Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Quotes from the Burnham Plan

After launching my Burnham Plan 100 anniversary and having teased you last year, I will keep the ball rolling with some quotes from the Burnham Plan itself. People just don’t write like they used to. It’s a shame, because there was some great rhetoric back in the day. IMO, there is no substitute for reading primary sources. Particularly in this case when it is so readable and so accessible. As you read these quotes, and hopefully read the plan for yourself, consider the opinions expressed both as they relate to the challenges of the era as they experienced them, and to your own personal thinking and conventional wisdom on urban planning today.

The page numbers are from the Princeton Architectural Press reprint edition of the Plan of Chicago, available via Amazon Marketplace. You might find Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City a useful companion guide.

“The people of Chicago have ceased to be impressed by rapid growth or the great size of the city. What they insist asking now is, How are we living? Are we in reality prosperous?”, p. 32

“City life has attractions that make a strong appeal to human nature. Opportunities for large success, for wealth and power and social consideration, for amusement and instruction, for the increase of knowledge and the cultivation of taste, are greater for the average person in the city than in the country. The city, therefore, is constantly drawing from the country the young men and women of ambition and self-reliance, who are lured thither by the great prizes which in a democracy are open to the competition of all.”, p. 33

“To many who have given little consideration to the subject,a plan seems to call for large expenditures and a consequent increase in taxation. The reverse is the case. It is certain that civic improvement will go on at an accelerated rate; and if those improvements shall be marshaled according to a well-ordered plan great saving must result. Good order and convenience are not expensive; but haphazard and ill-considered projects invariably result in extravagance and wastefulness.”, p. 4

“Density of population beyond a certain point results in disorder, vice, and disease, and thereby becomes the greatest menace to the well-being of the city.”, p. 48

“People flock to those cities where conditions of work are good, where means of recreation abound, where there are attractions for the senses and the intellect. Persons of wealth and refinement seek such cities as their abiding-places; and those who have accumulated wealth in a city bent on improvement remain there. Moreover, there is no stronger appeal made to the American citizen of today than comes from the call of one’s native or adopted city to enter upon the service of creating better surroundings not only for one’s self, but for all those who must of necessity earn their bread in the sweat of their brows. Nor is the call of posterity to be denied. To love and render service to one’s city, to have a part in its advancement, to seek to better its conditions and to promote its highest interests, – these are both the duty and privilege of the patriot of peace.”, pp. 81-82

Much more to come, including various topical discussions on urban design and highways.

Topics: Strategic Planning
Cities: Chicago

3 Responses to “Quotes from the Burnham Plan”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for posting these selective entries. Some align quite closely with the survey described in Florida’s “Who’s Your City,” published last year.

    The significance of regionalism was theme that caught the imagination of most folks who covered the book in the media. What got my attention, however, was the survey that attempted to quantify why people chose to live where they do. This has garnered little comment, but I think it’s one of the most revelatory aspects of the book.

    According to the survey, the reasons people choose the places they live can be broken into five categories.

    At number two is basic services– garbage gets picked up and the streets are safe, etc., etc.

    Slightly above that, at number one, are aesthetics. That’s right… people choose place the same way they choose houses… curb appeal.

    In many respects, that’s the enduring lesson of Burnham. On one hand, his plan was all about infrastructure… major infrastructure, such as railways, roadways and parks. But it was also about aesthetics and the way that humans experience a city on foot and at street level.

    Burnham got hammered for not addressing the social aspects of city planning more thoroughly, and my understanding that this is part of the reason that urban planning and urban design ultimately became two distinct disciplines in this country. Too bad, because the best planners and the best designers know they are inextricably linked.

    Lost in the split is that idea is that, among many things, cities are works of civic art. True sustainability is attained not just through state of the art environmental design and development best practices, but through means that help ensure social, cultural and economic sustainability as well.

    What Burnham understood, and the survey results that Florida included in his book seem to support, is that aesthetics matter, and they matter a lot.

    If 30,000-100,000 are driving down a road, and what they see is garbage, it’s easy to understand why they form the perception that a given place is less than desirable. Jim Kunstler has made a career out of pointing this out in his work.

    The bottom line is that American cities that understand aesthetics and high quality urban design is not just luxuries but an essential elements of long term economic viability are the ones that will likely be winners in years to come. These cities will have the best chance of attracting the ever more mobile and discerning talent essential to the knowledge economy.

    Critics may disagree with Richard Florida about a lot of things, but I think he is spot on with the need to attract talent. All good things flow from good jobs, and attracting good jobs requires attracting superior talent. Right now, talent is flowing to the places with the most attractive curb appeal because the prospective quality of life they offer.

    The economics of energy resources could change all of that, of course. But, that’s the track I think we are on now, and have been since the days of Burnham, really. It’s just that few American cities have leveraged this reality in meaningful ways.

    My thought is that Midwestern cities–absent compelling natural features such as mountains and oceans, and with lousy weather six months per year–have to try harder than the cities in nation’s the big Smiley Belt that starts in Boston and ends in Seattle. The question at this point appears to be how they can do so with dwindling resources–that is, if they recognize the opportunities.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for sharing. It’s not for nothing that Daniel Burnham was one of the founders of the “City Beautiful” movement, though it is far from being without critics. I happen to agree on the criticality of aesthetics, particularly for Midwestern cities without a pristine climate and mostly without stunning geographic features.

  3. CoryWilson says:

    The Urbanophile-

    I am sure that you have already read it, but I just started reading “The Devil in the White City” over the weekend and I LOVE IT. Lots of Burnham discussion.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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