalks
• Shopping and schools at a walkable distance
• Public transit available

A recent study by RCLCO (the Market for Smart Growth; 2009) found that “Due to their compact design, pedestrian friendliness, protection of natural features and other smart growth approaches, it is significant that consumers not only prefer New Urban communities, they are willing to pay a premium to live in such communities.”

In 2004, the National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth America concluded the following 61% of soon to be home buyers would prefer to buy in a Smart Growth community with the following:

• Community characteristics:
• Mix of housing types
• Sidewalks
• Shopping and schools at walkable distance
• Less than 45 minute commute
• Public transit available

RCLCO finds a correlation between life stage and the desire to live in a New Urban community as follows:

• Empty Nesters
• Singles
• Over 60 years of age
• Under 40 years of age
• Over 50’s for close shops and restaurants
• Baby Boomers
• Health conscious

Recently, public opinion has swung from conventional suburban development towards a New Urban life style. This has caused the development industry to investigate conventional practices and examine other approaches to the housing marketplace. This ties into other current trends such as green practices and long lasting sustainable initiatives.

Planning Today

Today’s planning emphasis has rightfully shifted from land use controls towards these goals:

• Sustainability
• Low Impact Development
• Multi-Modal transportation
• Urban Design
• Form Based Code
• Mobility

All these concepts are inherently about compact development. With increased densities and intensities, compatibility is the paramount concern. Thus, land use control is the wrong model to use for compatibility. New Urbanism with its form of development approach is much more in tune with compatibility measures.

New Urbanism – A Critique of Disney’s Celebration – Social Elitism, Developer’s Practicality-Profit

Celebration: American Utopia or Stepford?

“The building of cities is one of man’s greatest achievements. The form of his city always has been and always will be a pitiless indicator of the state of his civilization.” Edmund Bacon, 1967

The art of city building, after being lost and rejected for over half a century in favor of decentralized commercial strip development and suburban sprawl (the stepchildren of Modernism), is being resurrected in several ‘New Town’ projects cropping around the country. Seaside, Newport, Windsor (all on the East Coast) and now Disney’s Celebration have caught the hearts and wallets of Americans wishing for a middle ground between the infrastructure waste and social isolation of our refined suburbs and the higher density, raucous/ crime stereotype of the big city. A moot (perhaps) bonus is that somewhere in this in-between might be a new-found sense of community.

Millions of Americans in our sterile suburbs allow themselves to be robbed a human necessity: to experience a balanced social/ environmental upbringing (that our European counterparts enjoy day to day). Political isolationism and escapism have a root in our psyche. Throughout our lifetimes, minimal interaction on a daily basis for children and adults with a cross-section of individuals of varying ages with cultural, ethnic, and economic differences limits our world-view and understanding of each other. The core issues of community, democratic participation, and individual responsibility are ignored perhaps because they touch deeper philosophical and social themes that continue to be evaded by the American conscience.

As for New Urbanism, most Americans wouldn’t know it if it bit them in the derriere. Starting with mitigation (a form of legal bribery: destruction of protected wetlands-flora and fauna, in exchange for $15M) Disney has not bettered the typical subdivision in many respects. At Celebration, inhabitants will commute out to their jobs while lower salaried workers in the CBD commute in. The net result is as much auto pollution as ever-even more since the whole mixed-use development is at a higher density. Commons and parks are by-products of tight lots which are improvements over the monotony of the typical subdivision, no doubt.

Celebration is over controlled and lacks social conscience. It is elitist: gingerbread glosses social inequity. There is no evidence of individual contribution by the citizenry nor will there be until ownership (Homeowner’s Association) changes hands one day and Disney will be legally immune. Totalitarian control, as in Haussmann’s Paris under Napoleon III, appears to be the only way that Americans can find a modicum of utopia. Relinquishing the Democratic process is an accepted trade-off in order to gain peace of mind (read ethnic, social, economic cleansing). Our dismal history of failed modern planning and zoning, originally intended to improve quality of life, has proven an antiseptic, deadening social and environmental conundrum where the only winners are bureaucrats and corporate developers.

