“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood……”
From the Plan of Chicago to Planning Chicago
The 1909 Plan of Chicago was the city’s first comprehensive plan. Authors Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett lauded Chicago for its phenomenal growth over the past seven decades. They warned that growth had created serious problems that must be solved for Chicago to continue to maintain its competitive economic position as a commercial city.
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Substantial coordinated change to the built environment was needed to improve the transportation networks that had made Chicago a key manufacturing and mercantile hub. Improvements to the Lake front and the city’s system of parks were needed to enhance the living conditions of a growing population of wage-earners and to encourage the wealthy to spend their money in Chicago. The development of centers of intellectual and civic life were necessary to foster a greater sense of coherence and unity among Chicago’s diverse population. Although Chicago’s subsequent growth followed only some of the pathways advocated in the Plan, the planners did succeed in making planning and Chicago synonymous.
In their 2013 Planning Chicago, Roosevelt University authors D. Bradford Hunt and Jon B. DeVries note that the city has not had a comprehensive plan since 1966. Pundits and politicians characterize Chicago as a tale of two cities beset by demographic, economic and political problems. Hunt and DeVries point out that this over simplification misses the interconnections between the central city and the neighborhoods. To set the city on a sustainable path, they argue that Chicago must move beyond planning as a project by project, available funding driven exercise and again develop and implement a visionary comprehensive plan.
The first Plan of Chicago did provide a unifying vision of the future. It became a touchstone for discourse on the transformation of Chicago’s built environment, a discourse that began decades before the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition and continues into the present. The Plan emphasized basic principles that still apply when contemplating a vision for a next comprehensive plan: it must prepare the city for a distant future, be economically viable, and share its bounty equitably among the mass of the population.
From a special penthouse built atop the Railway Exchange Building (now Motorola) the authors of the Plan of Chicago and their sponsors in the Commercial Club looked out over a city beset with serious problems and limitless opportunities. Manufacturing and mercantile expansion accompanied by rapid population growth was creating great wealth along with unacceptable congestion, pollution, and slums.
Chicago had accomplished impressive public works in its short history, including raising its streets and buildings out of the mud to improve drainage, constructing a water works and building the Sanitary and Ship Canal to reverse the flow of the Chicago River to purify the city’s Lake Michigan drinking water. The recent World’s Columbian Exposition had presented a scaled down version of what Chicago could become. It was now time to execute substantial and comprehensive change to the city’s built environment to enhance the wealth and well-being of its people.
It would take several hundred formal meetings and 30 months to conceptualize and write the Plan of Chicago published on July 4, 1909. The Plan was approved by the city and Mayor Busse appointed 328 men to serve on the Chicago Plan Committee with Charles Wacker as chairman. Wacker hired Walter D. Moody to lead a public relations campaign to convince the community as a whole that the Plan would secure Chicago’s future. The campaign included lectures and slide shows in every available venue and active lobbying of public and private interests. Moody wrote Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago and arranged to have it included in the eighth grade curriculum of the public schools through the 1920s.
Moody believed that educating our children to their responsibilities as the future owners of Chicago was central to solving the major problems the city faced. Although Daniel Burnham died in 1912, Edward Bennett remained involved in the planning within Chicago government through the 1930’s.
The Plan’s key recommendations were to improve the Lake front, relocate railway terminals to redirect the flow of freight and passenger traffic, develop a system of highways outside the city, create parkway circuits and systematically arrange streets and avenues within the city to facilitate movement to and from the business district, and develop centers of intellectual life and civic administration to give coherence and unity to the city.
Chicago at the turn of the century
Chicago in 1909 did not look like the city proposed and illustrated in the Plan of Chicago. The city had grown at the intersection of Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and the railroads. It was the mercantile hub connecting eastern capital with the western hinterlands. Chicago’s population and wealth grew with commodity trade in cattle and hogs, lumber and grain. Population exploded from some 300,000 in 1870 to 1.7 million in 1900. There was sufficient land and potential markets for continued growth. By various estimates population could grow to 7 million or even 13.5 million by the 1950s.
The railroads and grain elevators still dominated the main branch of the Chicago River.
The Illinois Central entered the city from the south and the Chicago and Northwestern from the west. South Water Street on the south bank of the river was the city’s grocery market. Potter Palmer had earlier moved the retail district from its east-west axis along Lake Street to a widened and now bustling State Street.
Swivel bridges for railroad and public traffic spanned the river. The Rush Street Bridge was a major avenue for north-south traffic.
Lumber yards had initially stretched for 12 miles along the South Branch. The Union Stock Yards, established in 1865 and spread out along Halsted Street southwest of the business district, was the center of the city’s slaughtering and meat packing industry.
The Board of Trade, established in 1848 as canal and rail traffic brought a golden stream of grain into the city, anchored the downtown financial district. It was surrounded by banks, law offices and corporate headquarters, the last communicating with outlaying factories by telegraph and telephone. Corporate back office functions were located in the central business district.
