Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Chicago: What Made the Burnham Plan Successful?

As part of my Burnham Plan centennial celebration, I was recently prompted to ponder what made this plan successful. (Let us put aside for future postings the question of whether it was in reality a success). I started creating a list of attributes of the plan I think contributed to its success. Interestingly, all of these are lessons for today’s planners and are often overlooked. So let’s consider some of them.

1. It was a private sector, business led initiative. I hear people today moan about the feckless political leadership in their cities. But Chicago wasn’t immune from this in the early 20th century. The rest of the civic leadership didn’t wait around for the city politicians to get their act together. Rather, the Merchants Club of Chicago (which later merged with the Commercial Club, a still existing organization) stepped in and sponsored the creation of a plan that they saw as critical to overcoming the challenges the city faced at the time and propelling its future growth.

This is very relevant today. Most cities have some corporate/academic vehicle that is often a prime force in local initiatives. This is the logical place for such a civic strategy to be developed today. However, I might suggest that unlike in Burnham’s day, having a broader stakeholder base is critical. Thus involving cultural institutions or other non-business groups, plus at least some form of broader community input is essential today. But I still think that it is generally the business community that is the likely sponsor for any plan.

2. It took two years to create. The Burnham Plan was not an overnight creation. It took a lot of research and deliberation. Today, it would likely take even longer. This is another reason why politicians aren’t likely to be the driving force. They need solutions that show results within the election cycle. They need to cut ribbons, not produce three year studies.

3. It was well funded. While fundraising wasn’t a snap, the business community of Chicago and its wealthy elite subscribed in sufficient quantity to enable the production of a first class plan.

4. It included a lot of focus and investment in a high quality of design in the output. Notably, Burnham & Co. commissioned bespoke artwork for their renderings. They knew they needed first rate renderings and an authoritative final report to have credibility.

5. The practical side of getting things done wasn’t ignored. The final report included a lengthy appendix by a local lawyer talking about all the legal aspects of the plan. Notably, it anticipates the Kelo decision nearly a century later. These guys put a lot of thought into how they would actually action the plan.

6. They followed through with a long term sales and delivery program. This included extensive marketing and PR over the long term, including the creation of a children’s edition of the plan that was taught in the public schools. They created the Chicago Plan Commission as a semi-private agency to oversee getting the plan done. And so on.

7. The wisely glommed onto things that were already under consideration or had already been done. A lot of things are credited to the Burnham Plan that really pre-dated it. The lakefront park system was already partially constructed prior to the plan, which only recommended doing more. The Michigan Ave. bridge was already a fierce topic of contemporary debate. And so on. This not only imbued the plan with the patina of those successes, it helped to seed a holistic vision around something that people could imagine since they were living it.

8. The plan had a good mix of both the concrete and the conceptual. There were some very specific items such as the Michigan Ave. bridge while others such as the ring road network were more conceptual. This was good for a couple reasons. One, for those who don’t think conceptually or futuristically, the tangible gave them something to latch onto. Two, the tangible items could be picked off on the short term, to show progress and get people believing in the plan.

These items are good, but don’t tell the whole story. I recently was fairly critical of the Cincinnati Agenda 360 plan, and it incorporated most of the attributes above.

No, one additional key ingredient was Burnham himself. He didn’t even necessarily do the work, but he had a key quality. He was someone who was an urban visionary and forward thinker, but combined that with enormous credibility and social clout among Chicago’s elite. This is the rare combination. Burnham had long been the face of a successful architecture practice. His World’s Columbian Exhibition was a huge success that gave him massive credibility. And he had done city plans for other places such as Cleveland. He was trusted and taken seriously by the elite. So when he proposed ideas that might not have appeal otherwise, his personal credibility could carry the day, could resolve conflict, etc.

This is what is missing. There are urban visionaries and there are power brokers, but seldom are the two combined into one flesh. That was what made Burnham different. In a Christ-like way, he was two persons in one body. That, I think, is perhaps the key reason that Chicago not only created a plan, but actually implemented a lot if it and was successful from it. It takes a combination of power and vision. The ability to get things done with the wisdom to know what it is we should do. Absent the emergence of a Burnham, or perhaps a Lennon-McCartney type partnership, it seems unlikely that a plan of similar impact will be produced in any city any time soon.

I’m of course interested to hear additional perspectives on what made Burnham’s Plan unique. And yes, I’ll listen to the case that it is at least partially self-mythologizing on the part of Chicago.

To close, I’d be remiss if I did not say that a plan like Burnham’s wouldn’t be appropriate for today’s world. We’re at the dawn of the 21st century, not the 20th. And we are in the early days of the true post-modern, post-industrial era, not the middle age of that previous order like Burnham was. A plan of today, of the now, would be very different and recognize that we are in a very different world. More to come on that in future posts.