At Celebration architects have been intoxicated by a power that could only have been relegated by corporate executive mandate. Design omnipotency tied to corporate ends has resulted in a high-brow, overpriced subdivision on steroids. Oddly, the downtown architecture appears to have been a product of weak management control over the imported ‘name’ architects. Pastel banality with a homogenous finish (due to single developer build-out of the entire ensemble and too much STO) is a Disney trademark. You can even spot a tinge of fascism at the entry sequence to the project where Disney Development offices stand abstractly in stark opposition to the truer to period Colonial and Classical Traditionalism of the other community buildings nearby.

On the whole the image of the residential sectors reminds one of the facades of early western boom towns which hide a more meager ‘back of house’. Overblown facades are squeezed side by side on narrow lots while infrastructure is duplicated in the form of back alleys hiding 2-3 car garages. Sociability around the front lawns and curbside is thus dramatically impaired. Screening is allowed only at the rear where most families will spend their down-time in the pool and safe from bugs. They also won’t be bothered by the parades of inquisitive tourists that Disney is planning to draw to the downtown.

While capitalizing on their brand-name and offering total predictability in all aspects Disney has tried very hard to make buying Florida swampland feel good: ‘Utopia on a platter’. Sans serendipity, surprise, mystification, or complexity the overall theme is succinctly “defense by privilege”. While ‘citizens’ are anxious to wake up in Mayberry they may find out to their chagrin that they have really bought into Stepford.

PART 1: An Early Look at Disney’s ‘Celebration’

What if they built a city and nobody came? (An intriguing thought but perhaps not the case here as corporate inertia and massive marketing will guarantee build-out.) In this instance I feel a strange sense of loss even though perhaps at first blush a Classicist’s dreams are about to come true. While many traditional/Classicist architects and designers have decried the Modernist’s indiscriminate foray into the built environment and hoped that the tide would someday turn back to a widespread use of classical or formal design principles coupled with a more traditional and organic planning theory, the concept of a Utopian setting to showcase a ‘return to tradition’ has not been attempted at this scale (except in Leon Krier’s fantasies) in three dimensions. Until now.

In late February this year several local architects and residential designers were invited to a preview of Disney’s ‘Celebration’. This master-planned city of 20,000 will have state-of-the-art health and educational facilities, a town center designed by the usual cadre of ‘important’ period style architects (including a rather surprising modernesque Philip Johnson entry) and approximately 8,000 residential lots of differing types and sizes, the widest being 90 feet with 15 foot side setbacks.

The project manager, a Princeton architectural graduate with an MBA, insisted that the goal of the master plan was to induce a sense of community; the expectation is to achieve a varied mix of age groups and economic backgrounds where families would continue to live there throughout several generations. And there was a meticulously researched and produced architectural control standards manual (based on the ‘pattern’ books of yesteryear) illustrating the acceptable styles for the residential units: Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival, Coastal, Mediterranean, and French.

Architectural control includes inviolable first and second floor heights as well as window and door types, setbacks, massing and materials use per each distinct style. Porch, roof, and facade treatments have recommended design standards as well. The picket fences, common areas, and shady boulevards as shown in the conceptual watercolor perspectives achieve a Mayberry-Savannah-Charleston feel with happy residents apparently enjoying the good life sitting at single and upper story front porches (highly recommended) watching the world go by.

I could not put my finger on what was troubling me except I remember that I felt either God was in the planning or I was hearing the drums of the Third Reich. The Strathmore model of the town center looked a bit contrived. Here were Pelli’s, Venturi’s, Stern’s, and Moore’s little monuments in the form of a bank, theater, apartment, office building, cultural center, lookout tower, etc. all arranged neatly on separate blocks. It seemed like a swell theme park to live in. Everything had its place, the main boulevard was on axis leading by the commercial zone to the lake-front promenade with intersecting streets that allowed a minimum of parking.

Further setback were the residential areas each grouped according to the size of the lots with alleys separating types and also eliminating the unsightly two or three door garage viewed from the front of the main street, no doubt a clear improvement over America’s typical suburban layouts. Everything seemed as perfect as possible. Sometime after 1940 it was pointed out, “…architecture took a right, we are trying to continue the development (of well designed buildings, implied) as if it was never interrupted; we are taking the left fork in the road.” Very true, I agreed, the Modernists surely drowned this country and the world with their banal excess of stripped down functionalism. I was rooting yet skeptical at the same time. A little voice inside me told me to stand up and defend… something–that was missing perhaps.

