Carl Smith on The Plan of Chicago

Carl Smith gives an effective introduction to The Plan of Chicago, which celebrates its centennial this year.

Carl Smith gives an effective introduction to The Plan of Chicago, which celebrates its centennial this year.

It’s been a century since Daniel Burnham and other members of Chicago’s civic elite unveiled the Plan of Chicago that remade the city, and the plan is receiving renewed scrutiny and attention.

Burnham’s oft-quoted dictum to “make no small plans “has been repeated regularly in the press, and the Chicago Matters public interest collaboration between WTTW, WBEZ,  the Chicago Public Library and my employer, The Chicago Reporter is titled Beyond Burnham.

Northwestern University History Professor Carl Smith has written a concise illustrated history of the Plan’s precedents, members, substance and impact called The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City.

An expansion of a project he did for the electronic version of the Encyclopedia of Chicago, The Plan of Chicago starts with a convincing description of Chicago’s sprawling and unurly physical, social and political character at the beginning of last century.  Smith then moves into a discussion and analysis of the plan’s antecdents in other cities like Paris-he is quick to note that the plan had its own distinct flavor-Burnham and the other Commercial Club members, their adherence to the concept of the City Beautiful, and their collective efforts to conceive, promote and implement the plan.

The Plan itself was a remarkably forward-looking document, and Smith notes toward the end of the book how its progressive ethos has been echoed in subsequent decades by the late Richard J. Daley, and, to a lesser degree, the creation of Millennium Park by his son, Richard M. Daley.

Smith includes and acknowledges Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs’ criticism of the plan as being excessively committed to monuments rather than shared civic space, and, generally, the work is a sympathetic appraisal of the plan and the men behind it.   As the title suggests, the project’s influence extended beyond Chicago into the nation as a whole. 

The Plan of Chicago has plenty of pictures, some of which are more useful than others.  Overall, the combination of words, images and a bibliographical essay is an effective introduction to a seminal effort to reshape Chicago that still has direct and indirect influence on how we live today and how we think of what the region should be like in the next 100 years.

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