Friday, April 30th, 2010

Replay: What Made the Burnham Plan of Chicago 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.

This post originally ran on April 15, 2009.

Topics: Strategic Planning
Cities: Chicago

3 Responses to “Replay: What Made the Burnham Plan of Chicago Successful”

  1. Erich R. H. says:

    Sounds awfully similar to the current Cultural Trail being built and the proposed IndyConnect plan. Both of these have received substantial support from the private sector from the very beginning. Do you see any similarities Aaron?

  2. ryan says:

    reading your post, after each bullet point, i kept saying to myself ‘but what about burnham himself!?!?!’ then, of course, i finished it, and couldn’t agree more.

    i’d add something else to your analysis, and it’s that someone like burnham was able to become such a celebrity, such an important figure in chicago and in the world. when’s the last time a city planner achieved legitimate celebrity and, even more importantly, the political clout to take on a huge project? ed bacon comes to mind, i suppose, but even he was pretty constrained (for the better, maybe…i shudder thinking about a south street expressway to make a hideous center city box).

    the question then is, is it that burnham was burnham, or is it that the culture of turn of the century urban areas allowed for a person like burnham to gain the influence and celebrity he did?

  3. ryan, I think you are onto something. Industrial cities were comparatively young then from a growth cycle perspective. Chicago had really only become a major city in the past 50 years. I’m guessing most of the Merchant’s Club/Commercial Club members were self-made men and first generation wealth as a result of founding their own companies. The political leadership in Chicago was weak then too.

    Contrast to today. Mayor Richard J. Daley took office 55 years ago. His son is still in City Hall. The locus of power has moved to a strong political center. Also, Chicago is much more dominated by “old money” and established names. The Commercial Club is made up of corporate executives who followed a very different path to the top than the old industrial titans.

    None of this is to say that one system is better or worse, merely that it is different. It probably plays a role in why there are no Burnham’s today.

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.

About the Urbanophile


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.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures