Making urban plans, and history
See Illinois (unpublished)
For nearly a century after the 1830s, “plan” was not the word usually associated with Chicago. “Chaos” was the word most often used to describe the effect on the city of one of the fastest urban expansions in history. Chicago was forever trying to catch up with itself.
Urban planning and sociology were not Chicago inventions, nor were the conditions that gave rise to them unique to the Windy City, but urban planning and sociology owe much to the city nonetheless. For one thing, Chicago gave the world the World Columbian Exposition, which introduced planning principles that influenced urban planning in the U.S. for good and ill for decades. For another, Chicago authored perhaps the best-known of the City Beautiful plans—the Chicago Plan of 1909, more popularly (and less accurately) known as the Burnham Plan—that was Chicago’s attempt to make real the ideals expressed in the exposition. And as James Gilbert summarized neatly in Perfect Cities about that era, “It is no wonder that this roiling and contradictory movement should also give rise to the beginnings of American urban sociology, and in particular at the University of Chicago in the 1890s. There, in the gray stone city, pioneer intellectuals worked diligently to make their observations into the basis of a new conception of the city and society itself.”
I often took up the Burnham Plan as a topic. My definitive statement on it is here.
The Plan of Chicago from 1909, the “Burnham Plan,” was a product one way or another of the hands of many of the same men who created that temporary utopia by the lake in 1894. The principal author was, of course, Daniel H. Burnham, who thus attempted to apply the lessons he learned as chief organizer of the 1893 World's Columbian exposition, a bold attempt to realize in an actual city the ideals of civic order, efficiency, and beauty expressed by the fairgrounds.
Burnham’s plan was the ultimate expression of the cultural and civic boosterism that had been going on since the Great Fire OF 1871. It was the ideal version of Chicago’s reinvented self; having largely disappeared in the flames, the city sought to come back not as Chicago but as Paris. Many of its prescriptions—neoclassical buildings with a uniform cornice line, for example—were taken from that city.
Historians disagree about the merits of the ”Chicago Plan” of 1909, but no one disputes its ambition. It imagined a Chicago with broad new boulevards, a beltway road and park system around the city, monumental, indeed massive civic buildings and plazas, and the rationalized rail and water systems.
Chicago has been patting itself on the back for a century because of its daring in adopting the Plan, but Burnham had been peddling such nostrums for years. Before Chicago adopted its version of City Burnhamian, such plans had been adopted by Washington DC (1902), Cleveland (1903), Manila (1904), and San Francisco (1905).
Nor is the 1909 Plan as original or as decisive in its effects as its reputation suggests. It incorporated many proposals already made by progressive improvers; for example, it incorporated the ideas of the playground movement that had sprung up few years earlier in Chicago. A system of upgraded landscaped boulevards and parks was already in place (the earliest dating from 1869); the Plan merely endorsed its expansion. And much of what the Plan prescribed was never built, or has not survived in its intended form. A good example is the connected park drives designed for the carriage traffic along the lakefront; by the time the last segment of Burnham's lakefront pleasure drive was finished in the early 1930s, Lake Shore Drive was well on its way to becoming today's automobile quasi-expressway.
The point of the plan was to forestall commerce from becoming the symbolic heart of the city. but the city never mustered the will to rein in developers. Attempts to restrict building height along the new avenues laid out by the Plan were doomed by the commercial imperative. Realizing the potential of high-priced land meant cramming more building square feet in each acre; the result was buildings that were taller but with smaller footprints than those imagined by Burnham. (And designed by Burnham; his firm’s Insurance Exchange Building at Jackson and Financial in the Loop offers a glimpse of what the post-1909 downtown would have looked like.) The only new buildings that observed the height limit were the city’s own City Hall (its seventh) and the adjoining County Building, which were finished in 1911. Only a short segment of the Plan's double-deck riverbank boulevards (today’s Wacker Drive) was built. The Burnham Civic Center—a complex of five public buildings arrayed around a gigantic domed City Hall proposed for Congress and Halsted—was never built; this hoped-for new symbolic heart of the city has been since the 1960s a crossroads of three expressways. Indeed, so much wasn’t built that it seems generous to talk about the Plan as having been implemented at all.
The failure to make real more of the Burnham Plan has saved historians having to point out that much of what Burnham proposed probably should not have been built. The essential vision of Burnham’s City Beautiful is revealed in the credo he reiterated time and again: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” One charge which could never be leveled against Daniel Burnham was that his plan was little. Burnham was inspired by the Tuileries, the Place de la Concorde, the Champs Elysées leading up to the Arc de Triomphe in the heart of Paris. But in grant park he prescribed a park more than three times the width of the Tuileries. That left a grounds remote from the Loop that, as David Lowe noted, “might provide some spectacular vistas, but it was scarcely an inviting prospect for the casual stroller.”
