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Imagining an American Metropolis

This subsection offers an overview of key city planning issues in Chicago during the years leading up to the publication The Plan of Chicago in 1909, as well as the process of creating and promoting the Plan.

Daniel Burnham’s success as the Director of Works of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition helped his firm, D. H. Burnham and Company, win subsequent commissions for building and planning projects in Chicago and beyond. Historian and cultural critic Henry Adams observed of the fair that “Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving.”  The Plan of Chicago offered an answer, at least in terms of the city. The influence of the Plan’s vision of the ideal American metropolis in the twentieth century rests on its articulation of contemporary reform ideals and its impact on an emergent professional culture of planning. Burnham, Bennett, and their collaborators saw the physical integration of systems of transportation and the provision of open space as the organizing principles for the buildings, streets, and parks of metropolitan Chicago–and by extension of urban life itself.  The Plan drew heavily on classic early twentieth-century Progressivism’s concern for improving public sanitation and health, ameliorating congestion and crowding, easing pollution, and regulating growth. It also embodied sturdy business values that emphasized economic expansion and social stability in what was often a chaotic metropolis. The ambitious program of illustration for which the Plan is justly famous reflects the not only to create a city tailored to the needs of industry and commerce, but also to impose upon the city an orderly aesthetic conducive to social harmony. These images reflected Burnham’s confidence in the potential of a powerful and compelling vision as a force for change.