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Suburban Planning

The suburban idea evolved throughout the nineteenth century as the affluent sought to create idyllic communities that were both distant from, yet connected to, a central city. Those with means sought to balance suburbia’s green space and single-family housing with reasonable access to the city’s commercial and cultural opportunities, while avoiding the city’s noxious industrial and overcrowded tenement districts. The railroad, streetcar, and eventually the automobile made this balance possible.

Even in the nineteenth century, suburbs were sharply divided along class lines, and would eventually divide by race. Planners of affluent suburbs like Lake Forest and Riverside composed generous park spaces, curved streets, large lot sizes, and small shopping districts, all surrounding a train station. Each amenity added to the appeal and cost of living in the community. Developers of suburbs like Cicero laid out small lots and limited park space to attract the working-class. The 1909 Plan of Chicago critiqued these developments, whether within city boundaries or in outlying towns. “Too often,” the Plan notes, “the suburb is laid out by the speculative real estate agent who exerts himself to make every dollar invested turn into as many dollars as possible.”  From Burnham’s perspective, the profit motive resulted in crowded subdivisions, poor quality buildings, and the destruction of natural features. Citing Britain’s Town-Planning movement, the Plan recommended stronger land-use laws that gave greater power to municipalities over their built environment. As the twentieth century advanced, however, suburban planning became even more market-driven and less influenced by the ideas of planners.

Still, the Plan of Chicago spurred new interest in planning beyond the city itself. Lake Forest’s Market Square emerged only a few years after the Plan to create a coherent commercial center. Joliet, an industrial satellite city thirty miles southwest of Chicago, hired Edward H. Bennett and William E. Parsons to produce a City Beautiful plan. And Park Forest, a post-World War II planned community intended for veterans, blended an extensive park network, new street designs, and shopping amenities in innovative ways. In many respects, the plans for each of these communities shared the Plan of Chicago’s concern for the careful arrangement of public and private spaces to improve the livability of the built environment.

 

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