What is surprising however is not that all of its schemes were not made real but that any of them were. Some $300 million worth was spent on such proposals as the North Michigan Avenue Bridge, which was finally opened in 1920. One of the proposed 3,000-foot piers into the lake off the Loop—now known as Navy Pier—was built. A string of landfill islands and peninsulas along the eight miles connecting the former fair site at Jackson Park with Grant Park downtown was at least partially built; Northerly Island was born, to become in 1933–34 the site of the Century of Progress Exposition and later the site of Meigs Field.
The Depression brought low Chicagoland’s economy; projects that the city could no longer afford to pay for—boulevards and bridges, public transportation and sewers—were completed only thanks to New Deal public works spending. Many of the city most familiar and most beloved landmarks owe to this intervention by Washington—Lincoln Park from Montrose Avenue (4400N) to Foster Avenue (5200N) (built in 1930–32) Lake Shore Drive between Belmont and Foster, the bridge that carries Lake Shore Drive over the Chicago River.
More than beauty
The Plan was much more than a beautification scheme. It had social aims that many find pernicious. It sought to achieve an end that still tantalizes Chicago’s mayors—how to keep the middle class in the city. A desirable end in itself, but the means were problematic; the Chicago envisioned by db and endorsed by his class showed none of the teeming immigrant neighborhoods, for example. Burnham had come up with a plan to “bring order out of chaos“ as he put it. But whose order? To what end? Those broad boulevards, borrowed from Hausmann’s plan for Paris would have made it easier for troops and police to move about the city from new bases such as Fort Sheridan. Peter Hall is only one of the critics to point out the oddity of a democratic society embracing plans favored by imperial powers and Europe’s dictators of the 1930s.
The larger object of the Plan’s authors was to make the city safe for themselves. Carl Smith, in his 2006 book, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, pointed out that the Plan called for drastic methods to deal with the filth in factory districts that was killing not only commerce but the people who lived there. “What it did not and could not propose,” Smith writes, “was that its businessmen-sponsors alter the ways their firms did business, which lay at the root of most of the city’s ills.”
Still, the Burnham Plan did have some of its hoped-for rejuvenating effects, even if nearly a century too late. Chicago’s lakefront again hosts a White City made of gleaming temples to upper-middle consumer culture arrayed along immaculately landscaped boulevards, in the form of the downtown lakefront concocted for tourists and conventioneers. Cultural historian Neil Harris’s description of the White City—“European-like boulevards, canals with gondolas and gondoliers, escorting elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen....an upper middle class festival—that, save for the fact that the people on the tourist boats no longer dress elegantly, indeed often hardly dress at all—precisely describes today’s tourist-friendly Chicago.
Making lots of plans
The 1909 Plan led to formation of the private (mostly business) Chicago Plan Commission, but it was not until 1939 that the group was made an official part of the city government. This private role is little diminished even today; the city's planners are generally decried as reactive, tending to the nuts and bolts while the large-scale projects a la 1909 are worked out almost entirely in the political realm, usually after being initiated by business interests.
Chicago may not always have obeyed Burnham’s injunction to make no little plans, but it certainly makes plenty of them. Four major ones published between 1946 and 1973, all to do with the central business district, all backed to various extents by business groups advised by academics. Not all these plans were implemented, of course, including some that should have been (putting the new campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago on a parcel of property east of the Chicago River and south of Congress Parkway), some that shouldn’t have been ( replacing the elevated loop), and some that are still in the drawing boards—the system of central area subways and a distributor subway to link the edges of the central business district.
A new generation of planning-sensitive developers and public officials have realized that in the 1980s and '90s, "quality of life" sells. Chicago's monied urban middle class may be more familiar with the suburbs rather than with Paris, but that experience still gave them expectations that the gritty old Chicago could not meet. Thus has history validated the commercial promise of the City Beautiful ethic.
The younger Mayor Daley has been busy implementing ideas that were first presented to his father—expanding the central business district west of the Chicago River and east of Michigan Avenue, a lakefront convention center, a South Loop New Town on reclaimed railroad land, and more recreational open space along the riverfront. He build a deck over the Monroe Parking Lot with landscaping, deactivated Meigs Field and converted it into Northerly Island Park, and building a permanent band shell north of the AI. (The Petrillo Bandshell, standing in its present form since 1978, is technically a temporary structure.)
However, the city is not only its downtown and lakefront, even if its is the only part of the city that its civic elites tend to know. While Chicago leaders have kept alive their infatuation with turn-of-the-twentieth-century City Beautiful ideals, cities and city planning has moved on. In 1946 Chicago got its first master plan of the modern type, more inclusive and more detailed than the 1909 plan but still rigidly project-oriented. By the 1960s, mainstream city planning was technical, based on policies rather than projects, capable of dealing with different scales from the block to the region, flexible (often promiscuously so when it came to development), with provision for public input rather than the top-down approach embodied in 1909. In 1966 the city's Comprehensive Plan of 1966 addressed matters wholly ignored by the Plan: schools, housing, (the 1909 solution to slums was essentially hygienic), public safety, and health. (That concern still preoccupies City Hall; in early 1993 Mayor Daley urged a system of cul-de-sacs as a weapon against street crime.)
