The plan for Chicago.

The City Beautiful Movement of the 1890s was epitomized at the World Columbian

The Court of Honor and Grand Basin, 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair (Wikipedia 2014)

The Court of Honor and Grand Basin, 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair (Wikipedia 2014)

Exposition of 1893, which was held in Chicago and often referred to as the “White City” due to the coating of white paint on all the buildings.  Director of Construction Daniel H. Burnham brought in architects with backgrounds and training in the Beaux-Arts style to design the buildings of the city, the beautiful main court and, the open green spaces, all precepts of the City Beautiful Movement which stood in stark contrast to the urban blight of Chicago in the 1800s.

Burnham, one of the earliest of modern American city planners, was eulogized upon his death by Frank Lloyd Wright as  “…a great man (who) made masterful use of the methods and men of his time…an enthusiastic promoter of great construction enterprises…his powerful personality was supreme.”   He was an influential figure in Chicago architecture of the 1890s and along with Edward Bennett prepared the 1909 Plan of Chicago which was also know as “The Burnham Plan” due to his influence. The plan embodied the City Beautiful Movement ideals that cities should be clean, orderly, ornate, attractive places for all citizens and by so being would improve the lives of all, and served to expand upon the utopian design of The White City of 1893s Columbian Exposition.

Plan of Chicago, 1909 (Wikipedia, 2014)

Plan of Chicago, 1909 (Wikipedia, 2014)

Even though only portions of the Plan of Chicago have been realized it was very influential in reshaping Chicago’s inner core and the profession of planning as a whole.  Burnham’s plan included six major areas.

The first was improvement of the Chicago’s lakefront property so that it could be used by the public and become a place to gather and recreate.  This ideal reflects the open spaces valued by The City Beautiful influence.  Today, all but four of the 29 miles of lakefront in Chicago are public parks and open spaces.  In addition to the lakeshore the plan also recommended purchase and preservation of outlying areas, some of which was already underway in projects such as the Cook County Forest Preserves.

The plan proposed a regional highway system with Chicago at the center of a 75 square region.  This idea was very forward thinking given that the automobile was more a novelty that a necessity in 1909.  Perhaps due to the fact that it was way ahead of it’s time this portion of the plan has never been enacted and the routes of today do not follow what was proposed in 1909.

Great Hall of Chicago's Union Station, (Wikipedia, 2014)

Great Hall of Chicago’s Union Station, (Wikipedia, 2014)

Railroads at the dawn of the 20th century were the primary mode of transportation for freight, animals and goods and as such were an essential part of any large city.  The Plan of Chicago 1909 proposed that competing railways pool usage of tracks and consolidate depots from six to one in order to ease congestion.  A new Chicago Union Station was completed in 1929 and became the main depot.  However, none of the other six stations were closed.  There were also street cars and elevated railways that were built during this time.  The plan was optimistic and was summarized as follows in the 1962 Chicago Area Transportation Study. 

“With respect to transit facilities, his main attention was directed to enlarging the central business area and increasing the transit routes both above and below ground. The large number of routes shown on Map 18 illustrate the optimism of those times. This probably is to be expected. The streetcars of 1890 and the elevated lines constructed from 1895-1900 all represented the eager participation of private capital in street and elevated railway companies.”

Wider arterial streets were proposed by the plan as a means of relieving traffic congestion that was becoming more of an issue with the rapid growth that was occurring.  And, in a reflection of the design for Washington D.C. included a network of diagonal streets.  In response to the plan the city widened and extended Michigan Avenue, widened Roosevelt Road, and created Wacker Drive and Congress Parkway.  Following the First World War the use of the automobile accelerated rapidly and the plan’s highway designs were largely abandoned in favor of designs that allowed for the large scale daily use of automobiles that could not have been foreseen in 1908.

Burnham also proposed grand civic and cultural centers at the center of the new city.  This idea however, ran into opposition of city officials and judicial rulings forbidding new buildings with in the Grant Park area.  The libraries and museums that Burnham envisioned were eventually built but in other areas outside of the plan’s parameters.

The Plan of Chicago has been criticized due to its’ focus on the physical built environment and its’ attempt to create what some referred to as “A Paris on the Prairie” with little attention paid to the social issues such as poverty and slums that were a major problem in most large cites of the day.  The plan did however address the problem of increased infrastructure need in the face of a rapidly growing city and, even though it was largely abandoned due to The Great Depression, it continued to guide planners as they laid out the city of Chicago for years to come.

In addition to providing a guide for the planning of Chicago, the 1909 Plan of Chicago provided a great framework for those of us currently working in planning and gave us a template of a new way of thinking about planning as a comprehensive practice.

One thought on “The plan for Chicago.

  1. Hi Juli,

    It’s interesting to see the relationship between expositions and subsequent planning efforts. I would be interested to see if there’s a history on such relationships. In some ways, the Olympics presents a contemporary situation. Although there’s little these days that appears “comprehensive” in such Olympic village design and subsequent city plans — there does seem to be a symbiotic relationship between some villages and subsequent city infrastructure efforts (like light rail in Salt Lane City and the 2002 Winter Games).

    – Dean

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