14 Comments
Topics: Strategic Planning
Cities: Chicago

14 Responses to “Chicago: What Made the Burnham Plan Successful?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great thoughts all, but you missed one of the most important. The document itself is amazing, illustrating with remarkable clarity the complete vision (there’s no substitute for the bird’s eye perspective in planning documents). Even illiterates could comprehend the magnitude and elegance of the plan’s physical characteristics.

    At today’s rates, the illustrations alone would probably cost more than $100,000. That’s more money than most municipalities spend for an entire comprehensive plan, let alone the images.

    The plan endures because the planning document itself remains a benchmark. I encourage your blog’s readers to check out the reprinted hard copy version of the plan (your local library may have a copy). Then, go online and check out contemporary planning documents, including your city’s planning documents, and compare. See which ones have the magic to stir men’s blood.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 11:53, thanks for the comments. I own one of those hard bound repros and they are very nice.

    Perhaps I didn’t come through clearly enough, but point #4 was intended to encompass the quality of the printed plan.

  3. Anonymous says:

    You are right… I stand corrected.

    A very thoughtful post on your part

  4. Jefferey says:

    You make an interesting point about this plan, that parts of it were already under discussion or underway, mainly the lakefront park system and Michigan Avenue bridge.

    And the belt of parkways and large parks to the west and south were already in existence, too.

    So what was left? Wacker Drive, Navy Pier, the Forest Preserves, perhaps maintaining a consistent buildling height in the Loop (leading to the tower on block design discussed in Form Follows FinanceIt seems Burnhams plan wasn’t really executed much beyond that?

  5. Anonymous says:

    A few more thoughts…

    1) I wonder what Burnham would think of Chicago today. Happy? Disappointed?

    So many of his most spectacular visions were not realized (Wolf Point, for example). But many of his other key recommendations were, and they shape the city and region today.

    2) Early in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s tenure, he went for the fences on some big projects and was rebuffed. Then it seemed he turned to smaller projects that have yielded significant returns.

    One focus was improving the streetscapes of major thoroughfares, some of them in struggling neighborhoods… Ashland, Western and Madison come to mind.

    They got the boulevard treatment, like Michigan Ave had gotten before them. Essentially, he went about completing aspects of the Burnham Plan.

    The impacts were relatively immediate. A lot of investment occurred in these neighborhoods in the decade that followed. I know that many areas were in the path of Chicago’s revival, but I believe Daley’s attention to the public realm really helped speed things along.

    People have given Daley grief in recent years, after he rolled up his power in a big way. But those early moves were prescient. I’d like to think it was his vacations to Paris that inspired him. What he did was for Chicago was there for the taking by any of his predecessors, but they didn’t get the urban design thing like he did.

    Amazingly, there’s been no formal study of the impact that these public investments yielded that I know of. There has to be a strong correlation between the streetscape improvements and the private sector investment that followed.

    I think what Daley showed is that the city that does not invest in its public realm inspires no confidence from the private sector. If a city does not put its money where its mouth is, why should they?

    This aligns strongly with the survey results that Richard Florida published in his latest book. While the media focused to what he said about regions, I think the real story was the survey results that he published. It said this: that people largely choose the place they live based on appearance. They pick cities and neighborhoods like they choose a house… curb appeal.

    This is significant for Midwestern cities that lack compelling natural features like mountains and oceans. Drive down most urban commercial corridors and one sees the dreck that has made Jim Kunstler’s career (it took a great writer to express so clearly what is essentially a design problem).

    This goes directly to issue of brain drain. The question isn’t why people are attracted to locations with better climates and more attractive geographic features. It’s why more Midwestern cities have not been able to remain physically attractive in order to compete with the locations with more compelling natural features.

    Chicago has. Many other Midwestern cities have fragments that have endured because they remained attractive (my wife grew up in Butler-Tarkington, a prime example).

    I would argue that Daley’s focus on improving the physical character of Chicago is one of the principle reasons that the city has thrived over the past 20 years.

    Good things have also been done in other places like Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. But, by and large, leadership in other Midwestern cities large and small has been completely oblivious to the simple things that Daley has seen so clearly.

    Millennium Park grabs the headlines, but it’s been the little things–one streetscape at a time, inspired by Burnham–that differentiate Chicago’s resurgence as much as anything.

    It is entirely appropriate to celebrate Burnham’s landmark plan. The aesthetic lessons are still relevant, never more so for places that lack attractive climates and natural features.

    Namely, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, Louisville, Columbus, Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and all stops in between. They all have their charms and their strengths, but, right now, they are all losing.

    The question is whether urban leaders, especially those in the Midwest with their hands on checkbook, understand this.