Burnham nonetheless is still trotted out whenever a mayor wants to build something big, whether it is wise or not. “Fronting a giant public project was the highest form of status in the city,” wrote historian Ross Miller. “Since the World’s Columbian Exposition . . . the city had been obsessed with comprehensive plans . . . . It’s the lost Atlantis to which all subsequent planning longingly refers.”
However, the fact is that it's been a long time since urbanists looked to Chicago for what's new in the way of planning. Chicagoland’s great urban plans—Riverside, Pullman, Burnham Park Forest, the IIT/Reese area—were not drawn up in City Hall but by private interests or quasi-public agencies acting on private interests behalf. The record of public agency planning in contrast is woeful, as evidenced by the siting of Soldier Field on the lakefront and the siting of the John Hancock on North Michigan Avenue (which spurred the Manhattanization of that once-elegant avenue) and the catastrophic failure of the planned cities for the poor known as housing projects.
The results remind us that the city was forever failing to put things where they should have been put, which meant that they were forever putting things were they shouldn’t have been put. What became McCormick Place had originally been proposed by the old South Side Planning Board for the south side of Cermak Road between King Drive and Michigan Avenue. City Hall however wanted it on the lakefront, two and a half miles from the center of the Loop. Building historian Carl Condit—who has hardly been alone in his scorn—called the decision to put the massive structure in Burnham Park “a barbarous denial of everything that Burnham stood for as a planner.” (Protesters had two chances to persuade the city to relocate, before it was built and before it was rebuilt after its destruction by fire in 1967; Daley ignored both.)
In the 1950s, Chicago still lacked a first-rate public university. The University of Illinois maintained medical schools but it was not until 1946 that the university opened classrooms for general students in Chicago, and that was merely a two-year program held on Navy Pier. It was not until 1964 that a full branch of the university was established.
A proper university needed a proper campus. Land south of the Loop could have been freed for redevelopment in the 1950s if the railroads still entering the Loop from the south had abandoned their separate stations and yards as had been the purpose of the Union Station project. The South Loop would have made a perfect permanent campus for an expanded U of I. Alas, the railroads dawdled, and the city shrank from taking the land, and the university could not wait forever.
The university ended up building in Little Italy, a still-viable neighborhood near the “Chicago Circle" expressway interchange wet of the Loop. (In 1982 what was then known as the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle was merged with the university’s long-established medical campus on the West Side to become the University of Illinois at Chicago.) Bad as the Little Italy was as a site, the city nearly picked worse ones; Condit recalls that officials at various times considered putting UIC—astonishingly—in a Maywood forest preserve, on Northerly Island (site of Meigs Field), and in Garfield Park.
Chicago's status as an urban laboratory in the 1990s may be divined from the decision of the reformist Civic Federation—the same outfit that pushed the 1909 plan—to hire William Hudnut as its president, in the hope that the man who used to be mayor of Indianapolis would have something to teach Chicago.
The New Burnhamites
One of the aspects of the Burnham Plan that survives is his regional perspective on development. Just as the World’s Columbian Exposition was Chicago elites’ solution to the problems caused by the factory city, so that same class has offered its own updated “White City” as an alternative to, or rather a rationalization of, the postwar mall city.
In 1996, business and civic leaders of The Commercial Club of Chicago undertook to examine how Chicagoland might be made a decent place to live and work into the 21st century. Their plan, published two later, was titled Chicago Metropolis 2020. It is in fact less a plan than a set of essentially Burnhamian precepts applied to the auto age in what had become today's Chicagoland.
In the century between the Plan of Chicago and Chicago Metropolis 2020, history had changed the terms of the argument about what kind of city Chicago was to be. Centralization was the bane in 1909, decentralization had by 1999 gone too far in other direction. Most of the city’s civic elites now live in the suburbs, so their attention has been turned from the slums to sprawl.
Diversity of class and culture—immigration in new guise—was at the heart of the new plan as it had been of the old one. The difference is that, where the aim of the Burnham plan was to get the middle class to stay in the city in spite of the immigrants, the 2020 plan was to somehow get today’s immigrants to leave the city for at least a few hours each day, to jobs in the suburbs.
The dilemmas of the 1890s city were dire. It is a stretch to argue that Chicagoland in 2000 was in such a bad state. Indeed by most measures Chicago was its healthiest in decades—a modest population boost, a robust economy, a much cleaner environment, social peace. Whether Chicago Metropolis 2020 will prove to be, as one booster put it, “an inspiring guide for the new century,” remains to be seen. Its broader aims are to reduce social inequality, improve government efficiency, smooth out of bumps in the road in transportation systems, preserve local ecosystems and history. It is as ambitious in its aims as it is modest in its prescriptions. Providing a good educational system and a fair and efficient tax system—to name perhaps the most ambitious of its hopes—will make building Wacker Drive or the lakefront look like child’s play. ●