How Chicago Could Have Become a “Paris on the Prairie”

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By the end of the 19th century, Chicago had become one of the largest cities in the world, and the fastest growing city in all of history. Having risen to prominence from trade between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, as well as through its role as hub of the nation’s railway-system, Chicago had grown from a town of 30,000 in 1850, to a metropolis of over 1.6 million inhabitants by 1900. But the rapid growth, combined with a lack of farsighted planning had made it a chaotic and inefficient city. It was engaged in a constant and seemingly hopeless battle against congestion, and had been left with too little public space for those seeking to escape its noisy and dirty streets. To address this, local architect Daniel Burnham diviced a grand and comprehensive plan, with the aim of transforming Chicago into a “Paris on the prairie”. The Plan of Chicago, or “The Burnham Plan” as it’s often known, was published in 1909, but to understand how it came to be, we need to go back 16 years, to The World’s Columbian Exposition. This was a grand fair held to showcase the latest trends in technology and design, and with over 25 million people coming to see it over its six month run, it was one of the most successful and influential of its kind. It took place in the city of Chicago, and the one responsible for its layout was no one else than Daniel Burnham. Spread over an area of almost 700 acres, the fair’s multitude of exhibition halls had been laid out as a gleaming white city, with ordered, classical facades, and novelties like electric lighting, which at the time was still new to most Americans. Being in stark contrast to the cities of its day, the Exposition provided a vision for the city of the future, and would have a huge impact on urban planning in the following decades. In fact, the White City had been so influential, that it helped spawn a whole movement of urban planning. Known as the City Beautiful Movement, it stressed the importance of beauty, and monumental grandeur as ways of creating civic pride and moral societies. It also championed a holistic approach to urban planning, generally incorporating a civic centre, parks, and grand boulevards to help the flow of traffic. Having gained national fame through his role in the exposition, Burnhams’ city-planning expertise would be heavily sought after in the following years. In 1901 he was tasked with re-envisioning and enlarging the original plan of Washington D.C., shaping much of its current appearance. This was followed in quick succession by work on cities like Cleveland, San Francisco, and even Manilla in the Philippines. But his city-planning career, and the City Beautiful Movement at large would reach its pinnacle with his plan for Chicago. It was commissioned in 1906 by a group of prominent businessmen known as the “Merchants Club”. The preparation of the plan would take three years, during which Burnham, as well as his co-author and collaborator on number of earlier projects, Edward H. Bennett, would carefully study the growth and planning of other large cities. By July of 1909 they were ready to present their findings, and did so in lavish book form. Daniel Burnham is famously quoted as saying “Make no little plans – they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” and in this case he’d certainly followed that rule. In the dreamy illustrations made by Jules Guérin, we can see a city of grand plazas, classical, monumental civic buildings, and streets seemingly radiating into infinity. The principal improvements proposed by the plan were summarized at the end of the book, in six points. The first was to improve the lakefront, only a quarter of which was available to the public when the plan was written. Burnham proposed extending the park-system all along the shoreline using landfill, writing in the plan that “The Lakefront by right belongs to the people,” and that “Not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to their exclusion.” But his vision for the area wasn’t entirely recreational. Since the city relied heavily on Great Lakes shipping, he also proposed the creation of extensive new piers and harbours. These however would be accessible to the public, with recreational areas cleverly integrated with the new slips and loading docks. The second point was to create a regional highway system, radiating out some 75 miles from the city. The plan also proposed improving the railways, for example by allowing competing railroads to pool usage of tracks for greater efficiency, and by consolidating various terminals into new complexes. Another point was to create new parks. This would partially be done by creating nature reserves on the outskirts of the city, but also by extending the inner boulevard system, and creating a series of parks along it. The fifth point called for the systematic arrangement of streets in order to beautify the city, and facilitate movement to and from the business district. To this end, new, wider arterials, as well as a network of diagonal streets, reminiscent of Haussmannian Paris, were prescribed. Finally, the last point called for the development of centers of intellectual life and of civic administration. This meant creating what is perhaps the most iconic image of the plan – Burnhams’ giant domed civic center. It would have been located right in the middle of the envisioned radial street network, with the city’s new downtown growing up around it. As for the centers of intellectual life, Burnham proposed creating a new cultural center in Grant Park, by the lake, consisting of the Field Museum of Natural History as well as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Crerar Library. With the plan completed and published in 1909, the question remained whether or not it would be implemented by the city, seeing as it had been commissioned by private individuals. In the end, it was never officially adopted, but it would nonetheless serve as the main inspiration for urban improvement up until the great depression. Change was initially slow, but a number of important projects envisioned in the plan would be carried out in the 1920s. The most noticeable was the creation of parks along the lakefront, which now cover all but four of its 29 mile stretch. Navy pier, which combines freights and passenger traffic with recreational space was also inspired by the plan. Other projects that were carried out include the creation of Chicago Union Station, as well as the widening and extension of many streets. What most notably would remain solely on paper was the civic center. With a new city hall under construction when the plan was being made, and the general consensus being that downtown should stay where it was, its creation was at the bottom of the city’s list of priorities. As automobiles became ever more common, its proposed site was instead eventually chosen for a massive intersection. Although the Burnham Plan has been criticized for its lack of attention to social issues, the parts that were carried out helped make the city more efficient, liveable, and beautiful, and aspects of it continue to guide Chicago’s planning to this day.

9 comments

  1. We don't see projects like this anymore. Modernists and post-modernists destroyed everything beautiful and aesthetic. Monstrosities everywhere. Brutalist abominations branding themselves as "elegant" try to use glass as an excuse for their evermore suffocating and dystopian designs. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but objective symmetry, aesthetics and elegance is universal regardless of culture. London for example looked more like a world capital during the German bombings than it does now with glass communist abominations polluting every sight.

  2. Once again, an incredibly interesting and high quality video. Hopefully the algorithm will pick you up soon, because you deserve more views than this.

  3. 6:42 "criticized for its lack of attention to social issues"? Every aspect of the plan addressed social issues. The modernistic "solutions" to social issues (as socialist issues) that were implemented all over the world instead were disasters.

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