This is one in a series of “Lessons from…” documents I have written after visiting places that are of interest as precedents for Las Catalinas. Some of these towns I have visited before. I stayed in Pienza circa 2004 on a study trip with the Seaside Pienza Institute. Civita de Bagnoregio I visited way back in 1985, inspired by the write-up it received in Rick Steve’s Europe Through the Backdoor. But, this is the first chance I have had to visit this region since we began work on Las Catalinas in 2006. It is a mother lode of lessons and examples from hilltowns. In this document I will focus on the positive examples. There are plenty of negative examples – things we would not want to emulate. Some of the towns we encountered were too dark, too closed in. Historically, I’m sure they had their reasons. But we are building for pleasure and beauty – we don’t need to be a fort as well. I do believe we can take the best from these lessons and then do even better! For PDF of my report, click “Lessons from Italy, September 2012″.
Last week I attended the CNU annual conference. I’m glad I did because I got to see an inspirational presentation on the new town of Cayalá, Guatemala. The presenting team included Leon Krier, who is sort of the intellectual godfather of New Urbanism, Professor Richard Economakis of Notre Dame, whom we know from our work with the school of architecture there; and a husband and wife team of architects from Guatemala who are driving forces in the project – Pedro Pablo Godoy (who participated in one of our Las Catalinas charrettes) and Maria Fernanda Sanchez.
The first reason the presentation was inspirational is that Cayalá looks really good! The first phase containing shops, apartments, condominiums, and a very significant public building, is complete and is one of the best looking new town developments I have seen.
The second reason is a bit more profound. All the presenters were great , but Maria stole the show as she talked about how Cayalá is a new hope for her country. Guatemala has an unfortunate history of violence. A 36 year civil war ended in 1996. Since then democracy has prevailed but crime and violence remain a serious problem. Security is a major concern for all, and the many citizens live behind walls in gated communities.
Cayalá is right adjacent to Guatemala City. It is breaking all the rules by building a beautiful, upscale place that is open to the public. Hearing Maria describe it was exceptionally moving: people, lots of people, getting to enjoy walking through a beautiful public plaza; spontaneous dancing on the porch of the grand public building; parents talking about how Cayalá gives them hope for their children. Maria describes Cayalá as being like a new face of Guatemala. Its extraordinary short history reveals a new generation of people that are capable of joining together to build a better future, an extraordinary example of what Guatemalans can do and what they could continue doing to be a great society.
Maria speculates that the violence in Guatemala is a self-fulfilling prophesy, as buildings and whole neighborhoods turn blank walls to the street, leaving it as an unloved no man’s land. She further thinks that building in a way that honors the citizens and public places is the key to her country’s future. So far the evidence is with here. Cayalá’s apartments and shops leased up right away. They have not experienced any security problems. I can’t do her speech justice, but it sure did re-energized me.
Las Catalinas has some high ambitions too. Costa Rica is a small country, but an important one. It is ecologically very important, and socially it is a shining positive example in a region that very much needs one. Prior to the beginning of Las Catalinas the precious coast of Guanacaste appeared to be headed to a future of gated-off enclaves that are inaccessible to the very citizens of the country, environmentally destructive sprawling “view lot” developments, and associated ugly strip-center commercial areas. I hope Las Catalinas will help create a trend that will instead result in a series of beautiful, compact, walkable towns, with a pristine landscape in between. I further hope that, as a resort town, the experience Las Catalinas will provide and will be so positive that people from all over the world will return to their homes re-energized by the joys of living in a beautiful walkable town surrounded by nature, and with a renewed sense of what is possible for own home towns.
Thank you Maria, and Cayalá. I believe that Cayalá and Las Catalinas are both going to help create a better world.
Las Catalinas made a tremendous impression on a theater full of charitable Atlantans this week: Actress Jane Fonda was hosting a premiere for her new movie, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, as a benefit for the organization she champions, G-CAPP (Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention).
