MUP Alumni in Action

Michael Butler, Donna Madey Butler

MUP - 1994

Eco-Travel Entrepreneur

On the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica, two Wagner urban planning graduates have created a unique, environmentally sustainable haven. Nestled in the rainforest, on the border of a national park, sits a pristine nature preserve and adventure camp accessible only by boat. Donna and Michael Butler moved to Costa Rica eight years ago, shortly after they were married, and bought 165 acres of land on the Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf) that had once been a cocoa farm. At the time they bought it, most of the land had returned to its natural state and the Butlers intended to keep it that way. Combining principles of both conservation and eco-tourism, they spent the next two years building the Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge, a small, sensitively designed nature retreat and adventure travel destination.

What are two urban planners from New York doing running an eco-lodge? It actually makes quite a lot of sense when you put each of them together. Michael has a background in urban planning, community development and real estate. While at Wagner he worked on an affordable housing project in Colombia and after graduating, he did economic development work with Latino communities in the South Bronx and Queens. He has also worked at an environmental impact planning company. He fell in love with Central America while backpacking there years ago and has been drawn to it ever since. Donna’s background is in open space preservation, park planning and trail design. She has worked in Colorado running a quasi governmental land trust and for New York State on the master plan for Sterling Forrest. The couple’s combined skill set makes them a strong team for the venture they began in 2001.

The pair spent one year planning and designing and one year building what has been described by Fodor’s as “the best lodge on the gulf” and as a “a family-friendly experiential eco-lodge in one of the most unique locales in the world" by Canada’s National Post. “We were doing a lot of planning,” says Michael, recalling the first steps, “land use planning and design – we basically have a little village here.” The resort can accommodate up to twenty four guests and houses eighteen employees. The Butlers lived on site during construction and put careful thought into every decision. “As we were building we wanted to have as little impact as possible and to use alternative energy sources. We placed all buildings in places where we didn’t have to cut any trees,” says Michael. Donna explains, “we didn’t want to cut anything down and we didn’t have to. We designed the buildings to meet the landscape as opposed to cutting down the landscape to meet our design.” The structures of the inn are located on only 3% of the total property and all were constructed using wood from either naturally fallen trees or farmed ones. The roof tiles are made of recycled plastic from banana bags.

The Butlers installed solar energy panels and they use a back-up generator when there isn’t enough sun. The generator used to run on diesel but “now it’s run on vegetable oil so we’re currently running on one hundred percent clean energy,” says Michael. Last year they built a solar drying room for the laundry so they no longer need to use dryers. The resort also recycles, composts, uses energy efficient lights and appliances, organic and biodegradable products, and has a rain water management system.

The Butlers also work to ensure that Playa Nicuesa supports the local community. Ninety-eight percent of their employees are from the local area and they source all food and supplies from nearby towns. They purchase carbon credits to offset their use of fossil fuel, through which they helped purchase and reforest property in the Osa Pennsula (on which the lodge is located) to compensate for the resort’s carbon footprint. Currently, Playa Nicuesa is in the process of becoming a certified Carbon Neutral Business.

Additionally, Michael and Donna do what they can to educate the guests who come through the resort. “There’s always a balance between the customers’ demands and sticking to sustainable principles,” says Michael. “You’re not going to have lighting like you have at the Hilton.” Nevertheless, educating guests is always satisfying. “Some people come here and are already really green,” Michael says, “but we’re in a much different environment so we can really be a laboratory and experiment. Some people come who don’t know anything [about sustainability] and they get very excited about it by the time they go home.”

The Butlers get excited about their own initiatives as well. “There are always fun projects to make us more environmentally sound and make guests enjoy their stay even more,” Michael continues. But because the lodge is only accessible by water, “everything costs money. It all has to come by boat,” he explains. “Hopefully in the long-term you save money, but you have to really want to do each project.”

The projects the Butlers have undertaken at Playa Nicuesa certainly seem to be worth the effort. The lodge’s website ( lists rave reviews from numerous travel guides and magazines including Lonely Planet and Conde Nast Traveler. And judging from the smiling faces in the pictures of past guests, the lodge is a haven that engenders joy and pure life – or as the Costa Ricans say, “Pura Vida.”