Montgomery Ward had moved its catalogue facility and warehouse from the “busy bee hive” located near the corner of Michigan Avenue and Madison Street to a new building on the North Branch of the river in 1906-1908.
Newer mail order competitor Sears, Roebuck and Co. located its catalog plant and offices west of downtown at Homan Square in 1905-06. Printing and publishing firms located near the downtown businesses they served.
Railroad manufacturing and repair was among the city’s major employers along with machines shops and iron and steel forging. The latter enterprises were located along both branches of the river but were most concentrated southwest of the center. With limited opportunity for expansion in the city center, manufacturers expanded at the edges of the built up areas and in the Calumet region. The Central Manufacturing District, established in 1890 as the nation’s first such organized industrial district, was located north of the stock yards and was served by the same railroads. Electric machinery manufactures, a newer industry located outside the city center, provided light and power systems to serve offices, street railways and factories. The Columbian Exposition had introduced Chicago to the wonders of electric lighting. Street railways were in the process of switching from coal and cable to electric. The garment industry, drawing on local cheap labor, was concentrated along the South Branch of the river. Industry was variously dependent on the river for transport, water input and waste disposal and on the railroad for bringing in raw materials and sending out finished products. Wards and Sears, the Amazon.coms of the early 20th century, used the post office which in turn shipped by rail.
The economic forces that led to the outward movement of industries also strongly influenced residential patterns. A Chicago Planning Commission map (1919) shows built up areas north, west and south of the city center.
Those living in the subdivisions beyond the high density neighborhoods surrounding the city center traveled on street and passenger railways to work and shop in the center.
Transit system expansion contributed to flux in the city’s real estate market. South Side growth had been fueled by the World’s Fair and new transit connections to the center. The South Side’s predominance began to diminish as the North and West Sides expanded along their newer elevated and electrified transit connections to downtown. The social elite had moved from Prairie Avenue to the Gold Coast in the 1880s. The old baronial estates on the Near South Side were divided into multifamily residences and often converted into tenements. Daniel Burnham no longer wishing to live on the South Side had moved to Evanston. The city’s population had its greatest density west of the South Branch of the river and declined along the north and south shores of Lake Michigan and within newer subdivisions to the west.
While Chicago grew with immigration it was predominately a city of middle class homes. As members of one immigrant cohort became more economically established it could move to the more pleasant outlying residential districts. Regardless, the living conditions of those yet to move up were appalling. Several Chicago city wards west of the river housed an immigrant population in tenements with densities up to 61,000 people per square mile (about the capacity of Soldier Field).
At the turn of the century many of the new immigrants were from southern and eastern Europe. A Hull House map documents countries of origins for residents around Roosevelt Road and Halsted.
Although the Plan is predominantly positive in tone, it does describe living conditions along the edges of the central city where industry intermingled with high density residential areas. At the important intersection of Chicago Avenue and Halsted the Plan reports that smoke from railroad shops and yards and standing locomotives foul the air – nearly 400 trains come and go each day. River traffic adds their soot while tanneries and garbage wagons contribute their odor. Coal docks increase the din. Close by a “cosmopolitan district inhabited by a mixture of races, conditions a menace to the moral and physical health of the community.”
The railroads were central to Chicago’s past and future growth and a source of its most vexing land use problems. They limited expansion of the central business district to the south and west and claimed much of the Lake front south of the river. Chicago was a major freight hub and its railroads were a major source of congestion and pollution. Speed of delivery and cost of freight per ton were the keys to the competitive advantage of Chicago’s railroads. If the city could not address line congestion and control costs, it would lose its competitive position. The railroads with their substantial investment in fixed facilities would suffer.
The Plan stated that railroads in particular and transportation networks in general had to be viewed from the perspective of Chicago as a commercial city. The planners offered a set of proposals that would promote the convenience of the people, enhance the commerce of the city, and improve railroad profits. As elsewhere, the planners hoped their solutions would appeal to all constituencies.
The essential problem was how to handle railroad traffic with dispatch and at lowest costs. There were twenty two trunk lines entering the city. The Plan asserted the need to study the fine art of traffic management to achieve an efficient placement of tracks and terminals. Consolidation among lines would reduce both their enormous terminal costs and the city’s congestion. The Plan offered a detailed discussion of common freight depositing and reloading stations with warehousing nearby, common tracks and central depots for passenger traffic, and the use of exiting underground tunnels to move freight from depots to central city retailers. A complete system would connect shipping facilities on the Chicago and Calumet rivers to freight handling centers. These changes would yield convenience and reduce cost. The railroads would need to cooperate in this endeavor but would collectively profit. To rationalize space and reduce cost, the railroads would only carry goods into the city that were needed there.
As many as 1,300 trains a day in 1910 carried a total of 175,000 passengers to and from six principal downtown stations. They moved workers and travelers. Travelers would enter the central business district to change trains and continue their journeys. As a growing metropolis, having travelers traverse downtown was good for business. Now it just added to congestion. The Plan proposed that passenger traffic be rationalized and centralized in two terminals, one on Roosevelt Road (then Twelfth Street) and one on Canal. The welter of tracks crisscrossing the city at grade level was also a serious source of traffic delay and deadly accidents. Below is the Plan’s “modern and perfect system for passengers and freight in a great city’s heart.”