Town founders Charles & Ginny Brewer donated their home for 7 nights (complete with some of our favorite Las Catalinas experiences, including stand up paddleboarding, yoga, kayaking and mountain biking) as a live auction item. As photos of Las Catalinas scrolled on the big screen, the audience “oohed” and “aahed” at aerial views of the hilltown and sea, and one of our famous sunsets. The group was obviously inspired — the item was a top bid winner for the evening, bringing in $18,000. We’re thrilled over the enthusiasm to visit Las Catalinas. And to support a great organization making a difference in the lives of young people. To find out more about G-CAPP, visit their website: http://gcapp.org/
- Tucker Berta
Pura Vida ride opened for business last week and is doing great! Stand-up Paddleboarding, kayaking, mountain biking, snorkelling, and other adventures await. Here is a list of group activities that are currently underway:
- Sunday: Stand up paddleboard with Jake! Enjoy the ocean on Sunday morning with friends on a paddleboard. Meet at 8:00am at Playa Danta to paddle around the islands and practice for the race coming up on June 18th!
- Tuesday: Coming soon! 7am Mountain Bike with Tyler! We have some beautiful new trails that are ready for exploring on a bike. PVR has all new mountain bikes and a great guide to show you the way around Las Catalinas.
- Thursday: 7am. Come and enjoy a morning swim with Martyn to the island and back. This is invigorating and starts your day off right! PVR has life jackets if you need them. 1 mile round trip.
- Saturday: Running group with Amy and Tyler. They will have 2 pace groups that will guide you through the trails. Meet at 7 to run!
And of course, the big Robert August Stand-up Paddle Challenge is coming up on June 18. For more details go to www.puravidaride.com. See you there!
I just returned from my Amherst College 30 year reunion. As always, I am struck by the strength and durability of the friendships that my classmates and I forged back then. We tend to think of our school and even our particular class as very special. But I suspect that something like what we have experienced is shared by many.
I have thought about college campus life a lot as we have developed the plans for Las Catalinas. For many people college is the most walkable, car-free environment they will ever experience. For many it is also a very special time. It seemed so easy to make deep friendships in college. It has seemed much harder to do so afterwards out in the “real world”. I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this. But why? And what might that have to do with Las Catalinas? I think these are some of the reasons, and some of the lessons:
- A Pedestrian Environment – People just relate differently to each other when they are walking as opposed to driving. It is hard to say hello to a car. Pedestrians passing one another rarely scream and give each other the finger. This cannot be said of drivers. Walking creates opportunity for chance encounters, and frequent encounters. Walking makes “just stopping by to visit” somehow seem OK (as discussed in my earlier post).
- A Community of Shared Values – If you have a chance encounter with someone at a place like Amherst College, you can be pretty sure that you have a lot in common in terms of values. You have a place to begin a conversation, and you have a certain comfort level that you wouldn’t have with someone you met in another context. You are practically friends before you even start! It is the same way at Las Catalinas already, and will become more so. Las Catalinas appeals to people with particular values. They typically value nature and enjoy outdoor recreation. They are curious and eager to explore and learn. They tend to be well educated and successful. If you are one of those people, you can be pretty sure that the person over there at the next table at Lola’s del Norte is too. They might be from a totally different part of the world from you, but you likely have some important things in common. That is nice … and a headstart towards friendship.
- A sense of shared experience and purpose – My best friends have always tended to be people that I really DO things with. In college you go to class together, you study together, you play sports together, you eat together, and together you try to make the world a better place. Of course you become friends! In Las Catalinas it will be the same. People will be recreating and socializing and working together in myriad ways. More profoundly, the citizens of Las Catalinas will be creating a new town that really stands for something – a joyful, healthy, fulfilling and sustainable vision of “the good life”. That’s important, and doing things together that are important may be the ultimate bonding experience.
- A Gathering Place – One thing that I loved about college life is that if I wanted to see some friends I didn’t need to set up an appointment, I didn’t need a scheduled event. There were places to hang out – and if I went there I could find my friends. Oh how I miss that in my adult life! In the early days at Las Catalinas those places are the beach, and Lola’s. It is already happening.
I’d be curious to hear if these observations ring true to you, and what lessons you might see therein for Las Catalinas. I hope that Las Catalinas will create some of the magic of those college years for people of all ages … including you – and me!
Professor Samir Younes forwarded this video to me. It is a proposed New Urban project near Rome. Italy, that is. It is at a different scale than Las Catalinas – bigger buildings, more big city. But it has some things in common such as a great emphasis on beautiful public spaces, an irregular urban pattern, and a traditional architectural language. I hope you enjoy it.
