This is my stream-of-consciousness account of some of the places that have been most influential from my personal point of view in the creation of our vision for Las Catalinas. Pictures of all these places can be found here:
For me there is a very literal history of inspiration for Las Catalinas. It begins with my frustration with the beach vacation experiences that were available for me and my family. We love Seaside in Florida. It is a new resort town built on purpose over the last 25 years. The experience that it offers of a lively, beautiful, pedestrian-friendly, village-scale seaside town is for us vastly preferable to any big resort hotel experience, no matter how luxurious. And it is vastly preferable to the experience that we might have in any big house off on its own, no matter how grand. No question. Hands down. End of story.
But, the climate of Seaside is a problem - it is too cold in the winter, even too cold at spring break really, and too hot in the summer. And there isn't really much in the way of interesting nature there. Nor is there a different (at least from my point of view), interesting culture to experience. And when I really want a nice warm beach experience the most is in the winter - Seaside sure can't provide that. So that was frustrating!
So what about the tropics? Well, we just couldn't find anything like the Seaside experience in the new world tropics. There are some beautiful resort developments like Papagayo, but after a short while they just seem pretty lifeless and dull. And there are some fun, lively beach towns like Tamarindo, but they are typically not beautiful at all, and a little too grungy, and not quite what we want either.
On separate but converging track, there was my long time fascination with the hilltowns and beach towns of the Mediterranean. My first chance to explore them came on a long trip with my schoolmates the summer after I graduated from high school. I have been hooked ever since. As far as I am concerned the hilltowns of the Mediterranean are the most beautiful, magical places that man has ever built. What is so extraordinary about the beauty isn't just the man-made part, or just the natural setting. It is the combination - a finely crafted, compact town that doesn't detract from the beauty of its surroundings - it adds to it! Has anyone ever in history thought that the town of Positano detracts from the beauty of the Amalfi coast? I doubt it! It multiplies the beauty! It is a vision of man and nature in harmony. But the magic isn't just the beauty; it is the experience that these places can provide.
Largely because of my own frustration about having the right place to vacation with my family and the feeling that there must be a number of other people with a similar frustration, I began a search for a place to build a beautiful, compact, lively beach town somewhere in the western hemisphere tropics. Stuart Meddin soon joined in the search with me. It took a couple of years to find the right place. But when I was introduced to Las Catalinas - with its fantastic hills, views, and beaches - the merger of my mission to build a beautiful beach town and my lifelong fascination with hilltowns was instantaneous and complete.
As we began to work on plans for Las Catalinas, one more source of inspiration rose to prominence. That is the wonderful craftsmanship, workmanship, and architectural details of Central America. In places like Casco Viejo in Panama, Antigua in Guatemala, and even close at hand in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, we have found great inspiration in the beautiful lime stucco finishes, the stone work, the iron work, the wood work, the tile work, the details.
So, that is the story of the original inspiration behind Las Catalinas. Many people have contributed already to this vision, and many more will do so as we continue to build the town. The vision and the place will evolve together, each learning from the other. And so it should be, and so it has always been with the great, lovable towns of the world.
This is a list of some of the places that for me personally have been most important in providing lessons, good examples, and inspiration for Las Catalinas. Other members of our team certainly have their own, different lists!
Seaside, Florida - is the place where the idea of building a town, instead of a subdivision or a "project", was reborn (at least in the USA) after a gap of a few decades. It is certainly one of the places that have provided the most inspiration for Las Catalinas. Seaside demonstrated quite profoundly that it is possible to build a town, on purpose, even in the modern day, and that if you do it well people will love it! Some other lessons:
Rosemary Beach, Florida - Rosemary is just eight miles down the beach from Seaside, and its development followed Seaside's by several years. It is also a very appealing place, and reconfirms many of the lessons of Seaside. Special lessons from here include:
Charleston, South Carolina - Charleston is of course a very famous and well loved example of great old buildings and urbanism. Stuart Meddin grew up there, and I have visited many times. There is much to learn here, but for us one lesson stands out above all others, and that is the common and effective use of the "Charleston side yard house". Privacy, ventilation in a sometimes sultry climate, and a beautiful yet compact private garden - all these things can be nicely provided by the Charleston side-yard house and we are using a modification of the type liberally in Las Catalinas.
The Bay Area, California - I lived in the Bay Area for several years and it provides some nice examples of what is from our point of view the right way to do hillside development. (Unfortunately, it provides plenty of bad examples as well...) Good examples are found in the Berkeley Hills, the pedestrian only streets of Telegraph Hill, and elsewhere. One particularly nice example is Corinthian Island in Tiburon. Here there are narrow streets, effective terracing, cool little stair streets, clever little perched platforms to allow some car parking, and great views all around.
Carmel, California - Carmel is a very major tourist destination, with something like 2 million visitors per year (I can't confirm that statistic, have it in my head somehow...). Yet there are no large hotels there. There are lots of small to mid-sized hotels. That is the main lesson I take from Carmel - that a resort town is better off with lots of small hotels and inns, rather than one or a few big dominant ones. This is certainly the lesson from towns all over Europe. But it is nice to see it confirmed stateside, in a relatively recently developed resort town (Carmel was founded in 1902).