    If you are mayor, alderman, business leader, merchant or anyone else and who thinks your commercial corridors are heinous, your urban cores are hard on the eyes and that your public realm, in general, really bites (parks, plazas, etc.), then everyone else probably thinks so, too.

    Especially your nearby and newly minted college grads who now packing their suitcases.

    Plain and simple.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Good points about the street level view. It’s not just big cities. The attention to detail is what is going to separate the top level suburbs from their competition. I was in Columbus recently and was really impressed with what Dublin has done with roadways, intersection improvements, overpasses, etc. They didn’t just beef up their infrastructure, they made it look good too. It all adds up.

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Jeff, IIRC even the forest preserves predated the plan. There were also a lot of arterial street widenings undertaken, the straightening of the south branch of the Chicago River, etc. And some have called the Congress Expressway (now the Eisenhower) the fulfillment of Burnham’s call for Congress street to be the main east-west axis of the city.

    While there is certainly room for debate on what the plan accomplished, I think again that the incorporation of the existing programs into it was wise. In addition to the reasons I already outlined, it put them within the context of a coherent plan and civic rationale.

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 9:31 – a very good comment. I don’t think it needs a lot of elaboration.

    I’ve said it myself, the mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones. Every city bricks up its Main St. But the average street is so much more important. Chicago gets it, most Midwestern cities don’t. It’s that simple. They have their low taxes and cost – but also vast expanses of urban space where they can’t even give property away for free.

    anon 9:42, Dublin is nice. You see the same dynamic at work in the nicest suburbs of most cities. Mason near Cincinnati and Carmel north of Indianapolis come to mind. Being the most upscale place in town gives them a logical market offering: the nicest stuff for the people with the most money. The challenge is, can we extend a model of nicer stuff to lower income areas without bankrupting the city? That’s the question.

  9. Anonymous says:

    “The challenge is, can we extend a model of nicer stuff to lower income areas without bankrupting the city? That’s the question.’

    Good point. I had the same question. I checked Dublin’s municipal budget and it’s twice the size of what my local community spends. Many communities can’t afford to spend what Dublin spends, or won’t be able to convince the voters to do so. What would be helpful is a design guide for communities from the no-frills to the upscale, showing what you should be paying attention to and what you can do to make things look better from the low-cost to the top of the line.

  10. thundermutt says:

    While not of quite the reputation of Burnham’s plan, both Indianapolis and Kansas City had good plans by George Kessler, a City Beautiful contemporary of Burnham.

    Some of its features are Burdsal Parkway (which connected Fall Creek and White River at Riverside Park), Pleasant Run Parkway, Fall Creek Parkway, and both Kessler Boulevards.

    If only we’d kept them nice…

  11. thundermutt says:

    Ah, I forgot the especially elegant Fall Creek bridges in the city’s core: Boulevard, Capitol, Illinois, Meridian, Delaware.

  12. Richard Layman says:

    I don’t really have time to write a long response… but you have to place this in the context of the history of planning, which was just developing in earnest then, the impact of the White City, Burnham’s experience with the McMillan Plan, (but hey, why didn’t San franciscans implement the Burnham created plan there?), and capitalism.

    I don’t know why you think that business involvement was all that unusual. It’s fundamental to the Growth Machine thesis, and was the initial impetus for Olmsted projects, etc.

    I think also that then was a different time. The U.S. was growing with high velocity, laws were different, it was easier to get things done. (Frankly, the Union Statin project in DC was really urban renewal–the railyard is placed on what people then considered an Irish-American slum.)

    These days, governments don’t have the money to leverage change in the same way.

  13. The Urbanophile says:

    Richard, there is no doubt that the Burnham Plan was a product of its time, and that that was a key element in its success.

    However, mentioning the McMillen Plan only validates my point a bit. Burnham was not a power broker in San Francisco. He didn’t have the clout the rally the troops to his vision.

    Another possible angle is simply that Chicago has had great leadership and a great civic culture – for a long, long time. There’s a reason Chicago is Chicago after all. So much if it is rooted in civic culture and good leadership .

  14. PointSpecial says:

    In the comment discussions about streetscapes, I want to bring Milwaukee into the discussion for their culturally sensitive freeway designs. They just overhauled the Marquette interchange, are currently working on the Mitchell interchange and soon will be overhauling the Zoo interchange and the south end of the 894 (along with that tiny multi-billion dollar project of widening 94 from the state line to Milwaukee…). Highways have the ability to cut off areas and to sterilize them (discussion of 8664 clearly note this) but in places where they can be integrated into the local culture and archtectural feel, they can actually enhance the area.

    I think it's clear that someone (or several someones) in the WisDOT has some forward-thinking ideas. It will have a lasting impact on the city.

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