The Kalu Yala Blog

Kalu Yala Roots Series: Possibilities of Place

November 17, 2010

by Kimberly Kyle Hall
Posted In: Designing the Village, Our Global Community, Voices of Kalu Yala

Stefanos Polyzoides

“Having a future means building with a purpose,” on May 18th world-renowned planner and architect, Stefanos Polyzoides, started us on our journey talking about the past, present and future of our built environment. Where have we come from? What are the current trends? Where should we be headed? Known for his strong stance on decreasing our dependence on cars, Stefanos spoke optimistically about the possibilities of place, for now and the future.


Stefanos identified areas he felt most deeply hindered our current ability as a country to be sustainable. Naturally, we need to understand how our current systems are unsustainable before we can start moving in the right direction.


For 20 years Stefanos, his partners and other experts in the field have been working on an urbanist approach to these issues. There is a way of building towns and cities where “walkability, mix of use, mix of architectural types, access to nature, services and transit” allow for places that create a citizen that is engaged in the sustainability of the future of the place they live in. Stefanos and his partner, Elizabeth Moule co-founded the Congress for New Urbanism, which has grown to become one of the most influential planning groups in the country. They utilize tools such as the transect, a concept that shows the range of possibilities from pure conservation of land to the denser urban environment.

planning CNU

The urban-to-rural transect is an urban planning model created by New Urbanist Andrés Duany. The transect defines a series of zones that transition from sparse rural farmhouses to the dense urban core.

The transect stands in direct contrast to the suburban model of planning where single-uses (residential, commericial, etc.) are separated from one another requiring the need for long-distance travel and major road ateries. Additional New Urbanist design principles include “interconnectivity,” public realm formation, compactness, diversity and frugality. Theses design principles aim to reduce congestion of traffic, proper planning of not just the buildings themselves but the space between them, and providing people with more options for where they can live or work.


Panama's original city center, Casco Viejo, was influenced by the Law of the Indies

Stefanos recognizes that creating a place like Kalu Yala is an immense task. He asks, “How do we end up a species who lives with nature instead of destroyers?” Growing up in Greece, Stefanos had the opportunity to see and study places in Europe where the people are able to live as stewards of their natural surroundings. There are two laws or “ideals” that have profoundly influenced the planning of these types of villages. From the 1670′s through the late 19th century, the Spanish crown built 2,500 towns in Central, South and North America under the Law of the Indies.  The purpose of creating the law came from the discovery of the advantages of the plan to put forth the importance of Spanish crown over the locals. What is currently the historic neighborhood of Casco Viejo in Panama City was the city center and was also built influenced by the Law of the Indies. Stefanos explained the basic concept behind the law as “slow urbanism,” where the private sector works to build spaces for homes and business while the State focuses on building public spaces. The block system within this type of planning also allowed for flexibility as it can accommodate many different types of buildings.


With the groundwork for planning a village laid, Stefanos moved on to talk about the precedents behind the architecture of the buildings itself and how those buildings together form an urbanism. Along with George Moreno, Stefanos has done some extensive research on the history of architecture in Panama using patterns he finds to create a new and original architectural style for Kalu Yala, based upon the traditions of building in Panama.

What does it actually take to make people feel that they love a place and want to be part of it? What kinds of rules, planning and finance to make such places possible? What does this take to make this possible in Panamanian society? As thought provoking as Stefanos’ questions during his conclusion were, a statement he made just before he ended his presentation stuck with the me, reminding many of us on the team again what it meant to be part of this project. “Just think of where you spend your vacations and why. You go there because people made the choice to leave and grow their world based on some kind of pattern that was truth to them and them alone.” – Stefanos Ployzoides

2 Responses to “Kalu Yala Roots Series: Possibilities of Place”

  1. Stefanos thought process really connects to a current project I am quite familiar with. Currently, sustainable island real estate is being developed on Isla Palenque in Panama. Their goal is to tread on the ground lightly and preserve the islands natural surroundings while providing excellent luxury accommodations. They even have plans to utilize organic farms on the island to provide superb produce to the islands inhabitants. It’s refreshing to hear that there is a growing concern to protect nature through development.

  2. Kimberly says:

    Thanks for posting. I have been hearing so much about Isla Palenque – we are so happy that there are other projects who have a similar mindset – the awareness for this type of lifestyle in Panama is really on the rise