Better circulation of people, while essential, was not the principal gain. Rationalizing lines, terminals, and warehousing would free up land almost as large as the central business district (from State Street to the South Branch of the river and Van Buren to Roosevelt Road) and would “end the crowding out of enterprising men and vast capital.” It would allow more of the commercial activities that must take place in the city center.
The proposal was ambitious. It would impact numerous competing railroad companies and would require substantial change to the urban infrastructure. Railroad executives met with the planners. Charles D. Norton, chair of the Plan’s General Committee reports that at the end of the meeting the executives stated that “we intend to co-operate with you as far as we can—at least up to the point of a full discussion of what may or can be done and when we can do it.”
While the planner’s greater visions did not come to fruition, the railroads did build Union Station to serve multiple lines. Photographs from the 1930s show little change in railroad presence in the central business district in the decades after publication and promotion of the Plan.
The decline of long-distance travel by rail and changes in the location of manufacturing did eventually diminish the impact of the railroads as a source of congestion in the city center. To better utilize the available land, new developments, including the Merchandise Mart in the late 1920s, were built over the Chicago and Northwestern tracks. Marina Towers would be built to the east in the 1950s. The Dearborn Street station was repurposed as commercial space after the Dearborn Park development replaced railroad tracks in the early 1970s.
City policy and planning encouraged other development. By the late 20th century multiple commercial structures were built on air rights west of the South branch of the river with 100 N Riverside (at one time the Boeing Building) cantilevered to accommodate the rails. The Illinois Center planned development was built on air rights to the Illinois Central’s terminus south of the main branch of the Chicago River. the Dock and Canal project (now Cityfront Center) was built over the tracks north of the main Branch. The south loop’s Central Station development, also built on Illinois Central rail yards and air rights, led to a redesign of the Museum Campus and opened that portion of the Lake front to the central business district.
Parks and the Lake front
After the 1893 Columbian Exposition Daniel Burnham worked on plans to redesign the Lake front. The Illinois Central had built its tracks on a trestle off shore in Lake Michigan in the 1850s, the tracks fanning out to connect with shipping on the lake and river.
Over the decades the shore line moved east with fill leaving the tracks as a barrier to the Lake front. The State of Illinois had granted the right to connect Jackson Park to Grant Park and Grant Park to Lincoln Park and also granted submerged land along the Lake shore for that purpose. Jules Guerin’s illustration of the Plan of Chicago’s proposed shoreline from Jackson Park to north of Chicago Avenue offers a vision of Chicago’s Lake front transformed.
The Plan proclaimed that the “Lake front by right belongs to the people. It affords their one great unobstructed view, stretching away to the horizon…” The Plan proposed construction of a Lake front park complete with beaches, lagoons and harbors. The shore line would be extended east of the tracks. Cost always a factor, the Plan argued that building parks along the shore can be easily accomplished since “probably 1,000,000 cubic yards of waste are annually conveyed to the Lake front from Evanston to South Chicago.” The whole project could be accomplished in 30 years. The Plan’s lyrical description of the parks impact on the senses accompanies Jules Guerin’s illustration of the Lake front park.
The proposal that the Lake front should be for the people was challenged by the argument that Chicago’s commercial future would remain dependent on transport by ship on the lake and river. This would require that the downtown Lake front be used for railroad tracks, warehouses and piers. Continued movement of freight in the city center would do nothing to alleviate the congestion the Plan hoped to diminish through its proposals regarding the railroads. The planners successfully argued that the future of freight movement would be with rail rather than boats and that Calumet Harbor would be a preferable locus of access to the waterways. Illustrations in the Plan include facilities for lake shipping at the mouths of the Chicago and Calumet Rivers.
The Lake front park was one piece of a system of parks and forest preserves that would encircle the city and be accessible to all of the people. Public commissions had secured land for an outer belt of parks and neighborhood centers that would be located near Chicago’s existing boulevards. Proposed boulevards would provide additional ease of access.
The Plan proposed interior parks that would be distributed about the city as evenly as possible as well as the acquisition and improvement of forest parks. Together this would create an encircling system of forest parks and urban parks with connections along the lake that would run a hundred miles.
The planner’s vision was part of a national movement that prized recreational space for physical exercise and appreciation of nature. Chicago, once a leader in park development, had fallen far behind. The Plan aimed for a standard of one acre of park per 100 people and noted that the average for Chicago was 590 people per acre of park and in some areas of the city 5,000 people per acre. There were social and economic gains to be had from expansion of the park and shoreline system. The Plan acknowledged that many wage earners lived and worked in crowded and unhealthy environments. Ready access to parks and field houses (“clubhouses for the people”) had value in preventing crime, promoting cleanliness and diminishing disease. Parks would reduce population density which, when too great, resulted in disorder, vice and disease; a menace to the well-being of the city. If the city was to be a good labor market, it needed to provide for the health and pleasure of the great body of the workers.