I’d like to have a computer model like that for Las Catalinas. But soon we will have something better – the real thing!
Saturday night after dinner I went for a walk with my six year old son. We stopped in to visit a couple of different families in our Atlanta neighborhood. It was nice. As we walked I realized that we have never, ever, driven to visit someone without arranging it ahead of time. Not in this neighborhood, and not anywhere else. Walk – yes. Bike – yes. But drive? Never. Why? I can’t totally say. Stopping by to visit someone when you are driving just seems too … something. Too pre-meditated? Too much of a production, therefore putting too much pressure on the people you are visiting to not turn you away? Or what? It just doesn’t feel right.
I count this as one reason among many why a town where walking is a primary way of getting around is so special, and why life at Las Catalinas will be so magical…
People sometimes ask me, “Why, of all the things you could be doing, are you working on Las Catalinas?” (I suspect this is because of the vastly lower prestige associated with being a real estate developer vs. being a technology entrepreneur.) Here is my answer.
I believe that the people of the world desperately need a new vision of what “the good life” is all about. The vision of the last few decades of “more and more stuff, more and more isolated” isn’t working. Ecologically it is a disaster. It isn’t measuring up so well in terms of human health and happiness either, leaving us socially fragmented and personally disconnected.
This new vision of the good life needs to be ecologically sustainable. It needs to be healthier – enjoying our physical selves, being physically active. It needs to be more connected – connected to nature and connected to other people. It should celebrate and revel in beauty. Well, it turns out that this kind of vision of the good life is intimately dependent on the design and function of the places where we live. Las Catalinas is meant to be a place where this vision can flower, spectacularly.
I believe that there is something magic about coming out of your front door and finding yourself in an engaging place where you can socialize, take care of your daily business, and recreate, all under your own power. I believe there is something magic about having unspoiled nature right there at the edge of town, connecting you to its rhythms and energy. I believe there is something magic about being surrounded by beauty. I want more people to experience this magic.
So, that’s why I’m working on Las Catalinas. In addition I am very eager to have Las Catalinas as a place for me and my own family to enjoy. Part of my motivation is as a frustrated consumer – the right beach vacation place for us just didn’t seem to exist. Also I have a huge affinity for this kind of work, and just find it intrinsically fascinating. And finally I do believe that the creation of Las Catalinas will be a good business venture as well. But the main reason I’m doing this is that I think it is really important.
PS – Being a resort town (rather than some other kind of place) is good and helps us achieve our purpose in at least a couple of ways. First, we are freed up from some of the constraints of normal work-a-day life, and can pursue our vision with little compromise. Second, our impact is magnified because many people from around the world will visit Las Catalinas and take inspirations and lessons back to their home communities.
PPS – My thoughts on what this new vision of the good life might look like are spelled out more poetically and in more detail in this speech I made in 2009.
I went to the Luberon region of Provence in France last month for a tour of hilltowns. I treat myself to a field trip like this every once in a while in search of lessons and inspirations for Las Catalinas. These Luberon towns were suggested to me by Douglas Duany. And it was a great call. Here is a link to a moderately large PDF file with my observations on relevant lessons for us at Las Catalinas:Lessons from the Luberon
My whole stash of photos of these towns is here.
Oh, the suffering I endure for my work…
This is something that I wrote back in June of 2006 when we were still working on getting the Las Catalinas land under contract. I can’t believe I haven’t posted it here before now! A rewrite today would mention a few things that are omitted here. Lola’s! La Paz School along with Country Day. But not much else would change. I know, because a shorted version of this is a key part of the presentation I make these days! I hope you enjoy.
Las Catalinas, June 21, 2016
By Charles Brewer, June 21, 2006
Waking up in Las Catalinas is a joy. The sounds of the ocean, the birds, the monkeys, and the early stirrings of the village always lure me straight to the terrace. A look out to sea tells me something about what is in store for the day. A calm day for snorkeling? A nice swell for body surfing? A good wind for sailing? That view of the Pacific with the beautiful town nestled up to it and rising up the hills behind is something I just can’t get enough of.
