Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago

Chicago is a two-faced kind of city. Northside versus Southside, Cubs and Sox. A city of condos, lofts, luxury apartments, housing projects, rough neighborhoods. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Blues. Daley I and Daley II: the first built the expressways, the Hancock, the Sears Tower, the second put up flower pots outside sidewalk cafes, created great public parks, and built riverwalks along the Chicago River. And, of course, the glory and splendor of our summers is offset by the bitter cold and mess of our winters.

In 1909, Daniel Burnham, Edward Bennett and the Commercial Club of Chicago published a magnificent and beautiful Plan for the city, which had been a rough western outpost not fifty years before and was now a teeming, dirty metropolis of millions. The city fathers and businessmen desperately wanted to imposed order on the pile of immigrants and factories, and the Plan of Chicago was their attempt.

The Plan proposed massive infrastructure changes in the city, and the authors sold their vision for the future in a sumptuous bound edition with luscious illustrations. Naturally, the city could only get half of the recommendations completed, but the Plan left an indelible mark on the physical makeup of the city to this day.

There is a great deal of contrast between the hazy ideal of 1909 and the reality of today. The Plan, for the most part, discussed roads, railways, and parks, and left out discussion of the people who would inhabit and use this new infrastructure. The illustrations show sweeping vistas where people are specks and residential blocks are nondescript blocks.

Today’s Chicago shows two faces. One is the result of the Plan: a gleaming city of glass among the clouds, miles of lakefront parks, and hundreds of miles of arterial roads. The other is where the Plan, and others, have come up short: a segregated city, a violent city, and an ineffective City Hall.

This piece, in a small way, is meant to reflect the contrast between ideal and reality, and the mix of harshness and beauty in both. It was written in 2009, the centenary of the publishing of the Plan, after I read The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City by Carl Smith.


Duration – 12 minutes





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