As with other elements of the Plan, the park proposals would bolster the economic life of the city. The forest preserve would attract residences and large estates and increase adjoining property values. The proposed expansion in greenway lined boulevards would have the same positive economic impact. The city would be able to recoup in taxation many times the cost of the land needed for park expansion.
The proposed Lake front would also have a huge economic impact. With its lagoons, restaurants, pleasure pavilions, public bath houses and beaches, it would rival those in Paris, Vienna and on the Riviera. “What will it do for us in health and happiness,” queried the planners. “After it is finished will the people of means be so ready to run away and spend their money in other cities? Where else can they find such delightful conditions as at home?”
Streets in the City
Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. The flat prairie spread out west from the Lake front and allowed indefinite expansion. While the city was growing outward its essential commercial functions remained concentrated in the central business district. The dispersion of population and industry from the city center was causing congestion that was bound to become more severe. The planners stated that it was essential that Chicago develop a more adequate means of circulation within the city for ease of access to work, to shop, and to benefit from the parks and the Lake front.
The Plan proposed a region wide system of thoroughfares and transit facilities to provide ease of circulation. The city was already laid out in a grid. Streets carried local residential traffic while avenues, often along section lines, carried heavier traffic. Avenues would have separation to allow for both vehicles and streetcars. Boulevards, broader still, combined parks and driveways. Their greenbelts of grass, shrubs and trees could afford continuous playgrounds for children and attract commodious and fine dwellings. Diagonals, an essential element of good city planning, would provide savings in time and expense, and complete the system.
Main roads led through the city center. The proposed redesign would allow traffic to reach the center expeditiously, divert traffic not needing to reach the center, and afford direct passage through the center when necessary. The proposal included a grand circular roadway that would connect with avenues and diagonals. The Plan also included a system of highway connections outside the city proper.
From experience, the planners anticipated that population would follow the development of the new transit corridors. They expected property values to increase along avenues and boulevards where parks and shopping amenities were close by and where there was ease of access to the central business district and the Lake front. The planners hoped that buildings along the new thoroughfares would achieve a uniform architectural vision and even frontage that was consistent with enhanced property values. The planners envisioned Chicago as a Middle West incarnation of Paris with its broad boulevards and uniform rows of fine multistory buildings laid out around parks and squares. They hoped that middle and upper class city dwellers shared their vision and that developers would build to that preference.
At the same time, the planners recognized that the legal powers of the State needed to be applied to promote the Plan’s vision for development. An appendix on legal aspects of the Plan of Chicago states that the “municipal authorities which establish parks, boulevards, and other public places need some power to regulate the use of premises within immediate view of the public grounds, so as to prevent offensive advertising, restrict the kind of business…and make appropriate regulation of the height, manner of construction, and location of surrounding buildings.” Within limits, these ends could be achieved either through police powers or the power of eminent domain.
Billboards were a nuisance and increasingly so near population centers. Police powers were limited as a means to promote aesthetic values. The City council could control building height, but only on a city wide basis, not just within specific areas, such as around parks and boulevards. Chicago would not have its first zoning ordinance until 1923. Alternatively, the city and other agencies could resort to the use of eminent domain to control the environs of a public place. Property or the relevant interest in a property (for example, a facade allowing signage) could be acquired for public use with just compensation.
Police powers were limited for addressing the problem of congested areas. Single buildings could be demolished without compensation if unsanitary or unsafe. However, congested or unwholesome areas could not be taken through eminent domain even for renovation. At the same time, there was no obstacle to opening wide thoroughfares and avenues through congested areas, or taking the heart of the district as a public park. The planners argued that the remedy for slums is the same as resorted to the world over; first, cut broad thoroughfares through the unwholesome districts; and second, establish remorseless enforcement of sanitary regulation which will insure adequate air-space for the dwellers and absolute cleanliness on the street, the sidewalks, and within the buildings. The Plan states that “it is no attack on private property to argue that society has the inherent right to protect itself against abuses. It is a failure of the city to have allowed these conditions .”
Heart of the City
The center of Chicago commerce, the Heart of Chicago, was the area between Halsted and the Lake and between the main branch of the river and Roosevelt Road. With limited ground devoted to business, the planners expected land values to continue to rise and buildings to grow up to the limits allowed by law. The Plan’s railroad proposal would provide additional buildable ground and allow expansion of the central business district. The Plan advocated a diversion of the multiple streams of freight and passenger traffic that flowed into the city center. Proposed changes to Michigan Avenue, Grant Park and the banks of the Chicago River, combined with the creation of a Civic Center at Congress and Halsted would then make the Heart of Chicago an accessible center of commercial, intellectual and civic life.
