Burnham’s plan for Chicago lives on today

By Lauren Kelly

This year marks the centennial anniversary of one of the most influential publications in Chicago history—Plan of Chicago, a city planning proposal by Daniel Burnham, co-authored by Edward H. Bennett.

In celebration of the anniversary, the Chicago Public Library chose Carl Smith’s biography of Burnham and his famous plan as the new “One Book, One Chicago” selection and is hosting events and panel discussions surrounding the topics of urban planning and Burnham’s legacy throughout the fall.

Burnham’s plan was dedicated to improving urban life and it influenced future developments in city designs, reshaping how cities worked and flowed. Chicago today is a direct product of Burnham and Bennett’s vision.

The plan had its critics when it was published 100 years ago, but I believe it has benefited Chicago immensely by improving the design of the city and the lives of those who inhabit it.

Plan of Chicago is “one of the most fascinating and significant documents in the history of urban planning,” Smith said in his book, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City.

Although there were many other designs proposed before Burnham’s came out in 1909, most of them were shortsighted, concerned with quick profits rather than quality of life. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city was rebuilt haphazardly and formlessly, with no coherent structure. Living conditions were unsanitary, miserable and dangerous and the street layout was confusing at best.

Not all of the ideas in Burnham’s text were implemented, but some accomplishments of Burnham’s plan include physical integration of public transportation and railways into the city, a systematic arrangement of streets—widening roads, expanding the boulevard system and creating diagonal streets—and development of centers of intellectual life, fostering the building of new spaces for The Field Museum and the Crerar Library.

However, Burnham’s most important contribution to Chicago were his efforts to keep the lakefront clear and undeveloped, something that is honored to this day. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s proposal to move the Children’s Museum from Navy Pier to Daley Bicentennial Plaza in Grant Park was met with a public outcry in 2006. Many Chicagoans feared that one exception to the rule would allow other organizations and companies to take over the designated public park space, eliminating the beautiful lakefront reserved for residents.

Burnham’s vision came at a time of rapid growth and industrialization.  Many urban people were leaving farms and migrating to cities, fueling manufacturing industries by providing a new labor force. According to Smith, Chicago had about 100 residents in 1830. By 1890, the city had more than 1 million inhabitants and by 1910, the population had grown to more than 2 million.

As Chicago grew to become the metropolis of the Midwest, it was clear the city needed a coherent design. Burnham and Bennett’s bold approach to urban design was exactly what was needed to reinvent the idea of what a city could be and how it could function.

Although Burnham, Bennett and the other plan contributors had vested commercial interests and worked to protect big businesses—things I don’t always agree with—they did propose ideas that would improve the living conditions of everyday people and workers.

A major strength of Plan of Chicago is its flexibility. It allowed for further growth by looking many decades ahead. The entire plan focused on the future, on what Chicago could be, exploring many possible ways to improve the lives of citizens—something it accomplished with grace.

Daniel Burnham’s legacy is seen throughout the city today, from the open lakefront to wide boulevards. He is a vital part of our city’s history and Smith’s portrait of him and his masterwork is more than deserving of the “One Book, One Chicago” recognition. Smith’s easy-to-read, yet comprehensive look at the plan that made Chicago what it is today is essential reading for every resident of this city.