I asked if the entry points were to be gated. “Not foreseen, we want this to be an open community.” What about security concerns? “No crime anticipated at the moment.” We chuckled at the vision of 40’s black and whites roaming the streets. Will the town center be able to sustain itself? “All space currently pre-leased.” How can you make people sit out on the front porches in Florida’s heat and mosquito swarms, especially since you are not allowing screened enclosures? “The overhead fans will cool and dispel the swarms.” Well, there was nothing more to criticize, Disney had it all figured out. Satisfied we all left and thanked our host.

The next day I communicated the following in part:

I realize that your model incorporates the European traditional building forms in an American town setting, but wouldn’t the more successful model (especially for the viability of the commercial activity) be to complete the circle and re-introduce the classic Italian, French or German prototype? Maybe this will be the theme of Celebration II? The other irony of Celebration is that I recall Walt’s intent for EPCOT was for a viable ‘City of the Future’ which implied real examples of futuristic living and working (technological progress, etc.) nodes and the corresponding buildings. I guess we have looked into the future and really didn’t want where the ‘right-hand’ fork was leading. For now, unless there is a proven better alternative I must agree with the premise that Celebration takes and its intent to re-educate America on what a community should really consist of. You have here a utopian layout that will re-ignite a spark of remembrance and longing in all who visit.”

But that uneasy sensation kept grinding in my stomach. Finally I put it together: First, like Seaside, this community was designed to keep the visitor uncomfortable from just wandering into town and enjoying the sights. Second, with so much architectural control the organic tendency for creative growth was nipped before the bud like an Orwellian injection. Even with six allowable styles that quixotic architectural invention that makes a street-scape so charming and vital was not possible. A Victorian motif grafted onto Colonial Revival didn’t seem credible. Mixing Mediterranean with Classical outlawed Palladio. Why, no Modernist touches were even thinkable! (I was surprising myself pushing for a bit of ‘contemporary’ styling).

“…Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should be positively discouraged.”

R. Venturi, 1966

Although the implicit goals of Disney are to introduce innovation for the better, their master plan has not sufficiently advanced modern urban planning practice in this case except to sterilize further. The free-standing artificiality of the town center reads more like an extension of Universal’s or Disney’s own facade-citecture at their studio lots. I will always prefer the historical prototype of the European (Italian, Greek, German, or French) town square with its natural liveliness and spontaneity that is so completely absent from American CBD’s. (For that matter the caricature replicas of Old World themes in Disney World appear to be more people oriented than at Celebration!) The integration of many urban themes are required to present an enriching environment, especially in the ‘downtown’. For example the infill of many years’ growth, contraction, and rebuilding is vital to establish a thread of continuity and adds an indispensable degree of enrichment to the urban condition.

Everything of age in this country was indiscriminately torn down to make way for economic progress until the preservation movement took hold. What makes the Continental example so compelling is the mix of old (history) and new, the density and mix of commercial and residential, and the evidence of life –as witnessed by people enjoying their walking, chance social meetings, shopping and watching, eating and playing, etc. The main issue under contention is that Celebration isolates and zones functions like so many other modern plans which results in the same automobile centered or formally laid out suburban design. Consider the simple presence of street vendors (outlawed typically) which add so much color to the street life. And when the new Interstates bypassed so many of our nation’s older communities even the opportunity for the tourist, traveler, stranger (gasp!) to enrich the citizenry by the chance meeting in the town square or at the market was extinguished. The complete interaction with the outside world is nullified. The town dies. This dilemma is especially true with planned towns such as Celebration and Seaside and the host of others ‘a l’Americaine’.

You do know however before buying into Celebration that the proper inoculations have been made. I for one miss the smell of the diesel or the horse-drawn carriages down the dusty streets of Izmir, Turkey (where I spent my youth) as I might sit at a corner cafe, hailing a roasted nut vendor to sample the latest crop of sea-salted pistachios, while waiting for my olive oil braised lamb-chops to be served. Not just the smells but the sights and sounds as well of my fellow human beings involved in their daily way of life I miss and the rich environment that cradles this activity. Architecture cannot solve planning issues. Only people united to preserve their humanity can.

