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The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the…

The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City

by Carl Smith

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The year 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago, and, boy, did Chicago celebrate. There were lectures and exhibits and installations. Smith's book, a revision of the interpretive digital essay he wrote for the electronic version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago, is the story of how it all came together.

The city was exploding. In the 20 years before the Chicago Fire, the population grew from 30,000 to ten times that. By the time of the plan's publication, it was two million. It was exploding in other ways as well. The conflict between labor unions and capital often erupted into violence. The urban poor were crowded into dense and unhealthy tenements. And the city was governed by what Smith calls a "profoundly crooked group" in the city council.

But the city was also home to a group of civically engaged businessmen, people like Montgomery Ward, who fought to keep the lakefront "forever open, clear and free". Through private civic organizations, the Commercial Club and the Merchants Club, they determined to create a plan to alter the city's built environment. And the man they hired to create this plan was Daniel Burnham.

Burnham was by no means an unknown. He was one of them. He had been the architect behind the "White City", Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893. He designed their homes and their office buildings. He was joined in the endeavor by Edward H. Bennett.

Much of what we see in Chicago today is the result of this plan. The lakefront and the Museum Campus, the Michigan Avenue bridge, that joined the streets on either side of the Chicago River, and so much more we owe to Burnham and Bennett's work.
1 vote lilithcat | Dec 31, 2009 |
Alright so as usual i finished another nerdy book to add to the pile of nerdy books sheleved in alphabetical order in my apartment. This book is one of those book i felt good reading since it may be the foundation book for the next year. You see this is the year in which i delve into that nefarious region that i have been skirting since i decided i wanted to go to college. You all know what i am talking about GRAD SCHOOL. Those two little words that once have been decided dominate your life.I will begin this journey this year as i prep myslef for the application process and GRE. Let the Fun Begin.
This book was a lot shorter than most books of this type. Mostly this is due to the fact that its origins are in fact rooted in the much touted Encyclopedia of Chicago that was published a few years back to mcuh applause. This book was in fact part of the overall piece and was put together as seperate piece for publication. This is a breif oeverview of the Original Plan of Chicago written by Burnham and Bennet at the Turn of the last century. This books deals with the origins of the book as an existension of an existing club at the time that worked towards to economic development of Chicago at the turn of the century. This book is a read about the development of the plan as a guideline for the future of Chicago the city as a place of business.
The author clearly states the plan dealt little with the people of Chicago as a whole but the picture of Chicago as a economic Landscape for the future generations. The book also deals with the media frrenzy that was created around the release of the book and the subsequent publications created from the Original Plan of Chicago. A good example of the use of medie to bring intellectual ideas to general understanding of general public.
It also gives an idea of how much of the Plan was not used in creating the city of Chicago as we know it. Much of what was used is often applauded , but was in fact ideas in place before the plan was even put together. Most of all it deals with the fact the much of what the Plan called for was in fact never really done to its fullest completion.
The main idea of the Plan of Chicago was that it would influence Urban Planning as one of the foundation books. IT deals with the city as a place where business, resources, and markets meet and clash. Instead of the chaos that was present in previuous idea we can start thinking ahead to the future of a city and its function in society. This was an idea to make a city of beauty and balance. As the ideas have evolved we look towards the people and city and how they interact. This book is a history of the Plan of Chicago and how it has influenced us into the present day. Worth the read short and sweet. ( )
  louisu | Aug 9, 2007 |
It's simply impossible to understand the importance of architect Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago without first looking at some pre-Plan statistics: for instance, the fact that from 1840 to 1900, the population of the city grew from 5,000 to over two million; that by then the city limits stretched over 180 square miles, including 3,000 miles of streets and 1,400 miles of alleys; that barely half of those streets were paved, and less than a tenth of the alleyways; that the city was still employing over 30,000 gas streetlamps by the turn of the century, with electricity still being relatively rare and expensive; that its citizens consumed half a billion gallons of water a day, all of it coming from Lake Michigan, the same place the city was dumping most of its garbage; that apart from the downtown Loop, the vast majority of the city's buildings were still constructed out of wood, as were most of the sidewalks; that in its poorest neighborhoods, population density was sometimes over 300 people per acre (versus the 10 per acre of the upper-class neighborhoods); that there were no zoning laws in those days, making it perfectly legal (for example) to construct a slaughterhouse next door to a residential neighborhood; that the city had no real sewage system to speak of, no park system, no library system, only the most rudimentary of school systems. When people referred to the "cesspool of urban living" in those days, they weren't joking; like most other big cities during the height of the Industrial Age, Chicago in the 1800s was a veritable petri dish of smog, filth, disease and danger.

It was a combination of these factors, in fact, that led to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, in which a third of the existing city was burnt beyond recognition, including the entire downtown business district; but those blowhard Chicagoans, God bless their stubborn souls, weren't about to let a little thing like their city burning to the ground get in the way of their plans, and it was in the shadow of these events that the Commercial Club of Chicago first decided to take on the challenge of rebuilding the city, of transforming it into something no one had ever seen before. There was a lot of that going on in those days, as a matter of fact -- between the City Beautiful movement of the late 1800s, the Progressive social reformers, the brand-new academic field of "city planning," and all those high-minded private civic organizations that existed back then, practically everyone and their mother had a plan for how to rebuild Chicago, with all of them vying not just for the public's attention but also the official support of the city government. And thus did the club hire Burnham to make them their own plan; and as traditional lore has it, was met with crowning enthusiasm and the warm handshake of the city council, leading to the quick implementation of most of its recommendations.

