I’m a card-carrying nerd and a guy who, during a long career at the Chicago Tribune and later in other forums, has written much about cities and demographics. And I just love reading reports, statistics and plans.
There are two reasons for this:
- First, I can mine these documents for facts that reveal to me, in some way, how people go about or have gone about their lives. Example: a collection of maps showing the changing settlement patterns of various immigrant groups in Chicago over a series of decades.
- Second, most offer an analysis of some aspect of life and a vision, at least implicitly, of how it can be better. For instance: reports on the hypersegregation of whites and blacks in Chicago.
One report, however, rises head-and-shoulders above all the others I’ve read — the 1909 Plan of Chicago by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, known also as the Burnham Plan.
I’ve dealt with it as an important historic document, but also as a living document since it has been a touchstone for all sorts of plans for Chicago and the metropolitan region over the past 100-plus years.
Virtually every attempt to analyze where Chicago is today and how it can be made more livable in the future refers back to the 1909 Plan in some way.
And you don’t have to be a geek like me to enjoy the 165-page book. Indeed, I would argue that it is a work of great American literature.
The Plan is beautiful
Unlike most official reports, the Plan is beautiful, filled with evocative watercolors by Jules Guerin and Fernand Janin, and pages and pages of colorful and easy-to-read maps. And its text is beautiful as well — direct, straight-forward and compelling, even poetic.
Thank Burnham, the famed architect and the manager of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for that.
Although in poor health, he oversaw the gathering of ideas and data for the Plan as well as the production of the maps and watercolors. Then, he sat down with a pencil and a pad of paper and handwrote a 310-page draft of the report. (The Art Institute of Chicago has this draft online at http://digital-libraries.saic.edu/cdm/ref/collection/mqc/id/2993 .)
That’s why it’s called the Burnham Plan.
We can shape the future
And thank Burnham for the vision that the Plan embodies. In the text and in the watercolors, it’s a vision that says: We can shape the future. Our city can be better if we think up ways to improve it and put those ideas into practice. This is what makes the Plan great literature. It’s beautiful, visionary and inspiring.
It’s a key document in the creation of the modern profession of urban planning. Because it showed the way, the Plan has changed the face of Chicago and the nation and, indeed, the world. It has galvanized grand-scale projects from improved traffic patterns to the creation of entirely new cities.
Not that everything in the Plan was carried out. That’s the beauty of a plan — it’s a set of ideas that get tested by social, political and human realities. But enough of the Burnham Plan’s proposals have been put into effect that it can be truly said that everyone in the metropolitan area lives inside the Plan — by going to a Cook County Forest Preserve, by riding on the highway network, by shopping on Michigan Avenue, by soaking up the sun along the 26 miles of Chicago’s lakefront parks.
“The Lake is living water”
Those lakefront parks were a key gift from Burnham who wrote:
The Lake front by right belongs to the people. It affords their one great unobstructed view, stretching away to the horizon, where water and clouds seem to meet…The Lake is living water, ever in motion, and ever changing in color and in the form of its waves.
Shaped your world and mine
Since the Plan’s original publication, it has been republished twice:
- Once, in 1983, by Princeton Architectural press with an insightful introduction by historian Kristen Schaffer.
- And a second time, in 2009 by the Great Books Foundation as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Plan.
Both are out of print, but the book can be read online at https://archive.org/details/planofchicago00burnuoft. And, of course, at most local libraries.
It’s a work well worthwhile to track down — a thing of beauty and a set of ideas that, because of its international influence, has shaped your world and mine.
Patrick T. Reardon