Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Chicago: Transportation and the Burnham Plan

The fine arts of traffic management should be studied no less than the fine arts of parks and boulevards; for unless Chicago keeps ahead of her rivals in commercial matters, the parks will become pastures, and the boulevards will be deserted.

Michigan Avenue is probably destined to carry the heaviest movement of any street in the world.

– Burnham and Bennett, “Plan of Chicago”

A good chunk of the Burnham Plan of Chicago is devoted to transportation improvements of various types. It is curious today to find Burnham revered as such an enlightened city planner when a read of the plan itself shows him as clearly pro-sprawl and pro-automobile. His “City Beautiful” movement can also easily be read as a precursor to urban renewal. Indeed, a good chunk of his plan consists of Robert Moses like street building and street widening projects, many of which were in fact carried out. And he drew direct inspiration, and even claimed inspiration in the document itself, from Hausmann’s bulldozing of the Paris to construct the grand boulevards there.

On the other hand, writing in 1909 he can perhaps be forgiven feeling overly optimistic about the automobile, and the more humane side Burnham shows through in many places as well. So let’s take a look.

Chicago in 1909

Chicago in 1909 had long vanquished any rivals to become the clear capital of the Midwest and one of the most important commercial centers in the world. It was a large city and rapidly growing, and believed with some degree of justification that it would one day be the largest city in the world. Large fortunes had already been made there and while the city was still a growing industrial metropolis, its economy had already undergone significant change, as many of the industries that originally built its fortune such as the processing of livestock, lumber, and grain, had declined in importance.

As a city that now had wealth, Chicago wished to acquire the accouterments befitting its new station. Writer after writer talked about the awe and terror inspired by the industrial Chicago. While commercial considerations were still paramount, the city also wanted to buff its image, drawing on the legacy of the World’s Columbian Exhibition.

Additionally, the city was choking on its own growth. Particularly the greater downtown core of Chicago was completely gridlocked. Burnham made repeated references to the problem of excessive teaming, reminding us that draft animals were still in heavy use for local transport. Like Victorian London, the streets of Chicago must have been most foul and disgusting as a result.

A plan to deal with changing civic aspirations and serious problems was clearly warranted.

Street Expansion in Chicago

Traffic congestion in the core of Chicago was extreme, and much of the plan dealt with ways to relieve it. Incidentally, this is also an illustration of how core centric the plan was, reflecting a mode of thought that continues through to the present day.

Among the proposed road improvements were:

  • Building the Michigan Ave. bridge over the Chicago River. As I’ve noted previously, Burnham wisely glommed onto plans that were already in the works. This bridge was a topic of debate before he wrote the plan. This also included widening Michigan Ave. into the massive seven lane street we know today. As the quote at the top indicates, Burnham clearly anticipated this being the world’s premier street. The bridge and approaches also featured two-levels, to separate freight from other traffic, a recurring theme in the plan. Wacker Drive was also built along the north and west side of the Loop along the river in a double deck fashion.
  • Developing Congress Parkway as the city’s main east-west axis. Burnham proposed a massive civic center at the intersection of Halsted and Congress that was never built. The Congress Parkway axis was completed – as the present day Eisenhower Expressway.
  • Arterial Street Widening. Ever wonder how it is that major thoroughfares like Roosevelt Rd., Ashland Ave, or Western Ave. came to be wide enough to handle 4-6 lanes of auto traffic? They weren’t designed that way. Chicago issued hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds to widen arterial streets. This was done in the 20th century remember, after much of the area was fully developed, and was no doubt extremely destructive to the built environment that existed at the time. About 120 miles of street were widened in this fashion.
  • Building of Diagonal Boulevards. Inspired by Paris, Burnham envisioned a vast network of diagonal streets, most of which were never built. One that did get constructed was an extension of Ogden Ave. from Madison to Clark/Armitage in Lincoln Park. Most of this road, including a massive viaduct over Goose Island, was subsequently demolished. This was documented for your reading pleasure over at Forgotten Chicago. There are few traces of this road today, but as recently as the mid-90’s there were still Ogden Ave. signs visible on North Ave where the street used to be.
  • Lake Shore Drive. Along with completing the lakefront park system, Burnham inspired the eight lane freeway through the park.
  • Suburban Highways and Ring Roads. Burnham proposed a series of outer circumferential routes that would make Houston proud. Though not directly a product of the plan, these were realized in the form of the suburban tollway system.

Burnham clearly loved roads, and especially wide ones. Here’s how he thought suburban highways should be designed:

“These state highways should invariably include a work-road for heavy loads, and also a pleasure drive. The two should be separated by a grassway and there should be grass plots at the sides, and not less than three rows of trees should be planted. The country schools should be along these highways.”