Michigan Avenue was the baseline of the city and was proposed to become the main connection between the North and South Sides as well as an opening of the center to the West Side. It was a major bottleneck and destined to carry the heaviest movement of traffic of any street in the world. Michigan Avenue was being widened at Grant Park while structures of “the first order of size and architecture” lined its west side.
The Plan proposed that Michigan Avenue be widened between Randolph and the river. The avenue would rise in grade and cross the river on a new double deck bascule bridge and continue north to the Lake. The proposed Michigan Avenue Bridge would allow passenger traffic to cross on the upper boulevard level and freight traffic to cross on a lower level. The new bridge would divert traffic from the Rush Street Bridge which was carrying most of the traffic coming into the city from the North Side.
The proposal required condemnation of buildings on the east side of the existing Michigan Avenue south of the river, a stretch of road that Walter Moody characterized as presenting the appearance of a poor, tenth rate city. It would also require condemnation of buildings on the west side of the current Pine Street to the north of the river, thus allowing for an alignment of a wider road on both sides of the bridge.
There was considerable east-west traffic along both banks of the main branch as well as along several blocks on the east and west sides of the river to access railway terminals, docks and warehouses. The elevation of Michigan Avenue would allow freight traffic to pass on a lower grade. An upper and lower level configuration was also proposed along the main branch of the river which would divert freight traffic to warehouses on the lower levels and allow passenger traffic to use the more scenic upper level. Guerin’s illustration, drawing on a European aesthetic, rather accurately predicts the appearance of the current South Wacker Drive.
The proposed Boulevards along the river would reduce congestion downtown and also follow the lead of European cities where rivers once devoted to commerce would later combine drives and promenades for traffic and pleasure. The Chicago River had become “a dumping spot and cesspool” where owners had used their riparian rights to encroach on the river. The Sanitary District had a widening proposal that would promote both the commercial and aesthetic character of the river.
The proposed widening of Michigan Avenue and construction of the Michigan Avenue Bridge were major points of contention. The project had been proposed in 1904, the State legislature authorized it in 1907, and the Chicago Plan Commission approved a design in 1911. Owners of properties proposed for condemnation strenuously protested and more than two hundred lawyers were hired to protect owner interests. New drawings of the proposed Bridge were produced to assuage opposition by some of Chicago’s newspapers. Northwest side business interests saw the bridge as a plot by State Street interests to capture trade north of the river.
The City ultimately purchased fifty-one properties to create the widened and aligned Michigan Avenue. The bridge opened on May 14, 1920. Construction of the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower followed the opening of the bridge and construction of the Drake Hotel anchored development along the “magnificent mile” to the north. By 1925 the Chicago Plan Commission claimed that the $16 million spent on Michigan Avenue had already paid for itself six times over through increased property values.
The widening of Michigan Avenue addressed the problem of north-south traffic. An easing of East-west traffic would be addressed through a widening of Roosevelt Road and Chicago Avenue. This was part of the greater program of avenues, boulevards and diagonals that would promote circulation outside of the central business district.
The Plan’s proposal to create a center of intellectual and civic life involved placing three cultural institutions in Grant Park, widening Congress Street, and building a civic center with combined city, county and federal representation at the intersection of Congress and Halsted.
Grant Park would be the intellectual center of Chicago. The promotion of art, as everywhere, would be a source of wealth and moral influence. The Plan proposed that the Field Museum be build at Congress with a new Art Institute to the north and the Crerar Library to the south. The construction of buildings on the Lake front had long been a matter of dispute. Aaron Montgomery Ward, mail order magnate, had waged a twenty year battle against plans to build public and private structures in Grant Park. His opposition was based in part on the guarantee that the Park would “remain public ground forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstructions whatever” as stated on the 1836 map drawn by the Illinois Canal Commissioners.
Ward had agreed to construction of the current Art Institute in 1892. With his strong opposition and an $8 million 1906 Marshal Field’s bequest to be spent for a museum by a date certain, the Field Museum site was moved south to its current location. The Art Institute was able to sidestep legal limits and subsequently expand to the east over air rights and then on land fill. The Crerar Library is now located at the University of Chicago.
Grant Park did not develop as proposed but, as the planners envisioned, it did become a spacious and attractive public garden that serves Chicago’s heterogeneous population. It provides sweeping vistas of the lake and yacht harbors and a vantage point to view the buildings that played a part in Chicago’s architectural destiny. With the addition of Millennium Park, also built on air rights, it has become a major tourist destination and a magnet for central business district development.
Daniel Burnham was a central figure in the City Beautiful movement. The movement advocated transforming the urban environment into a beautiful, unified and efficient organic whole. The addition of great and noble architecture, preferably in the neoclassical style that graced the World’s Columbian Exposition, would inspire civic order and unity among a diverse population. The proposed Civic Center, the keystone of the arch of the transformed Heart of Chicago, would serve that function. It would be placed at the center of gravity of all radial arteries entering Chicago.
The Civic Center would be the Administrative axis on a widened Congress Street connecting to the center of art, literature and science located at its base in Grant Park. The Dome rising above the Civic Center, a larger version of the Columbian Exposition’s Administration Building would be the symbol of civic order and unity.
