Americanization for the Filipinos’ good? The Socio-political Ideology of Manila Plan

Both as colonial powers, the contrast between American city planning and former Spanish planning of Manila has always been intriguing. The Spanish precedent applied a walled-city model which was highly enclosed, segregated and hierarchical. Whereas Burnham’s scheme emphasized the symbolism of democracy and focused on issues of hygiene and efficiency. This essay will analyse the different socio-political ideology behind the two urban forms.

As a matter of fact, both Spanish and American claimed that they wanted to civilize and Christianize Filipinos who lived in a relatively primitive way. According to the prescriptions written by Philip II as a general guidance of colonial city planning, the Spanish colonialization was to teach natives to live in a civilized way and “to know God and His Law by means of which they shall be saved”(1573). President McKinley also explained that American would act as “friends” to “uplift, civilize and Christianise”(Morley, 2011).

But actually their ultimate goal and fundamental attitude towards Philippines were very different. For the Spanish, their real interests were more about the expansion of territory and imperial power so as to bring benefits such as cheap labour and convenient commercial route. Filipinos and Spanish were treated as separate groups of identity. Whereas the Americans, who itself came into being from immigrants and mixed culture, looked at themselves differently in terms of the roles they play. They don’t see themselves as conquers who would occupy and rule the land permanently like the Spanish but a temporary helping hand for the Filipinos to establish self-governance in the end. The Americans in fact intended to disassociate Manila from its colonial past in every means. The Philippines was seen as a country in need and therefore American’s presence was considered totally justifiable (Brody, 2010). Daniel Burnham was no exception. Viewing Manila’s plan as a patriotic matter, he even rejected the payment for it.

In order to achieve the goal, the belief that city and urban places were the basis of civilization was rather popular towards the end of the 19th century. It was also the time when urban planning turned into a professional subject. Burnham also noted in 1909 that “good citizenship is the prime object of good city planning”(Morley, 2011). After the Chicago World Fair, social problems stemmed from immigration and other factors were believed to greatly relate to the environment. And as a result, the uplift of the city itself to a large extent can help enhance ethnic group assimilation and encourage core American values of democracy, freedom, equality, laws, etc. It was also believed that the same principle could apply to colonies (Morley, 2011) since America culture and society is in nature highly hybridized.

Therefore, in Manila plan, Burnham was implementing pretty much the same strategy as he was doing in his home country, in contrast to the Spanish utilizing a completely different system. Sanitation and beautification was given great concern since it is believed to be able to improve social interaction and behaviours. Grouping of civic centers was to create a sense of a unity in the context of scattered archipelago as well as divinity of law and democracy, by looking at which the Filipinos were expected to learn.

However, such seemingly peaceful claim was a paradox as it also came with violence, blood and destruction, in the name of Filipinos’ own good. At the end of 19th century, the Filipinos who fought over the Spanish and gained control of the country was already on their way to establish an independent nation. Yet the Americans thought they were incapable of govern themselves and triggered a war which lasted for 4 years (fig.1). It is highly doubted that how many Filipinos would actually perceive American colonialization as they asserted. Following the war was an outbreak of cholera that killed tens of thousands of people, which resulted in a sense of fear among Americans who regarded Philippines as a dangerous place (Morley, 2011). In this sense, the improvement of sanitation and physical environment was also an act for American’s own needs.

To conclude, whether or not the intention of such Americanization was as valid as them claimed, the Manila plan demonstrated the role of civic design as an indispensable part of state building and expansion at the time when the US became a new imperial power. With the preconception of viewing themselves as superior instructor, the Americans intended to use urban planning as a major tool to civilize Filipinos with the socio-political ideology that better environment could enhance social integrity and promote moral values.


Brody, D. (2010) ‘Building Empire: Architecture and American Imperialism in the Philippines’,  Visualizing American Empire: Orientalism and Imperialism in the Philippines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 140-163.

Morley, I. (2011) ‘The cultural expansion of America: Imperialism, civic design and the Philippines in the early 1900s’, European Journal of American Culture, 29(3), pp. 229-251.

PhilipII (1573) ‘Prescriptions for the Foundation of Hispanic Colonial Towns’, in Reed, R.R. (ed.) Colonial Manila: The context of Hispanic urbanism and process of morphogenesis: University of California Press.

Dead Filipino Soldiers Lie Where They Fell © 1899, the U.S. Library of Congress
Figure 1. Dead Filipino Soldiers Lie Where They Fell © 1899, the U.S. Library of Congress

1 Comment on “Americanization for the Filipinos’ good? The Socio-political Ideology of Manila Plan

  1. The colonial period of America in the Philippines is exceptionally important to the development (and modernisation) of the country. And this is explained clearly in this blog entry how the infrastructure and sanitation are introduced into the capital of the Philippines. It would be interest to know more about the background of the political condition at that time, especially the transitional phase when Spain handed over the Philippines to the US and how did the local people (especially the architects) react, if any. Many of the developing countries are struggling to seek for their own identities when undergoing the process of modernisation, and sometimes the local architects (who I believed were very often trained overseas at that time) had something to say in preserving the local culture or tradition.

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