28 August 2007

Urban planning in the 'Windy City'

Although I am not quite a native of Chicago, I was born just outside the city limits in Oak Park and grew up in suburban Wheaton, about 40 km west of the Loop. I've not lived in the vicinity for decades now, but Chicagoland still holds a place in my heart, especially the city itself, with its unique neighbourhoods, lakefront parks, architecture, world class museums, railways, and even the perpetually disappointing Chicago Cubs baseball team.

In the space of barely two generations Chicago grew from a small village on the southwest shores of Lake Michigan in the 1830s to a huge metropolis of more than a million people by the 1890s. With such explosive growth the city had put down few roots and commanded little loyalty from its residents, the vast majority of whom had come from elsewhere in the US and, increasingly, from Europe. It was merely a place to make one's fortune with the ever-present possibility of pulling up stakes and moving on. Chicago grew in chaotic and haphazard fashion with little, if any, attention to the provision of basic urban amenities that might have a civilizing and humanizing effect on its people.

This began to change towards the end of the 19th century, starting with the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the great world's fair planned by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Thereafter Burnham and the Commercial Club of Chicago came to recognize the need for a comprehensive plan for developing and improving the entire urban environment for the sake of its people. The fascinating story of this plan — its development, reception and implementation — is told in Carl Smith's The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City (above right).

Proposed Civic Center, Jules Guerin
The Plan of Chicago, often called the Burnham Plan after its principal author, was published in 1909 and was visionary in its proposals for improving and beautifying the city. It took as its model Napoleon III's Paris, as redesigned by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the emperor's prefect of the Seine. The Plan envisioned a system of public parks throughout the city; straightening the south branch of the Chicago River; building a major bridge over the river to connect Michigan Avenue to Pine Street, making a single continuous boulevard connecting the north and south sides; filling land into the lake to create an extensive public park from Lake Park (later Grant Park) to Jackson Park (site of the 1893 fair); widening Congress Street to create the city's major east-west boulevard; and, most important of all, building a domed civic centre at a central place in the Congress Street boulevard (above left).

All of this was set forth in an aesthetically pleasing volume adorned with beautiful illustrations by Jules Guerin and Fernand Janin, thereby making the book itself a visual feast to savour at leisure. A limited number of copies were published and sent to the movers and shakers of industry, commerce and government, and even to the new US President William Howard Taft. (The complete volume can be perused on the Encyclopedia of Chicago's website, albeit not in the most readable format.)

The Plan was remarkable in a number of ways. To begin with, it was spearheaded by a group of self-appointed men prominent in their respective fields. They were idealistic and public-spirited, genuinely believing they had the best interests at heart of all Chicago's people, and not just the city's entrepreneurs. Although they disliked the corrupt municipal government of the day, they placed considerable confidence in government in general to effect change — in a "democratic enlightened collectivism coming in to repair the damage caused by exaggerated democratic individualism," as Harvard President Charles W. Eliot expressed it. In this they were typical men of the Progressive Era, believing in their own superior ability to undertake such a project and assuming that, with the proper public relations techniques, others could be persuaded to come on side of their agenda.

Michigan Avenue Bridge, 1 January 1983
At least some of the Plan was eventually implemented, though not always as conceived by Burnham and his associates, who lived just prior to the proliferation of automobile ownership. Congress Street was indeed expanded and extended as a great east-west corridor through the city, but it took the form of the first of the great expressways to connect the city's heart to its suburbs in the 1950s and '60s. The Civic Center never materialized, and its proposed location is now the site of the Circle Interchange connecting four major expressways. The Michigan Avenue Bridge (above right) was built in 1920. A lakefront park system was indeed built on landfill, though Grant Park did not become quite the cultural centre foreseen by the Plan. Nor does Chicago boast the neoclassical architecture shown in Guerin's and Janin's illustrations. Nevertheless, municipal zoning certainly caught on and is nowadays simply taken for granted in North American towns and cities.

The Commercial Club was, of course, an élite group, making bold plans for grand public spaces, monuments, boulevards and buildings. Smith notes that the late Jane Jacobs opposed Burnham's approach to urban planning:

In the introduction to her best known work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jacobs is particularly disparaging of Burnham's emphasis on civic centers and monumental designs, which, she contends, have degraded rather than improved the neighborhoods around them. It is true that neither the text nor the illustrations of the Plan pay much attention to the quality of the urban street life on which Jacobs focuses so much concern or to how the individual actually experiences the city, other than as a grid to move across as efficiently as possible. With few exceptions, people are either entirely missing from Guerin's and Janin's drawings or completely overwhelmed by the massive scale of the buildings (pp. 156-7).

When I was growing up, efforts at urban renewal often came at the expense of distinctive neighbourhoods, such as the old Greektown on the west side, which was razed to make way for the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. While I do not deny the need for urban planning, I would reiterate something I wrote three years ago about Planned cities and new beginnings: "justice is more likely to be found in the ordinary activities of a government conciliating diverse interests than in a government bent on capturing its citizens' imaginations and mobilizing them for flashy, expensive projects not immediately related to their genuine needs." Moreover, real renewal of a city requires co-ordinated efforts from multiple agents, including churches, neighbourhood associations, ethnic organizations, and civic societies, in addition to municipal governments.

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