Manila Plan: Potentials of the Waterways

Spanish Settlement in and near Manila © 1630, University of California Press

Within the city of Manila, various waterways criss-cross throughout the city. During the Spanish times, the Pasig River was utilized as an important transport route and source of water. The map above consequently reveals that the Spanish settlements, both urban and suburban, remained close to the outline of the river and the sea. The Spanish colonial government also established its realm of empire, the intramuros, near the mouth of the river on its southern bank in the 16th century.

Daniel Burnham believed Manila’s Pasig river and esteros (canals) hold “not only an economical value for the transaction of public businesses; it can become as in Venice, an element of beauty” (Hines, 2009). As an exponent of City Beautiful Movement, which believed civic loyalty would come through the power of beauty to shape human thought and behavior, Burnham endeavored to redefine the waterfronts as important areas of  Manila’s development.

The narrow canals or esteros ramifying throughout Manila, with their almost stagnant water and their unsanitary mud banks, would appear at first sight to be undesirable adjuncts of the city … Yet for transportation purposes they are of the utmost value, and in spite of the serious problems involved in properly widening, bridging, and maintaining them, they should be preserved since their availability to the poorest boatman would make them peculiarly valuable” (Hines, 2009)

Bridge of Spain across the Pasig River © 1900s
Bridge of Spain across the Pasig River © 1900s


North bank of Pasig River © 1900
Malacañan Palace fronting on the Pasig River © 1899
Malacañan Palace fronting on the Pasig River © 1899

Apart from establishing major transport systems in the waterways for the good of the public, he hoped to create the bayfronts as the natural theatre of social life of Manila with boulevards and parks, creating the “City Beautiful of the Orient—the Pearl of the Orient” (Hines, 2009). Burnham further suggested that any privately owned property near these waterways are to be returned to the public. Notable civic landmarks remained along the waterfront, and closely grouped series of city clubs, or semi-public institutions were built on a new made land. Shown in the map, further upstream from the Intramuros is the Hospicio de San Jose, an orphanage located on Pasig’s sole island. In the northern bank consists of Malacanan Palace, the official residence of the President of the Philippines built in 1750s, and the main campus of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines founded in mid 1900s.

Map: Landmarks along the Pasig River
Map: Landmarks along the Pasig River

Burnham’s newly proposed waterways further served an environmental function: “amplification of the estero system connected with the Pasig River near Santa Ana Park 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.” (Hines, 2009)

For Burnham, the waterfront development was as vital as the inland development, as he realized its aesthetic, environmental and social value. Burnham truly appreciated and tried to take full advantage of the geographical setting of Manila, while his plan was unable to be implemented. Had half of it been carried out, Philippines’ the current issues of flooding and traffic congestion have been significantly mitigated and potentially improved the quality of living.



Burnham, D.H., and Bennett, E.H. (1993) Plan of Chicago. Edited by Charles Moore. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Hines, T.S. (2009) Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner. 2nd Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hines, T. S. (1972) ‘The Imperial Façade: Daniel H. Burnham and American Architectural Planning in the Philippines’, Pacific Historical Review, 41(1), pp.33-53

Ishikawa, M. (2012) Analysis and Comparison of Public Open Spaces of the Burnham Plan and the Present Manila. Journal of the Japanese Institute of Landscape Architecture, Vol. 75 No. 5, pp. 461-466.

1 Comment on “Manila Plan: Potentials of the Waterways

  1. This article provide a very comprehensive reading of Burnham’s plan of the waterfront, which can serve as major transport systems, the natural theatre of social life, and the environmental apparatus. These methods of water front development are still common in the present context. The good urban form must be the result of a considerate arrangement responding to the natural geographical condition of the city.

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