The final irony is this: over twenty five years ago Walt Disney created the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (EPCOT) as a showcase to house and employ a viable population; real people in a working environment. This did not come to pass. What materialized was a clever but kitschsy perpetually outdated theme park initially planted with rather exciting (for the youngster in us all) but cornball ‘futuristic’ carnival rides underwritten by corporate America. Now Disney has decided that the past is the key to the future. And they have a totalitarian vehicle to prove they are right. For a while I was rooting for them, now I am more convinced that the wives of Stepford will have a place for their own.

At a time of such diversity in the visual appearance of buildings it is absurd to enforce conformity which merely degenerates into uniformity. With the acceptance of the principles of the gradual renewal of environment it is desirable to follow the practices of the past in which they were applied: each period putting its new buildings next to those of earlier times and without taking up design elements formerly in use. This is healthy practice, unaffected by lack of confidence or by the morbid desire to let the past control the present. It has protected the urban and semi-urban areas of bygone ages from becoming museums and it makes for the delight of so many English towns where the buildings of different periods stand cheek by jowl together and where the history of the towns can be read from the difference of their buildings. Whoever has walked along the rue de Rivoli, the most depressing street in all Paris, will understand what is meant by ‘living diversity’, small-scale planning, intimacy and other environmental values which are gradually being rediscovered. Therefore no more ‘design guides’, no more control of visual appearance by officials of limited visual education and sensitivity or by neighbours who wish to impose their own tastes or, as estate agents contend, to protect their ‘investments’ and whose ulterior motives bear no examination.”

Walter Segal, 1980


Upon receiving some criticism for the above remarks and after considering the matter further I came across a social study of Pullman, Illinois (10 miles south of Chicago) considered a model community built in 1881 which included housing and basic service amenities (as well as the factory for the Pullman Palace Car Company) where 8,000 people lived and worked. My sensibility was shocked at the parallels. “One of Mr. Pullman’s fundamental ideas” as social critic and economist Richard Ely wrote in his analysis of the town “is the commercial value of beauty”. Pullman commissioned a single architect to master plan and design the entire town. There was a market-house, theater, library, offices, shops, bank, hotel, fire department, educational facilities, etc. In describing the street-scape Ely observes:

Unity of design and an unexpected variety charm us as we saunter through the town. Lawns always of the same width separate the houses from the street, but they are so green and neatly trimmed that one can overlook this regularity of form. Although the houses are built in groups of two or more, and even in blocks with the exception of a few large buildings of cheap flats, they bear no resemblance to barracks… French roofs, square roofs, dormer-windows, turrets, sharp points, blunt points, triangles, irregular quadrangles, are devices resorted to in the upper stories to avoid the appearance of unbroken uniformity. A slight knowledge of mathematics shows how infinite the variety of possible combinations of a few elements, and a better appreciation of this fact than that exhibited by the architecture of Pullman it would be difficult to find. The streets cross each other at right angles, yet here again skill has avoided the frightful monotony of New York, which must sometimes tempt a nervous person to scream for relief. A public square, arcade, hotel, market, or some large building is often set across a street so ingeniously as to break the regular line, yet without inconvenience to traffic. Then at the termination of long streets a pleasing view greets and relieves the eye–a bit of water, a stretch of meadow, a clump of trees, or even one of the large but neat workshops. All this grows upon the visitor day by day. No other feature of Pullman can receive praise needing so little qualification as its architecture.

Indeed he continues: “Very gratifying is the impression of the visitor who passes hurriedly through Pullman and observes only the splendid provision for the present material comforts of its residents. What is seen in a walk or drive through the streets is so pleasing to the eye that a woman’s first exclamation is certain to be, ‘Perfectly lovely!’

But approximately six years after the first spade was dug to begin this utopia a great riot broke out. Despite Pullman’s efforts to maximize his returns through efforts to beautify the town and include as many practical comforts as possible for his workers the inevitable breakdown occurred. It should be pointed out that like many other company towns, the workers did not own their own properties. Strikes, individual initiative, charitable and mutual insurance associations were thwarted, discouraged, or put down. A woman who had been living at Pullman for two years told Ely only three families among her initial acquaintances were still living there. Ely asked ‘It is like living in a great hotel, is it not?’ Her reply was ‘We call it camping out.’