Not again the separation of freight and personal transport. We still have this still on the agenda today, as with various proposals for truck only toll lanes paralleling interstate highways like I-70.

Burnham also loved the automobile and suburbanization:

“The rapidly increasing use of the automobile promises to carry on the good work begun by the bicycle in the days of its popularity in promoting good roads and reviving the roadside inn as a place of rest and refreshment. With the perfection of this machine, and the extension of its use, out-of-door life is promoted, and the pleasures of suburban life are brought within the reach of multitudes of people who formerly were condemned to pass their entire time in the city.”

Sprawl is good, apparently:

“Traffic over the ways leading to and from the city is already large and steady; and the near-by towns and villages along these thoroughfares may confidently look forward to the day when the tide of Chicago’s growth will envelop them, and ultimately incorporate them into the city.”

It is certainly difficult to square this propounding of the massive construction of massive roads and an explicit vision of sprawl with any sort of modern day progressivism. However, a few things are worth noting. First, the invention of the automobile did have huge beneficial effects. I don’t think any of us would want to go back to the days of teaming and cholera. I grew up next to a cow pasture, but that takes the concept of watch where you step to a whole new level. Also, even in the modern environment, trucks enable the efficient transport of a good in a way that net reduces vehicles. Even Jane Jacobs appreciated the role of urban trucking, noting how many wagons each truck replaced. And Chicago was not yet designed for the automobile. Thus, retrofitting and expansion of the infrastructure was required. If the negative consequences of the auto were not foreseen, this wouldn’t be the first or last time public policy had unintended consequences.

And as Burnham and the Commercial Club knew, ultimately growth and economic prosperity is what makes possible all of the other great things like beautiful public architecture, arts organizations, etc. Being responsive to the needs of commerce is ultimately necessary for us to sustain progress in other areas over the long term. While there may be limited exceptions, cities that are not favored locations for business will not have much staying power.

Burnham and Quality of Space

Burnham is best known for his massive public works oriented plans and his monumental City Beautiful spaces. This caused Jane Jacobs to dismiss his work as anti-human and anti-urban. She lumped his vision in with that of Le Corbusier and others as the “GardenRadiantCityBeautiful”. And she made some keen observations about the general lifelessness of City Beautiful style civic centers like the one Burnham proposed.

But there was another side of Burhnam, one that I argue had a more lasting and important impact on Chicago. That was his championing of the quality of space, particularly ordinary space. Take, for instance, this example of his contempt for extruded architecture:

“As a rule, the general aspect of our suburban stations is not pleasant. They should be bright, cheery, and inviting in a high degree. More study, not more money, is needed for this work. Let the architectural schools and societies take up this topic; it demands artistic imagination as well as skill. Let the man who undertakes this problem think of the hundreds or even thousands of people who must habitually use the given station, and let him do his utmost to bring into being for these people something that shall be a joy to them. A delightful station conduces cheerfulness as a man goes to work and as he comes home, while a shabby or neglected station produces the opposite effect.”

Amen. He also gets it that we don’t need more money, we need more care and creativity. Those words are still true today. Better architecture isn’t just a matter of more money.

Or this one:

“The greatest disfigurement of the residence street is found in the varied assortment of poles which crowd out the trees along the space between the curb and the sidewalk.”

One thing that cannot help but strike any visitor to Chicago is the near complete absence of utility poles apart from street light standards on streets. And not just residential streets, but commercial streets. This is extremely rare in the United States. Chicago has more alleys than any city in America, and its power, telephone, and cable lines are located there. (As is its trash – take that, New York!).

A sort of Burnham ethos is really infused into the streets of Chicago. Residential streets generally feature grass parkways between the curb and sidewalk, frequently landscaped by the homeowners even though it is public right of way. Both the main and side streets are very well lit. There are all sorts of features that, as Burnham might say, bring joy to the people who use them.

Chicago is a huge city, but it often doesn’t feel that way. Get out of the core and you find streets full of mature trees and greenery exceeding that found in much smaller places. This is no concrete jungle. It is a city for people.

The mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary places, not its special ones. Chicago gets this and that is one reason it is such a great city.

We see this right through to the current day, with Mayor Daley’s focus on street beautification, bike lanes, etc. All things designed to improve the livability of the Chicago neighborhood and make it even more attractive for the next generation. Like Burnham, Daley’s popular legacy is made up of major projects like Millennium Park. His real, most important legacy may be the upgrading of the quality of space throughout the city.