Traffic would pour into the space characterized by a harmonious grouping of government buildings. For the planners, it would be Chicago’s version of the Acropolis in Athens, the Forum in Rome or St. Marks in Venice – the very embodiment of civic life.
For better or worse, the Civic Center was not built. Chicago had already entered the auto age. As predicted, the intersection proposed would become a center of gravity for major roads entering Chicago in the guise of the Circle Interchange.
Looking Back on the Plan
The Plan of Chicago builds on basic principles that are as essential today as they were a hundred years ago: a comprehensive plan must prepare the city for a distant future, be economically viable, and share its cost and bounty equitably among the population.
The exhortation “make no little plans…” attributed to Daniel H. Burnham, captures the visionary and multidimensional scope of the Plan. The Plan encompasses a region while maintaining a focus on Chicago’s commercial center. It concentrates on the built environment as a major determinant of how city dwellers live, work and play. It proposes change that would create a more livable and economically sustainable urban environment.
The Plan is designed to solve the city’s existing problems as well as those anticipated with future growth. The planners state that it will take many decades to carry out this transformation. They assume that Chicago’s population will continue to grow over the next decades and that manufacturing will continue as a dominant source of employment. Both held true through the first half of the 20th century.
Within this broad context, the planners argue that their proposals would yield benefits to current and future generations more than sufficient to justify the cost imposed. The Plan states that Paris, when its population was 500,000, adopted a street improvement scheme at a cost of $265 million and carried it out to completion in thirty-five years. For Paris planner Baron Haussmann, money thus spent made a better city and a better city was a greater producer of wealth. The Plan notes that the value of Chicago real estate had increased over the prior ten years in excess of the projected cost of the Chicago plan. Chicagoans did approve some eighty-six Plan related bond issues between 1912 and 1931 that covered seventeen different projects with a combined cost of $234 million. Bond issues funded street widening projects including the reconstruction of Roosevelt Road, Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. Bonds also funded expansion of the Lake front, Lake Shore Drive, Grant Park and the forest preserves. These were sound public investments ultimately paid for through economic growth that resulted in improvements to the quality of life in the city.
To win broad support for the necessary public investment, the planners argued that private capital would contribute to the Plan’s success and funding and that all Chicagoans would benefit regardless of their current standing in the economic hierarchy. Public investment in infrastructure improvements would create new opportunities and induce private investment which would stimulate further economic growth. Economic growth would raise property values and provide the funds to service the public debt undertaken to pay for public investment. The appendix on legal aspects notes that Chicago already was loaned up and advocated a change in the city’s assessed property valuation formula to generate more tax revenue in support of increased bonded indebtedness.
While proposals for streets, parks and the Lake front were designed to benefit all of Chicago, the Plan has been criticized as having a preference for the wealthy and a callus attitude toward the poor. As regards the first, there is no question that the success of the Plan assumed active private investment. The planners clearly hoped that the wealthy would remain and spend their money in Chicago. They highlighted some improvements with this end in mind (for example, the Lake front development) while also asserting that the proposals for circulation would make these improvements accessible to all Chicagoans.
As regards the second, the planner referred to slums as rookeries, a 19th century term for an overcrowded city district occupied by the poor and criminals. They expressed their contempt for speculators who created these conditions and their empathy for children living in tenements cut off from light and fresh air. The proposal to eliminate slums through road building projects tends to be conflated with the federally funded “blight” removal projects of the 1950s. The Plan notes that “Chicago has not yet reached the point when it will be necessary for the municipality to provide at its own expense, as does the city of London, for the rehousing of persons forced out of congested quarters…” Residents of turn of the century slums generally were not subject to racial discrimination and many did move to better residential neighborhoods as Chicago prospered. That said, disagreement remains as to whether the Plan was designed to benefit all segments of society and whether it satisfied that goal in its implementation.
Some elements of the Plan were viewed by contemporaries as designed to yield benefits to private interests at the expense of the public purse. The proposed improvements to Michigan Avenue are a prime example. There was serious conflict between the planners and some entrenched political interests who wanted their share of the gains. The public stopped funding new bond issues after 1931 due to scandals, corruption and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.
In concluding its case for change, The Plan of Chicago asserts that the city must continuously improve civic conditions. “Every one knows that the civic conditions which prevailed fifty years ago would not now be tolerated anywhere; and every one believes that conditions of to-day will not be tolerated by the men who follow us.”
In Planning Chicago, Hunt and DeVries examine the interaction and impact of planning, politics and market forces on Chicago since the 1950s. They explore the “negotiations, plans, policies and choices that shape the outcomes we see today.” A power point summary of their book is included. The following draws from and builds on the book.
Chicago has undergone significant change since the Plan of Chicago. After 1966 the city moved away from comprehensive planning as a strategy to attract broad-based investment. Projects tended to follow the paths defined by federal and state funding sources. Chicago developed plans for the central area and for industrial corridors as well as for specific needs such as protecting the Chicago River and the Lake front. Planning efforts could not always resolve conflict between competing private and public interests. Planning was too often perceived as challenging mayoral choice, aldermanic prerogative, and agency turf.
