No Little Plans I

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.
—Daniel Burnham

Ah, the Burnham Plan.  More properly, the Plan of Chicago, first published by the Commercial Club of Chicago in 1909 in a limited edition of 1650 copies, then lovingly republished in 1993 as a reproduction. The followup document is Chicago Metropolis 2020, but more about that later.  You can read a scanned image of one of the original copies of the Burnham Plan in Google books, but then you will miss one of the most important parts of the book, if not the most important— how it looks and feels.

First the cover, as classic and black as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and with gilded letters.


Then you open the book.  Handling the pages is a delight.  They’re thick, and an ivory color. Plenty of space is used for the illustrations.  Some pages are even blank—no rush to save money by crowding things together.

Burnham’s plan invokes the timelessness of Babylon, Egypt, Athens and Rome,  then the sophistication of city planning in Europe.

But mostly it’s a vision of “organic unity”


and the “Spirit of Chicago”.


A civic center for governmental activities was planned for west of the lakefront; today the University of Illinois stands on this spot.

The project was not commissioned by a governmental agency, but by the business leaders of the day.

“The Lakefront by right belongs to the people,” wrote Burnham.

I stopped short when I read that.  The book is full of purple prose, compound sentences, and phrases meant to be skimmed over, not parsed.  Then comes this  simple, clear statement about the lakefront. “Not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.”

And that, in the end, is what Burnham is most remembered for, not just Chicago’s long, continuous, and public lakefront, but green space:  parks with lagoons, wide boulevards connecting the park systems, and forest  encircling the city.

I like this book, yes, and although it was quite expensive at the time (a paperback version is now available in time for the centennial), I have never considered reselling it. But you should see urban planning students with this book. Smitten, yes. I once saw a video a student had made superimposing Burnham’s drawings over a satellite image of the city. It was about a 1 minute tape, but they set it to loop and the other students watched it over and over for a good ten minutes.

Later:  The Commercial Club’s Chicago Metropolis 2020 in No Little Plans II

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