Central Scheme of Street Circulation and Parks in Relation to the Population

Linking skyrocketing population density to all manner of urban ills, the subject was a touchstone for urban sociologists, geographers, and reformers in Burnham’s time. One of the more innovative maps in the Plan of Chicago showed Burnham and Bennett’s plans for diverting street traffic away around the city center, superimposed over a thematic map showing gradations of population density. The shaded areas with deepest hues of brownish red have between 250 and 500 residents per acre; those shaded in the lightest beige, between 0 and 50 residents per acre. Ironically, the central business district itself was not a dense residential district when compared to its immediate surroundings—although its daytime population was most assuredly high. Neighborhoods to the immediate north, south, and west of the Loop were the most densely populated parts of the city. A proposed boulevard arching around this core would allow crosstown traffic to circumvent the densest neighborhoods, while new diagonal avenues would provide high capacity routes into and out of the core. In the manner of Haussmann’s Paris, the construction of these avenues would require the removal of hundreds of residential and commercial structures in these dense districts; for example in the neighborhood of the proposed civic center west of the Loop. The accompanying text acknowledges the cost and disruption that would result, but then dismissed it: “In all growing cities, it has been necessary, as it is now necessary in Chicago, to break through the conditions imposed by the lack of an adequate plan at the beginning, and to create, at large expense, those thoroughfares and boulevards and public squares which the increasing demands of population and the larger requirements of civic life require. The longer the beginning has been postponed the harder has been the task and the greater the expense.” (p. 81) This statement, of course, takes little account of the human impact on the people and businesses that would be displaced by this ambitious reconstruction of the central city. This little map neatly foretells the debate over the human cost of radical attempts to reconstruct the city in the name of societal benefit that would rage over the entire twentieth century.

“Chicago. Diagram of Central Scheme of Street Circulation and Parks in Relation to the Population,” from Plan of Chicago (Chicago: The Commercial Club, 1909), pl. LXXXIX. Chicago History Museum, ICHi-67025