After substantial growth through the 1920s, the city experienced a hiatus of commercial and residential construction during the Great Depression and World War II. A plan for the central area in 1958 envisioned a compact downtown with commercial and middle class residential development expanding to the north, south and west over the still encircling railroad tracks and yards. This vision was substantially realized by the first decade of the 21st century.
The movement of railroads out from the center did not diminish Chicago’s importance as a transportation hub. Growing demand and efficiency gains from globalization, containerization, and double-stacked trains more than compensated for a decline in passenger traffic and competition from trucking. Chicago still captures 25 percent of all U.S. rail traffic and processes 46 percent of intermodal units, primarily containers.
Transformation to a global, post-industrial, information economy impacted manufacturing employment while creating central city demand for finance and technology related office space. The demise of steel manufacturing and its allied industries had a devastating impact on South Side employment. Industrial corridors were created to support industrial employment while residential and commercial development vied with older industries for location near the center. When Chicago drafted its last comprehensive plan, the best predictor of a community’s economic success was physical capital. With the shift from traditional manufacturing to innovation and knowledge, the best predictor of a community’s economic success is now human capital.
While the market is increasingly global, face-to-face contact remains essential for innovation, dissemination of information and networking. The result is ongoing competition for space in and around the central business district. The Chicago Plan Commission recently approved the Fulton Market Innovation District in the West Loop, the city’s first innovation district in its last market district. The area home to meatpacking and food wholesalers for 150 years has become a center for culture, nightlife and dining. Due to location and amenities it has attracted firms like Google and Uber . The Innovation District provides a framework to evaluate development proposals for property in the district as an overlay to the existing zoning map. The plan is expected to encourage the entry of information and technology firms, preserve existing jobs and buildings, and limit new residential construction. Establishment of the district can constrain the impact of market driven property values on determination of land use. The Landmarks Commission will hold hearings on a controversial recommendation to designate a portion of the Fulton Market as an historic district.
The geography of race and class has changed. The pattern throughout most of the 20th century was one of lower-income housing in decaying buildings circling the urban core with rings of working-class and then middle class housing further out. This gave way to inversion by the 2010 census. Hunt and DeVries observe that affluent families – generally white and Asian – now dominate the central area, while working-class Latinos and African Americans have been pushed outward to previously middle-class areas. Chicago’s population peaked at 3.6 million people in the 1950s and has since declined to 2.7 million people in 2010. The city lost 200,000 people, predominately African Americans, between 2000 and 2010 in part as a consequence of Chicago Housing Authority housing policy and the mortgage/housing crisis. Chicago neighborhood demographics likely will continue to shift with migration and differential employment opportunities.
Growth in jobs and growth in population generally move together. To continue to grow, Chicago needs to expand its employment base, enhance the human capital of its future work force, and rebuild neighborhoods that will attract and retain population. This is a challenge for industrial policy and neighborhood revival.
A film titled A Tale of One City was produced in support of the Plan of Chicago. Today Chicago is often characterized as a tale of two cities. An expanding central area benefited economically as people and jobs followed investment in new residential and commercial construction. Chicago’s vernacular buildings were repurposed, Grant Park development was capped with Millennium Park, an entertainment district flourished, and a growing university presence helped to create a 24 hour downtown. The city center is recovering from the Great Recession as young professionals and empty nesters move downtown and the urban core attracts employment from the suburbs. At the same time, predominately minority neighborhoods on the South and West Sides have lost population and face foreclosure, vacant and abandoned properties, and violent crime.
Hunt and DeVries point out that the central business district and the neighborhoods are interconnected. “The neighborhoods need a vibrant downtown to generate employment and tax revenue to fund neighborhood services, while the downtown needs healthy, affordable communities to attract workforce.” With tax-increment financing a downtown recovery can be economically self-sustaining. Middle class and working class neighborhood income and employment may improve with growth in the urban core. However, public investment to revive hard hit neighborhoods on the South and West Sides is challenged by high and growing public debt, concentration of tax revenue in TIFs and a drying up of federal and state funding sources.
Chicago has come a long way from the Plan of Chicago and the 1950s solution for eliminating a distressed neighborhood by cutting a road through its heart or leveling it for urban renewal. Hunt and DeVries point out that the city has invested in new schools, police stations and libraries in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It has initiated bottom up planning efforts to empower neighborhoods to articulate their visions of the future. While equity demands investment to alter the quality of life in distressed neighborhoods, the question remains how to invest to yield sustainable economic improvement.
Marshall Brown, a Professor of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, argues that we should view the landscapes of distressed neighborhoods dotted with abandoned properties and empty lots as an opportunity. Brown estimates that there are 150 acres of vacant land in the Washington Park neighborhood, almost half the acreage of the park itself. He proposes bundling buildings into more cohesive units and opening up all the space which is now chopped up and deemed vacant lots. He would overlay the neighborhood’s grid with winding roads and open space and a collective management of the land; in his words “a soft system of land stewardship and land formation.”