For me the view is always enough to lure me up and out and doing something in the water first thing has become something of a ritual. It might be a swim, or kayak, or maybe just a walk on the beach, but I like to reconnect with that ocean first thing every day. Today it was a day for kayaking. We have great equipment at the beach club here. Not that dumbed-down low-performance usually-out-of-order stuff that you so often find at hotels and rental places. We have real gear! And I don’t have to be the guy that takes care of it! I like to paddle out halfway to Flamingo and just sit there quietly and see what I notice. Usually I can count on a turtle, or some dolphins, or a manta coming to check me out. I am imaging that they actually know me now. Afterwards a walk through the village to gather fresh baked goods and fruit for Ginny and the children (and especially me!) is another ritual. Francois at the bakery always has a friendly word and comments on the local news – and has delicious chocolate croissants. Sr. Fernandez will have the day’s selection of fresh local fruits. And I can count on seeing a few early morning regulars, as well as an interesting collection of visitors. We morning people stick together.
By the time I’m headed home the young children are making their way to the town pre-school and the older ones are gathering at the bus stop for Country Day School.
After breakfast with the family I take some time for work. I’m still amazed at how effectively technology lets me be somewhere else – work wise – even when I’m here. What it can’t do, of course, is let me be here – living wise – when I am somewhere else.
Our fellow homeowners in Las Catalinas are a fascinating multi-national bunch. And while we are different in many ways we share one bond that seems to be quite profound, which is that this place – this beautiful, one of a kind, quirky place – is the place that captured our hearts enough to have us make it our home. Or at least our home away from home. And that seems to mean that we share a number of characteristics. We are passionate about nature – preserving it, enjoying it, and being a part of it. We passionately love being able to live a rich life here under our own power, on bike, foot, or boat, the great majority of the time. It makes us healthy, it makes us feel healthy, and it just seems to bond us to this place, and to each other. While most of us have accumulated some wealth (prices here have escalated so much that it would be hard to own here otherwise!), that certainly isn’t what defines us. We are a curious lot, and we enjoy the constant ebb and flow of visitors in the town, be they hotel guests, house guests, month-long renters, or tourists who have wandered over from Flamingo or some nearby place.
I love our house here. We are right in town, yet we have tremendous views. And with our courtyard, we even have plenty of privacy. But it is not the house that really makes this place for us. It is what lies outside our door. And that is the village of Las Catalinas and the incredible Costa Rican nature that lies right at the edge of town, and is even interwoven into the town. The town is absolutely seductive. Every street seems to lead to stunning view. Every little passageway seems to lead to a beautiful fountain in a piazza. Of course I can’t really get lost here anymore, but I still like to try! And where else can you find monkeys living in the big Guanacaste tree in the town square?
No can believe that this place has been built just over the last 10 years. It seems like it has been here for centuries! Until you get inside the houses, that is.
Anyway, back to my day. The family scattered after breakfast. Lucy and Charlotte had a race this morning with the town sailing club. McHenry went to the beach to play soccer with his pals at low tide. Ginny went to her workout. So after a morning of work I rode my bike out to the Sunset Bar on Punta Guachipelines for lunch. I knew half the people there, so I sat up at the bar and had a great time. Afterwards, nap time. We have this big swinging bed up on the upper terrace, looking straight out to the Catalina Islands. I love to take my guitar up there and play myself to sleep, which I did today, quite blissfully.
After naptime I had a meeting down at the town council office with the Zapotal Peninsula Trails Commission. We have hiking trails connecting everywhere through the area, and mountain bike trails too. Lots of bikes on the roads too – way more bikes than cars. A favorite ride is to do a loop of the Zapotal valley and then go to Ernesto’s Cantina in Guacamaya for lunch. Anyhow, the commission built the trails in the first place and now maintains them. I’ve enjoyed working on this, and it has been a nice way to connect with some folks in the other towns out here on the Peninsula.
Then Ginny and I hiked up to the ridge for sunset. I still can’t get used to how magical the sunsets are here. The place up on the ridge where we hike reminds us of where we got engaged on Mt. Tamalpais up above Stinson Beach. But warmer. And with monkeys. Then dinner at home. Then everyone was off for a stroll around town. It’s not quite the old Spanish tradition of the evening promenade. But it is close! We all love it. And each other. And this place.