You are here

A Legacy of Planning

Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett’s City Beautiful plans like the 1909 Plan of Chicago exerted a powerful influence on American cities in the early twentieth century, promising aesthetic order and European sophistication.  In each case, maps, streetscapes, and even technical studies told compelling stories in bold visual terms that could be readily understood by an educated citizenry.  On the vision of these narratives, Chicago voters passed bond referendums to pay for numerous elements of the 1909 Plan, most dramatically the rebuilding of the shores of Lake Michigan. 

But city planning as a discipline underwent rapid change in the twentieth century, and emphasis on aesthetics waned.  New policies like zoning dominated the field in the 1920s, while the New Deal democratized planning by emphasizing conditions in slums and housing for the working poor.  The social sciences, especially at the University of Chicago, produced nuanced data analyses of urban problems, and engineers emerged as confident builders of highways and public works projects.  World War II only accelerated these trends, as expanded government agencies increasingly displaced the self-appointed civic leaders and philanthropists who had championed city planning at the start of the century.  While planners produced numerous maps and technical studies as tools of analysis, most lacked a visual narrative that the public could embrace.  Technocratic solutions replaced vision, and planning lost an element of its emotional appeal. 

Meanwhile, the automobile and the creation of a vast American middle class created new conditions that the Plan of Chicago did not fully understand or anticipate.  Further, post-war suburbanization, racial polarization, and deindustrialization could not be adequately managed by the tools available to city planners.  For the first time American cities faced economic decline, not because of the overall health of the American economy, but because of increasing mobility and fundamental demographic shifts in the population. Urban planners embraced bolder tactics like urban renewal and comprehensive regional planning to address these challenges, but neither were sufficient – nor well executed – to tame the macro-economic forces at work on cities.  By the 1960s, scholars and citizens of affected communities began asking what roles planning itself had played in promoting some of the problems of the later twentieth century American metropolis.