It may take twenty or thirty years to bring this vision to fruition. There is a similarity between Brown’s proposal and the case made for boulevards and the Lake front in the Plan of Chicago, although in this instance need and opportunity derive from population decline as opposed to population growth. Over time these improvements can eliminate vacant buildings that are a magnet for crime, raise property values, and attract additional private investment and population. In the spirit of Daniel Burnham one might add that Chicago should move on this opportunity while land is still cheap.
Hunt and DeVries conclude their book with a case for the restoration of planning to address the crucial challenges facing Chicago. They argue that the city needs investment to increase transit capacity, especially in the central area, that will help to retain regional job growth in the city and expand the tax base. The need to ease access to and through the central business district is as old as Daniel Burnham’s Plan. So is the argument for the gains that will be realized. Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago informed its elementary school readers “we must realize that lifetimes are made up of minutes, and that to save minutes means to lengthen life. Thus we can justify spending millions of dollars today if it means saving time for millions of people in years and centuries to come.”
Chicago needs to bring coherent and comprehensive planning to its struggling neighborhoods by expanding existing and proven initiatives that build “capacity, empower local actors and balance vision with readily attainable goals.” Neighborhoods need to implement policies that not only retain existing population but attract new population.
The city’s industrial policy needs to adapt to a rapidly changing employment base. Heavy manufacturing may offer the best wages, but nonmanufacturing industries may be a more likely source of future employment growth. The city has invested in industrial corridors and needs flexibility to attract and accommodate a range of enterprises that can bring good jobs to Chicago.
Chicago has dozens of timely plans on the shelf that could be implemented rather than ignored. Carefully crafted plans address widely acknowledged problems and pose solutions for the betterment of the city and its central area as well as for industrial and economic development. Passing an appropriate set of these plans into law would help organize priorities and “could reverse a decade of scattershot capital budgeting, TIF-based inefficiencies, and project-by-project thinking.” If city-wide and central city area plans are adopted, zoning application would need be consistent with a more broadly articulated vision. The authors argue that this would help to restrain “the current structure where aldermanic privilege and mindless NIMBYism distorts and paralyzes debate over development.”
Finally, Hunt and DeVries challenge planners to assert themselves. Chicago once prided itself on visionary planning. Will the city now do the hard work of “laying out a vision, creating policy to set direction, and prioritizing its resources?”
The Plan of Chicago identified constraints on the city’s growth and commercial standing and proposed solutions. The solutions focused on the city as an organic whole with specific consideration given to the railroads, the streets of the city, parks and the Lake front, and the heart of the city. Each component could be evaluated in terms of cost and outcome relative to the over-arching goal: the improvement of Chicago as a place to work, to live and to play. With all components contributing to a common goal, the impact of the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts. The Plan of Chicago was comprehensive. Many of its proposals were implemented with benefits that more than justified the public’s investments. Benefits and costs were often broadly distributed over the city’s population. The Plan has had a lasting impact on the vision and development of Chicago’s built environment.
These same criteria can be applied to evaluate a new comprehensive plan that would address broadly recognized problems and set goals for improvement. The parts would be evaluated relative to their specific goals as well as for their contribution to an over-arching vision. Not all outcomes can be quantified, but measures of cost and gain would provide a framework for debate and refinement. This process would allow evaluation of public investments in terms of economic viability and distributive equity. It would facilitate rejection of plans guided by private versus pubic interest goals. Such plans would sacrifice economic viability and equity to private gain, raise the city’s debt and impose a drag on growth. Chicago cannot afford to risk such outcomes. What the city achieved with the Plan of Chicago and could again achieve is a visionary and viable plan that will produce broad based growth sufficient to pay for public investment and become self sustaining.
The primary source for discussion of the 1909 Plan is Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, Plan of Chicago, Centennial Edition, (Chicago: The Great Books Foundation, 2009). A digital version of the 1909 edition is available on-line at http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/10537.html.
Walter D. Moody, Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago: Municipal Economy, (Chicago: The Henneberry Company, 1915) provides a good scaled down version and additional historical context on implementation. A digital version of the 1911 edition is available on-line at http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/10418.html.
I also benefited from Carl Smith’s interpretive essay in “The Plan of Chicago,” Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago (http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/10537.html); Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969); David Lowe, Lost Chicago, (New York: American Legacy Press, 1985); and Alice Sinkevitch (editor), AIA Guide to Chicago, (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2004).
Discussion of planning in Chicago after 1950 is based primarily on D. Branford Hunt and Jon B. DeVries, Planning Chicago, (Chicago: American Planning Association, 2013).
Rand McNally’s Bird’s-eye View and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1893) is available on line at https://archive.org/details/randmcnallycosbi00lawr.
When not otherwise credited, with the exception of the Montgomery Ward postcards, images are from the Burnham and Bennett, Plan of Chicago.