Daniel Burnham and the
1909 Plan of Chicago

The Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, Court of Honor and Grand Basin

Columbian Exposition, 1893

Aerial view of Washington DC, from The McMillan Plan of 1901

McMillan Plan, 1901

I: Bird’s-eye view of Metropolitan Chicago

Bird’s Eye View, Metro Chicago

XXXIV: Chicago as Mid-west Regional Center

Regional Center

XXXV: Proposed Roadway Connecting Towns Around Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan Roadway

XL: Diagram of Chicago’s Radiating and Encircling Regional Thoroughfares

Chicago Regional Thoroughfares

XLIV: Map of Chicago’s proposed System of Boulevards, Parks and Forest Preserves

Chicago Forests, Parks, and Boulevards

L: Proposed Public Recreational Lakefront Parks, from Jackson Park (south) to Wilmette (north)

Chicago Lakefront

LI: Aerial view of proposed South Shore Lagoons, looking south

South Shore Lagoons

LXXIII: Diagram of existing 1909 industrial areas and commuter and industrial rail circuits

Chicago Industry

LXXXVII: View looking west over Chicago’s Harbor, Grand Axis and Civic Center

Chicago Grand Axis I

LXXXIX: Diagram of Street Circulation and Parks in Relation to Population Density

Population Density

XCI: Existing and Proposed Diagonal Arteries

Diagonal Arteries

CIII: Existing and Proposed Parks and Boulevards

Parks and Boulevards

CVII: View from South Branch of The Chicago River at Wolf Point, looking north

Chicago River at Wolf Point

CX: Comprehensive plan view of Chicago’s Central Area

Chicago Central Area Plan

CXII: View of Michigan Avenue looking north from Washington Street

Michigan Avenue Looking North

CXIV: Aerial view of Grant park and Michigan Avenue, looking northwest

Grant Park

CXVIII: View of Michigan Avenue looking south toward Twelfth Street (Roosevelt Road)

Michigan Avenue Looking South

CXXI: Proposed 12th Street Boulevard, looking southwest

12th Street Boulevard

CXXII: Below-grade Railway Station proposal west of The Chicago River

West Railway Station I

CXXIII: Above-grade Railway Station proposal west of The Chicago River

West Railway Station II

CXXV: Elevation of Grant Park and Harbor, looking west

Grant Park and Harbor

CXXVI: Section through proposed Grand Axis of The City, looking north

Section Through Grand Axis

CXXVII: Bird’s-eye night-view of Harbor, Grant Park and Lagoons, looking south

Bird’s Eye View of Harbor

CXXIX: Chicago’s Civic Center, Business Center, Grant Park and Yacht Harbor

Chicago Civic Center Plan

CXXXI: Elevation of Civic Center Buildings, looking west

Civic Center Buildings

CXXXII: View of proposed Civic Center Plaza and City Hall, looking west

Civic Center Plaza

CXXXVII: View of Chicago’s Central Area, looking east

Chicago Grand Axis II

Left: Selected Plates with summary captions, from Daniel Burnham’s and Edward Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago:

*      *      *      *

While the keynote of the nineteenth century was expansion, we of the twentieth century find that our dominant idea is conservation. The people of Chicago have ceased to be impressed by rapid growth or the great size of the city. What they insist asking now is, How are we living?…. The constant struggle of civilization is to know and attain the highest good . . . the best conditions of life….
— Daniel Burnham, Plan of Chicago, 1909

Already a successful architect in partnership with John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham’s career as a city planner took off following his success as Director of Works for The Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and his 1901 work for the Senate Park (aka McMillan) Commission in Washington, DC. Burnham’s Plan of Chicago (with Edward Bennett) followed his smaller scaled (but still large) urban design proposals for Cleveland, San Francisco, and Manila and Baguio in The Philippines, which together represented and helped establish the American City Beautiful Movement and its classical humanist urbanism as the leading school of city planning through The Great Depression and up to World War II.

The Plan of Chicago, published in 1909 about two-thirds of the way through a sixty-year period when Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world, aspired to advance Chicago city and regional commerce and facilitate the best life for Chicagoans by means of the following themes and recommendations:

  • Improving the Chicago lakefront and reserving it for public use
  • Extending the existing park and boulevard systems, including designated forest preserves
  • Improving existing freight and passenger rail systems
  • Making a system of concentric thoroughfares in and for the Chicago region
  • Arranging Chicago streets and avenues to facilitate movement to and from the central business district
  • Improving the business environment through beauty
  • Making beautiful centers of civic administration and culture, so composed as to give narrative coherence to Chicago’s common life

Chicago has changed in the hundred-plus years since Burnham’s Plan; and today —in spite of growth in the historic center and a spectacularly photogenic lakefrontsuffers from economic stagnation, financial crises, population decline, class segregation, and the loss of its middle class. (See also here.) In these less than favorable circumstances, The Notre Dame Plan of Chicago 2109 (hereafter Chicago 2109) does what Burnham himself did in 1909:

First, to make the careful study of the physical conditions of Chicago as they now exist;
Second, to discover how those conditions may be improved;
Third, to record such conclusions in the shape of drawings and texts which shall become a guide for the future development of Chicago.

With proposals for metropolitan Chicago at the scale of the Burnham Plan itself —developing and extending ideas present in the Plan of Chicago, offering new suggestions of our own— Chicago 2109 is similarly comprehensive in ambition. But it is also as sober and prudential as is warranted for a foreseeable future of demographically based economic stagnation. In the era of economic limits dawning upon us, we think the ephemeral character and economic and environmental unsustainability of modernist architecture and urbanism will become increasingly apparent; and with durable wealth at a premium, we think the classical humanist urbanism of the Plan of Chicago and Chicago 2109 continues to have something substantive and good from which both Chicagoans and city lovers everywhere can learn and benefit.

As noted on the Home Page, there is an American precedent for urban design at this scale, for its loss, and for its recovery and subsequent development; and perhaps not coincidentally, it involved Daniel Burnham. The original 1791 plan for Washington DC by Pierre L’Enfant was severely compromised over the course of the 19th century and then, with the help of Daniel Burnham, corrected and extended by the United States Senate Park Commission (aka The McMillan Commission) in 1901 and thereafter. The so-called McMillan Plan and the Plan of Chicago were, of course, more or less contemporaneous; and the future they imagined was neither the future that occurred nor the future that most architects today imagine. Nevertheless, the Washington, DC we know today is a recognizable descendent of Pierre L’Enfant’s Plan of 1791, and is so because of the work of the McMillan Commission. To argue that the present and future relevance of the Plan of Chicago has passed is an ideological position rather than a necessary truth.