Rerouting the Metropolis

At a young age, Chicago situated itself as the commercial hub of a network connecting the agricultural Midwest, the frontier Far West, the industrial East, and beyond. This was its claim to fame and the cause of its growing pains. The city owed its position as a continental crossroads to its location linking two great navigable interior water systems: the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River flowing to the northeast into the Atlantic Ocean, and the Illinois and Mississippi rivers flowing west and south to the Gulf of Mexico. The Illinois and Michigan Canal and then the coming of the railroad fortified this position. The radial pattern of the railroad lines that resulted linked the heart of Chicago to its suburbs and beyond, but concentrated freight and human traffic downtown. The resulting congestion, pollution, and safety hazards caused, in the words of the plan, "the irritation of the nerves." Burnham and Bennett considered this a critical problem that undermined the quality of life and threatened Chicago's future as the industrial and commercial metropolis of the mid-continent, and their vision of a rerouting much of the metropolitan traffic away from a dramatically redesigned city center is one of the salient features of the Plan of Chicago. While improvement of the “Heart of Chicago” was the focal point of its transportation planning, the plan encouraged the construction of streets and metropolitan highways suited to the automobile. But it did not—and probably could not—anticipate the radical changes to urban morphology that the automobile and the airplane would bring. In this respect the Plan itself occupied a crossroad in American urban planning.