Ah, but according to historian Carl Smith in his wonderful new The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, how we traditionally think of the Plan and its implementation couldn't be further from the truth of what actually happened: that the plan itself was much more controversial than history now remembers, that its inspiration came much more from a desire to keep the city's wealthy elite happy than from any high-minded civic ideals, and that indeed the Plan would never have been adopted by the city in the first place if not for the spectacularly expensive public-relations campaign the Commercial Club waged for decades, including literally throwing local politicians out of office who wouldn't support it, as well as convincing the public school system to make the Plan required reading for every single student in Chicago (which wasn't that difficult, seeing how the Superintendent of Schools also happened to be a club member).

In fact, that might be the first really surprising thing one learns about the Plan from reading this volume, that it wasn't the government at all that commissioned it but rather a private organization; a souped-up version of a chamber of commerce, if you will, one that still exists to this day, and one so powerful in its heyday that American Presidents would literally seek them out when visiting the city. Hey, it was the Victorian Age, what can you say? It was a time before labor unions, a time before government regulation and oversight, a time when industrial barons like George Pullman could afford to literally build entire cities that they exclusively owned. More so than even our modern times (and that's saying quite a bit), back at the turn of the 20th century it seemed as though the rich really did run everything, from the schools to the scientific community, even the government itself.

And as Smith meticulously shows in The Plan of Chicago through old correspondence and the like, even Burnham himself was not immune to this mindset; that in fact he saw his Plan as primarily a tool for keeping the rich living in Chicago and spending their money here, with the "trickle-down effect" of that spending eventually helping the poor as well. It's a legitimately controversial position for Smith to take, given how both history and the average Chicago citizen likes to look back on Burnham and the Plan; of his fabled "make no little plans" speech, his dedication to parks in working-class neighborhoods and the like. And make no mistake, Burnham sincerely was interested in civic topics and the betterment of the lower classes; but as Smith shows, Burnham also believed that such high-minded plans were of no use if there were no rich people around to pay for them.

In fact, Smith successfully argues in his book that Burnham maybe wasn't that interested in human beings at all, when all is said and done; that a common complaint of the Plan back in the day was of how rigid and grandiose it all was, and how it didn't even for a moment contemplate the idea of human-sized architecture, of small and livable neighborhoods. And indeed, if you look through the lush illustrations that the Commercial Club commissioned to go with the Plan, there's a lot to be said for this -- how humans are barely even depicted in the drawings and paintings, appearing as insignificant dots most of the time that they appear at all, with the massive edifices the Plan calls for taking dominance instead. But then again, very similar plans had actually been put into place recently in Paris, Washington DC and other cities, and seemed to be going fine there; and in an age where there had been no cohesive city planning at all previously, perhaps the lofty, grand scope of Burnham's vision can be forgiven.

Smith's Plan of Chicago is a great complement to Burnham's Plan of Chicago, a perfect companion to the original tome for anyone who ends up reading it too; far from being just a critical look at the plan itself, Smith's book details the state of the city at the time that led to such a plan, the massive amount of resources that went into publicizing the Plan, and the various long-term effects the Plan has ended up having on Chicago overall. And that, when all is said and done, might be the most interesting part of the story of all; because even though only a portion of Burnham's specific recommendations ended up actually being enacted, a strong argument could be made that such modern things as the city's zoning commission, the various historic and preservationist groups that now exist, and even Chicago's current obsession with bicycles, can all somehow be traced back in one way or another to Burnham and his original utopian vision. Although many of us now take the relative cleanliness and safety of big cities for granted, Smith's book really opens one's eyes to just how much hard work went into creating such urban environments in the first place, and how much of a debt we owe people like Burnham for laying the groundwork. The impossible dreams such people had a century ago have now actually come to life in our modern times; and who knows what Chicago has in store for itself a century from now? As long as there are still "souls to stir," as Burnham put it, I'm sure it'll be a very exciting place indeed.

Out of 10: 9.0 ( )
1 vote jasonpettus | Jun 13, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226764729, Paperback)

Arguably the most influential document in the history of urban planning, Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, coauthored by Edward Bennett and produced in collaboration with the Commercial Club of Chicago, proposed many of the city’s most distinctive features. Carl Smith’s fascinating history reveals the Plan’s central role in shaping the ways people envision the cityscape and urban life itself.

His concise and accessible narrative begins with a survey of Chicago’s stunning rise from a tiny frontier settlement to the nation’s second-largest city. He then offers an illuminating exploration of the Plan’s creation and reveals how it embodies the renowned architect’s belief that cities can and must be remade for the better. Smith points out the ways the Plan continues to influence debates, even a century after its publication, about how to create a vibrant and habitable urban environment.

Richly illustrated and incisively written, this insightful book will be indispensable to our understanding of Chicago, Burnham, and the emergence of the modern city.
“An imaginative, beautifully produced, and visually appealing masterpiece of stirring prose and stunning illustration. . . . Carl Smith’s book is a concise, splendidly accessible, and beautifully constructed introduction to a seminal work of American urban planning and its enduring influence on Chicago and other American cities.”—William Bryk, New York Sun

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:32 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Arguably the most influential document in the history of urban planning, Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago, coauthored by Edward Bennett and produced in collaboration with the Commercial Club of Chicago, proposed many of the city's most distinctive features, including its lakefront parks and roadways, the Magnificent Mile, and Navy Pier. Carl Smith's fascinating history reveals the Plan's central role in shaping the ways people envision the cityscape and urban life itself. Smith's concise and accessible narrative begins with a survey of Chicago's stunning rise from a tiny frontier settleme.… (more)

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