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Chicago's Grand Plan

Visionary 1909 Tract Put Urban Planning — And The City — On The Map

Tom Condon

August 02, 2009

Many cities across the country, including Hartford, built highways in the postwar period that cut themselves off from their waterfront areas. Belatedly realizing their mistake, cities have spent much time and money reconnecting or, as we say here, recapturing access to the water.

One of the few major cities to avoid the problem was Chicago. Instead of a superhighway along its Lake Michigan waterfront, the Windy City has a near-continuous 26 miles of lovely lakefront parks. The parks helped make that toddlin' town one of the most livable and attractive big cities in North America.

The parks are a priceless legacy of one of the greatest city plans in history, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The Burnham Plan, named for its principal author, the Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, was formally unveiled in 1909 and, according to the estimable Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, helped to transform Chicago from one of the ugliest cities in the world into one of the most beautiful.

Sponsored and promoted extensively by the city's business community, the Burham Plan would over decades produce, in addition to the lakefront parks, such popular public works as Navy Pier, Union Station, double-decked Wacker Drive and North Michigan Avenue.

"More important, it permanently encoded in Chicago's DNA the notion that change of any sort is possible, as long as it is backed by sufficient architectural vision, political muscle and piles of money," Kamin wrote earlier this year.

The plan has been much celebrated in Chicago this year, and officials hope the celebration will prepare the way for a new regional plan that emphasizes green and sustainable growth. It's a notion that ought to sweep the country.

The Burnham Plan ushered in what might be viewed as the golden age of city planning; many cities including Hartford would produce marvelous plans in the following years. Though the reputation of American planning suffered, rightly, for its contributions to the various disasters of the misnamed "urban renewal" era, the energy, environmental and economic demands of today may — should — trigger a renaissance of visionary planning.

There is much to learn from Burnham's work. The plan was published as a book, and is, first, a marvelous primer in planning, from the earliest cities forward. I didn't know, for example, that the baths of Rome could accommodate 62,800 citizens at once. Burnham's great influence was Paris, where, he says, "city planning, in the sense of regarding the city as an organic whole and developing its various units in relation to one another" had its origins.

Burnham concludes with the burst of planning in progress at the turn of the last century (and mentions Hartford). The main thrust of Burnham's plan was to improve the lakefront, create a road system and improve rail service, arrange systematic streets, acquire an outer park system and create a civic center of cultural institutions and government.

As with virtually all city plans, some parts of it were never realized. The plan also had shortcomings; for example, it didn't do much for most neighborhoods. But the shortcomings are vastly outweighed by the accomplishments, most of which have a contemporary feel.

The plan, for example, was regional. It views Chicago as the center of a region stretching from southeast Wisconsin to northwest Indiana, connected by road and rail.

The plan is focused on quality of life, and seeks to create amenities and institutions that set it apart from other cities. Indeed, quality of life is exactly what makes one place preferable to another.

I also love the idea that a manual of the plan was created for eighth-graders in city schools to study, and they did for many years. It is a wonderful way to develop pride in the city, something most Chicagoans are not without.

All of the above gives me an idea. The 100th anniversary of the superb Carrére and Hastings Plan of the City of Hartford, presented in 1912, is just three short years away. The proper emphasis and celebration could — possibly — generate the kind of regional planning our region so dearly needs.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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