Ely concludes: “There is a repression here as elsewhere of any marked individuality. Everything tends to stamp upon residents, as upon the town, the character best expressed in ‘machine-made.’ Note that in this passage his reference is not to the social problems which no doubt had a deep negative impact on the people but alludes more to the architectural and planning characteristics which had been previously described as idyllic! He finishes in a more political strain, “…the conclusion is unavoidable that the idea of Pullman is un-American. It is a nearer approach than anything the writer has seen to what appears to be the ideal of the great German Chancellor. It is not the American ideal. It is benevolent, well-wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such way as shall please the authorities. One can not avoid thinking of the late Czar of Russia, Alexander II., to whom the welfare of his subjects was truly a matter of concern. He wanted them to be happy, but desired their happiness to proceed from him , in whom everything should center. Serfs were freed, the knout abolished, and no insuperable objection raised to reforms, until his people showed a decided determination to take matters in their own hands, to govern themselves, and to seek their own happiness in their own way.” How much of the unrest in Pullman was due to negative social factors and how much could be attributed to the apparently utopian physical infrastructure?

“The more influence a person is able to exert on his surroundings, the more committed he becomes.”

Herman Hertzberger, 1980

A free people must freely adopt their choice of habitation in terms of style, materials, costs, etc. In many areas where over-legislation occurs under the guise of protecting the integrity of the community a boring repetition results due to restricted size, height, materials, and style. In addition to floor area ratios with attendant design restraints the resulting structures (which desperately seek to find any loophole through which a mote of individualism may be imposed) are often hideous attempts to exert originality or personality into an oppressive architectural milieu. Rather than so completely legislating the total design, especially the style, why not leave it to the individual (and his architect!) to select, innovate within a better resolved set of guidelines?

Sometime after 1940 it was pointed out, “…architecture took a right, we are trying to continue the development [of well designed buildings, implied] as if it was never interrupted; we are taking the left fork in the road.”

“There is a repression here as elsewhere of any marked individuality. Everything tends to stamp upon residents, as upon the town, the character best expressed in ‘machine-made’…

Understandably, shoddy construction and ill conceived schemes should not be allowed but rejection because the strict canon of ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘French’ was not followed ‘by the book’ limits creative growth and experimentation which in the long run, if permitted, provides a fertile diversity, freshness, yes even controversy at times which can only enrich the built environment and ’empower’ the individual with the right of free expression. Style should never be legislated. Bad architecture should be eliminated.

“A good architect will always do original work. A bad one would do bad ‘modern’ work as well as bad work (that is imitative) with historical forms.” P. Johnson, 1961

It is unfortunate that in newly developing towns and smaller communities the rich texture of classic urban models cannot be convincingly replicated. Given the choice between a pasteurized and homogenized model town with its inherent philosophical anomalies I will take the path of worn cobblestones down dusty winding streets past antique, crumbling and weathered edifices with gnarled wooden doors of enchanting designs, where the smell of the baker’s bread permeates my being in the morning, past markets where one can inhale the smell of fresh tomatoes, grains and meats, brought in from the fields where even the pungent odor of pack animals mix with exotic perfumes, where the hordes gather to banter over the price of goods under open air canvas canopies and with merchants tucked into the niches of mighty stone relics, where the smell of fresh ground coffee is served in sidewalk cafes, and where even the odor of an imperfect sewer mixes with diesel fumes. Above all it is the people who bring these places alive, like stage actors on a set in which they have had a chance to personally paint and by which they can remember their own history.

The key to urban vitality, as L.M.Roth describes the views of the prominent writer and editor of Architectural Forum in the early sixties Jane B. Jacobs, is “diversity and complexity.” Leonard Kip wrote of Genoa in The Building of Our Cities (1870): “With what joyous contentment he (the traveler) wanders through its winding alleys, finding new surprises at every corner!” Of Paris he describes the feeling of “Losing ourselves…with the full knowledge that we cannot be disagreeably led out of the way…”

Americans have for too long accepted the fruits of modern planning principles which breed monotonous city-scapes erected by rote to planning manuals designed with dispersive (instead of implosive) zoning with the resultant isolation of its parts, suburban and infrastructural waste. If ‘a house is like a city’ we would be all living in extravagant wastes of space, empty corridors leading to distant rooms whose only functional connections can be comprehended through a mapping system. Kip aptly describes our characteristic new communities and neighborhoods: “…when the resident can see the whole street rolled out before him as a diorama, he soon ceases to feel any spark of individual taste, but, catching the spirit of others, builds and rebuilds in the same style as every one around him, and so, in having a house, becomes the owner, not of a home, but merely of a certain number of lineal feet measured off from a rule.”

