Best-Laid Plans

"The tendency of mankind to congregate in cities is a marked characteristic of modern times."

So begins Edward H. Bennett and Daniel H. Burnham's landmark Plan of Chicago, published in 1909. The opening salvo defined a unique problem whose solution was, by implication, the Plan itself.

For Burnham, and the City Beautiful movement he led, the physical appearance of an industrial American city was rife with moral implications. Urban decay was not just bad for business; it was bad for the soul. Burnham's vision for Chicago emerged not only from the reform-minded spirit of the Progressive era, but also from a tradition of aesthetic investment that had long been at the intersection of mapping and planning.

The tendency to graft American values onto landscapes extends at least as far back as the Quaker settlement of Pennsylvania. In the early 1680s, William Penn compiled reports and solicitations to encourage prospective settlers in England to join his new colony. The sales pitch included Thomas Holme's 1683 "Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia," a visual depiction of a city that did not yet exist-a projection of ideals rather than a representation of reality. The map called for a grid of rectangular blocks extending over a stretch of land between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. The standardized, interchangeable lots embodied both Quaker simplicity and the political equality Penn envisioned for the colony.

If Burnham was indebted to planning traditions of the past, he was also prescient when it came to urban development of the future. He included in the Plan a diagram for a metropolitan highway system connecting outlying suburban towns with Chicago and with one another. It's a remarkable blueprint that anticipated both the importance of the car as a mode of transportation and the interconnectedness of cities and suburbs.

Of course, as the twentieth century unfolded, this model for circumferential highways ultimately contributed to suburban sprawl and urban decline, helping to offset the very "tendency of mankind to congregate in cities" that Burnham had identified at the beginning of his Plan of Chicago.

By Alex Teller, Manager of Communications and Editorial Services

An extended version of this article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of The Newberry Magazine. A subscription to the magazine is a benefit of membership in the Newberry Associates.