Burnham also had extensive plans for area railroads. He wanted them to build shared facilities, including centralizing passenger terminals on the west side of downtown. However, the railroads had their own ideas and proved largely immune to influence by the plan. Union Station and Northwestern Station are located along the Canal St. corridor where Burnham wanted to locate shared rail facilities, however. His legacy again lives on today in the form of the proposed four level West Loop Transportation Center that would further unite commuter rail and intercity rail with the CTA L system.

Speaking of the CTA, Burnham did not have much to say about public transit in Chicago, so I won’t dwell on it here. Nor will I discuss his harbor plans.

The Plan itself is well worth reading and I hope this summary and the quotes given prompt you to do so at some point.

More Chicago:

Chicago: A Declaration of Independence
What Made the Burnham Plan Successful?
Quotes from the Burnham Plan
The Streetlights of Chicago
High Speed Rail

Topics: Strategic Planning, Transportation
Cities: Chicago

7 Responses to “Chicago: Transportation and the Burnham Plan”

  1. Anonymous says:

    One can still see vestiges of the widening of the arterial streets. The east side of Ashland around Chicago has some "half lots" which are either just grass or have a building shoehorned in there. On Western south of Belmont one can see what were decent looking houses with no yards.

    One effect of the wide streets and the low rise character of Chicago is that arterial streets like Western and Ashland seem forlorn and sort of dumpy, because the short narrow buildings do not match the width of the street. Design wise Chicago could use a Hausmann there.

    A lot of the new buildings in Chicago lack any curb appeal and in some cases are repulsive, though by 2007 things got better compared to the late nineties. Exhaust fans which blow directly onto the sidewalk and curb cuts for parking are two bad features which really should not happen. (We have alleys!)

  2. Alon Levy says:

    It is certainly difficult to square this propounding of the massive construction of massive roads and an explicit vision of sprawl with any sort of modern day progressivism.

    The progressivism of a hundred years ago was very pro-sprawl and pro-suburban. Jane Jacobs notes how various reformers thought cities were inherently degrading, and wanted to get people out to low-density suburbs. Wallace Katz, writing about the construction of the subway in New York, explains that the patrician elite promoted suburbanization as its own solution to slums, in lieu of the local slum dwellers' demands for higher wages and shorter working hours (link).

  3. marko says:

    Interesting though that Burnham's idea of sprawl seemed to extend to the inner ring suburbs which nestle into the urban grid and are in any contemporary sense fairly dense and well connected to the core via metra, short drives along the boulevards or L Train. Much can be said of major arterial streets post widening for good and bad but the statement about the quality of architecture rings true. Looking at pictures of intersections such as Ashland and Chicago Ave or Ogden and Ashland one notices large corner multi use structures that do seem to match the scale of the street. When looking at the same intersections post war we see gas stations, drive thru fast food and low rise retail with parking lots. Maybe Burnham envisioned a more polite automobile culture where the car was seen as a part of daily life, not the foundation.

    Ashland and Western ca. 1920s http://www.duntemann.com/WendellBankBuildingChicago.jpg
    (I believe the little tavern in the bottom right became the orig westside billygoat tavern)

    Today the building is gone, theres a taco bell on the west side of the street and a 1950s era church. A very jumbled streetscape indeed, dominated by traffic lights and open space.

    It would be wonderful if the art of architecture was still appreciated for the value it adds to general life.

  4. thundermutt says:

    A century ago, cities were still dirty, noisy places without zoning and land-use regulations. People lived next door to factories and slaughterhouses and railyards. Coal ash and dust coated everything, and horse waste covered the streets. The social progressives founded the settlement-house movement to get people out of tenement living conditions. Burnham's plan (and similar plans by Kessler, Olmstead, and others) arose from these conditions.

    A modern city is nothing like those cities. A modern family doesn't have six or eight little kids playing on a postage-stamp-sized yard, or in the hallways of a tenement (with the exception of the public housing structures built to replace slums). Industry is segregated in industrial zoning and land-use districts; grandfathered urban industry disappears as its vertical factories and warehouses become outmoded and more valuable as loft space (or, in Indianapolis, as jails).

    Somehow the sprawl mindset seems to be embedded in the American DNA, even though the conditions that launched it are no longer extant. Even the "streetcar suburbs" (the sprawl of 80-100 years ago) are too urban for many folks.

  5. Mike says:

    Also check out 'Our Historic Subway Stations' on Forgotten Chicago: http://forgottenchicago.com/features/chicago-infrastructure/our-historic-subway-stations/

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments, everybody.

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments, everybody.

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