In the mid-twentieth century Lewis Mumford decried the result of increased appropriation of space for the automobile in America’s towns and cities claiming that the city existed for the ‘care and culture of men’ rather than for compromise to the mechanical monster. Los Angeles is the epitome of the ‘consummate insensitivity and deadly efficiency’ (Leland M. Roth, America Builds) of the Federal Highway Act’s tenets and provisions gone mutant. Mumford asked: “Why should anyone have to take a car and drive a couple of miles to get a package of cigarettes or a loaf of bread, as one must often do in a suburb? Why, on the other hand, should a growing minority of people not be able again to walk to work, by living in the interior of the city, or, for that matter, be able to walk home from the theater or the concert hall? Where urban facilities are compact, walking still delights the American: does he not travel many thousands of miles just to enjoy this privilege in the historic urban cores of Europe?…Nothing would do more to give life back to our blighted urban cores than to re-instate the pedestrian, in malls and pleasances designed to make circulation a delight!”

On this point Celebration misses the mark. Although alleys hide the automobile the overall layout does not truly compel the pedestrian to leave his clinically ordered street and venture for even the smallest item. Corner groceries were once evident in the zone-free organic town of yesteryear but are absent here. The planning looks good from the aerial perspective but in reality does not deliver. The look of Charleston and Savannah is being attempted here but the activity and vibrancy will be absent at least as a product of its own citizenry. (Oh yes, the lights in the homes of Celebration’s absentee occupants will be timed to turn on and off at night should the homeowners be at their Swiss time-share during the months of May through October.)

“The building of cities is one of man’s greatest achievements. The form of his city always has been and always will be a pitiless indicator of the state of his civilization.

Edmund N. Bacon, 1967

Does Celebration propound to be the quintessential American town? Charles Moore (one of Disney’s selected icons for one of Celebration’s downtown structures) characterized the American attitude in describing the ‘contemporary North American vernacular’ as: “the work of a nation composed of people who at one time or another, in greater or less degree, have eschewed tradition, to strike out on their own.” But he concluded: “Some of our most lively and convincing places in fact, are fantasies, Williamsburgs or Disneylands.”

Disney must be applauded for their grand efforts, and meticulous attention to detail as always but to attempt the ideal and miss the mark so clearly by organizing the layout of their dream town to exclude the components that constitute the soul and lifeblood of any community (as experienced in historically viable models of living cities) will only result in a sterile aggregate of construction to be possibly abandoned like the American towns whose main streets have been bypassed, shopping relegated to the peripheral super-malls, and inner core left to decay. If not abandoned by virtue of the elect who will sign their names on the mortgage papers, vacated on the streets more likely. Architect James Marston Fitch has described the Italian street as “the most delicious experience of embrace and enclosure of any space on earth”. The satisfying people/streetscape that Disney has created in EPCOT is a fantasy enjoyed by millions. There the effect was achieved that Bernard Rudofsky describes as having streets made “into oases rather than deserts.” Cities like Charleston and Savannah are perfect models for the living community. They reflect what Edmund Bacon has characterized in ancient Greek cities as “the intimacy of inherited tradition…maintained.” Why not match more closely the example of their and other cities of similar vitality and charm by rethinking our sterile zoning regulations, reducing the size of wasteful private residential lots, compactly integrating the living and working areas, and adding green space at the most beneficial locations? Encouraging pedestrian traffic will be no problem if services and entertainment are nearby, if during a stroll to the park you could also pick up some groceries, if on your way to work you could easily buy a newspaper and a snack from the vendor on the street. Does this sound like utopia? It has been done. It can be done. Only the mindset and status quo –and our 90 year love affair with our cars prohibits this healthful and economic alternative.