Glenwood Park, Atlanta, Georgia - is the new neighborhood where I have led the development since its beginning in 2001. Some of the main lessons I have taken from Glenwood Park include:
Pienza, Italy - I had the good fortune of visiting here on a study trip with a group from the Seaside Pienza institute in 2002. Pienza is a beautiful little hilltop town in the Val d'Orcia, and there are several other interesting towns in close striking distance such as Montalcino and Montepulciano. I loved it! Some of the observations that have stuck with me from this trip are:
Eze, France - a small "perched village" near Nice on the French Riviera, is the first hilltown I got a chance to visit after we bought Las Catalinas. We bought Las Catalinas in August of 2006, and I visited Eze, Cap Ferrat, and the Cinque Terre, and some other nearby places in September of that year. Eze was the first stop on the trip, so it was a real stunner for me! The magic of the way the slope can open up views, bring light into what would otherwise be claustrophobically narrow streets, and allow every residence both great views and near total privacy hit me right between the eyes in Eze. It was so exciting! The weather was awful, but I treasure the pictures anyway.
Cap Ferrat - is a peninsula near Eze with a nice small harbour town (St. Jean Cap Ferrat), and beautiful collection of old and new estates around it on the hills. St. Jean Cap Ferrat is where I wrote "the rules of hill towns" on the paper place mat under my pizza one night. What is notable about Cap Ferrat's estates is that they really do feel like "estates" but the lots are not that big - probably not much different on average than the normal suburban quarter to half acre. But through the use of terraces, the slope of the land, and garden walls, they achieve great privacy and beauty. They are estates!
Cinque Terre, Italy - the five small towns of the Cinque Terre are all car-free or nearly so. They have been very much "discovered" as a tourist destination in recent years. The main activity for many visitors is hiking from town to town - they are only a mile or so apart on average. And walking from town to town is the best way to really absorb what for me is the main lesson of the Cinque Terre, which is how wonderfully a compact jewel of a seaside town can enhance the beauty of an already beautiful natural landscape.
Amalfi Coast, Italy - I have never been there but seemingly everyone else on our team has talked to me about it so much that I feel like I have! Incredibly steep hillside leading down the ocean offer dramatic views for nearly everyone. The Amalfi, and especially the town of Positano, offers great inspiration on the drama and beauty that a hillside town on a beautiful coast can deliver. That much I can say just from seeing the pictures!
Ronda, Spain - Ronda is a hilltown that is one of the "Pueblos Blancos" in the hills southeast of Sevilla in Spain. Bob Davey, Douglas Duany and I made our way there on a trip to study Spanish hilltowns in the fall of 2007. Though we went to many great towns on this trip, Ronda was spectacular and pretty much stole the show. It seemed like every lesson we needed for hilltown design was there within a single quarter-mile radius.
Zermatt, Switzerland - Zermatt is a fairly large, completely car free town in the Swiss Alps. With over 5,000 full time residents and several times that many people in town during peak seasons, it is a pretty substantial place with thriving resort-based economy. Based on my visit and conversations there in the summer of 2009, the no-car thing just is not perceived as a problem in the least! Visitors park their cars, if they have them, several miles down valley and take a train up to town. Residents can park on the edge of town, but their cars do not enter town. Within the town there are electric taxis available to transport people, baggage, etc. Many buildings are located on stair-streets quite a distance from where even these electric carts can reach. Truly the only way to deliver things there is to carry them! Once again, I was sort of floored by how practical and wonderful a car-free town can be.
Venice, Italy - Venice is the largest city I know of with no cars at all. Of course it has canals and boats that do many of the things that cars do in other cities. Still the absence of motorized vehicles on the street is very profound, and for me inspirational. It has helped inspire my aspirations to keep motorized vehicle use at a minimum in Las Catalinas. My last visit was in 2003. That is before Las Catalinas came along in my life, but well after I had begun my career in developing walkable places. So I was paying attention!
Puerto Vallarta area in Mexico - Stuart Meddin, Bob Davey and I took a study trip here in late 2006 and found lots to admire in the hillside vacation houses south of town.
Guanacaste - There are not a lot of urban planning examples that we have found to take from Guanacaste - nearly all the towns are built on flat land with regular rectangular street patterns that just don't apply to us on our terrain. But there some good sources of learning and inspiration for us.
Antigua, Guatemala - has been a huge source of inspiration for us. Many members of our team have visited, including a December 2008 trip by Bob Davey, Stuart Meddin and me. The inspiration is not so much in terms of the urban form, because the houses typically sort of turn their backs on the street leading to some pretty bleak streetscapes. What are inspirational are the architectural details and especially the finishes.
Casco Viejo - is the old part of Panama City, Panama. There are some great details here, all adapted to a very tropical climate. Several members of our team made a study trip there in January of 2009. Our host was Ricardo Arosemena, one of the primary architects working in Las Catalinas today. Among the top sources of inspiration:
St. Barthelemy, French West Indies - I have spent a fair amount of time in St. Barths, and love it.
The plazas and places throughout Las Catalinas have something to offer for any event and occasion, from meeting spaces to meditation platforms, from dining with the family to sports pavilions and many more.
The process for drawing a street in a pedestrian town is very different from in a town built around cars. Traveling on foot or on a bike presents an entirely different set of challenges, possibilities, and considerations than for travel in a car, and as a result the materials, size, shape, and even ...
Additionally you will receive our occasional newsletter. Absolute confidentiality. Never SPAM. You can unsubscribe at any time.