You are here

Planning Chicago after Burnham

The 1909 Plan of Chicago and Daniel Burnham’s dictum to “make no little plans, as they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” remained the benchmark by which future plans for cities would be judged. While subsequent plans for Chicago were often bold, in many respects they lacked the strong vision and compelling imagery that propelled large elements of the Plan to fruition.

The independent Chicago Plan Commission, created in 1909, spent three decades faithfully adhering to the spirit of the Plan, with much success. Landfill created beaches and parks that gave the city a useable lakefront, the most enduring legacy of Burnham and Bennett’s vision. The widening of Michigan Avenue opened new commercial opportunities, and Wacker Drive helped organize the riverfront. Union Station began a long process of rationalizing the city’s railroads. The public supported these efforts, repeatedly voting for bond referendums.

In 1939, the Plan Commission was absorbed by city government, ushering in a period of planning professionalization. A new planning department at the University of Illinois, itself influenced by the University of Chicago’s groundbreaking urban sociology, produced graduates employed by the city to bring data and theory to bear on its future. The result was a series of post-war plans that proposed the rebuilding of massive swaths of Chicago, while at the same time seeking to influence the growth of the suburbs.

But professionalism often resulted in technocratic rather than visionary plans. The 1946 Preliminary Comprehensive City Plan of Chicago offered copious data and detailed land-use maps but vague proposals on its goal of clearing and rebuilding nine square miles of the city deemed “blighted.”  The 1958 Development Plan for the Central Area of Chicago made prescient recommendations for defending a strong downtown urban core, but its visual elements were uninspired. The 1966 Comprehensive Plan of Chicago, a groundbreaking plan emphasized process and goals over prominent projects. While lavishly published, the 1966 plan failed to generate widespread enthusiasm. It remains the last fully realized comprehensive planning effort undertaken by the city of Chicago.

Meanwhile, regional planning, spurred in large part by the 1909 Plan of Chicago, emerged nationwide in the 1920s and accelerated in the post-war period as it became obvious that the automobile and the shape of suburbia would be critical planning problems. Despite increasingly sophisticated analyses, regional governmental bodies struggled to achieve consensus among numerous towns and municipalities on shaping growth, and road-building dominated infrastructure expenditures. The car had become king, while central cities struggled.



City of Chicago, Department of Public Works. Chicago Public Works: A History. Chicago: Rand McNally and Company, 1973.

Chicago Plan Commission. Chicago Tomorrow: An Interpretation of the Preliminary Comprehensive City Plan. Chicago: Chicago Plan Commission, 1946.

Chicago Plan Commission. Preliminary Comprehensive Plan of the City of Chicago: A Generalized Presentation of the Physical Elements of the City Plan Designed for a Population of 3,800,000 by 1965. Chicago: Chicago Plan Commission, 1946.;view=2up;seq=8

Crane, Jr. and Jacob L. “Regional Planning in Illinois.” Illinois Municipal Review 2, no. 3 (July 1923): 152.

Keating, Ann Durkin, Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Keating, Ann Durkin. Building Chicago: Suburban Developers and the Creation of a Divided Metropolis. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988.

Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, The Comprehensive General Plan for the Development of the Northeastern Illinois Counties Area: A Regional Armature (A Supporting Framework) for the Future. Chicago: Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission and United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1968.

Schwieterman, Joseph P. and Alan P. Mammoser. Beyond Burnham: An Illustrated History of Planning for the Chicago Region. Lake Forest, IL: Lake Forest College Press, 2009.

“The Corridor Concept: A Study Carried Out by Second Year Graduate Students in the Department of Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana, 1967-1968.”  Urbana: University of Illinois Department of Urban Planning, 1968.

Whitehead, Helen, The Chicago Plan Commission, A Historical Sketch, 1909-1960. Chicago: Chicago Plan Commission, 1960.



Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.