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A Metropolitan Highway System
Although the Plan of Chicago superficially considered how the automobile would affect Chicago’s urban structure, Burnham and Bennett did not foresee the overwhelming impact that motor vehicles would have on American urban life and culture more generally. They called for a system of highways including a north-south thoroughfare linking Chicago to Milwaukee. They also advocated four concentric beltways around the metropolis at varying distances. This ambitious scheme for regional avenues and roads, influenced by the contemporary French planner Eugène Hénard, among others, was among the first such plans with implications for automobile travel. In many respects the scheme anticipated the creation of state and federal truck automobile highways. Burnham and Bennett did not, however, foresee a day when the diversion of traffic from the city center would lead to the decline of the center’s relative importance in metropolitan life and economy. Neither did the two authors foresee that such a diversion would encourage suburban sprawl. The plan’s schemes for a series of metropolitan highways promoted lateral connectivity among railroad era suburbs arrayed along a predominantly radial plan of communication dominated by its central hub. In this way it extended the logic of circulation they applied around the city center itself. Yet we cannot look at this scheme today without seeing it a as a prescription for the decentralized geography that reshaped the American metropolis in the second half of the twentieth century.
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