How Urban Planning Works

City Beautiful

The Administration Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where Daniel Hudson Burnham's City Beautiful movement made its debut.
The Administration Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where Daniel Hudson Burnham's City Beautiful movement made its debut.
Stock Montage/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To understand Chicago of the early 1900s, consider this observation from Truesdale Marshall, the protagonist of Henry Blake Fuller's novel, "With the Procession:" "[Chicago is a] hideous monster … so pitifully grotesque, gruesome, appalling." Many people, foreigners and Americans alike, felt the same way about most cities in America. By 1910, many cities contained one million residents, but few planned properly for such a population explosion. As a result, cities developed in an ad hoc fashion. This made them shapeless, inefficient and, in many cases, dangerous.

Daniel Hudson Burnham, a Chicago architect, began to address these issues in an approach to urban planning that would become known as the City Beautiful movement. City Beautiful was characterized by the belief that if you improved form, function would follow. In other words, an attractive city would perform better than an unattractive one. Beauty came from what Burnham called "municipal art" -- magnificent parks, highly designed buildings, wide boulevards, and public gathering places adorned with fountains and monuments. Such beautiful additions to the cityscape could not directly address perceived social ills, but they could, at least in Burnham's thinking, indirectly improve social problems by enhancing the urban environment.

Burnham first displayed the City Beautiful principles at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His dream city, known as White City, featured large-scale monuments, electric lights and state-of-the-art transport systems. It also removed all visible signs of poverty so that the roughly 27 million visitors who streamed through the exhibition witnessed a true urban utopia.

Burnham then applied City Beautiful ideas to several city designs between 1902 and 1905. He directed plans for Washington, D.C.; Cleveland, Ohio; Manila; and San Francisco, Calif., But the culmination of the movement came in 1906 when Burnham teamed up with Edward Bennett to prepare the Plan of Chicago, the first comprehensive plan for controlled growth of an American city. The Plan encompassed the development of Chicago within a 60-mile radius and called for a double-decker boulevard to better accommodate commercial and regular traffic, straightening of the Chicago River, consolidation of competing rail lines and an integrated park system that encompassed a 20-mile park area along Lake Michigan. Some of these features, such as the twin-level roadway, were firsts in any city, anywhere in the world.

Although the City Beautiful movement was revolutionary in America, it drew upon urban planning ideas used for many years in Europe. In particular, Burnham used Paris as a successful model of urban planning. Planning of Paris began in earnest in the 1600s during the reign of Louis XIV when architects used great foresight to build squares, parks and avenues in areas that were barely settled. As Paris increased its population, it was able to grow into its design. Then, in another era of notable development beginning in the 1850s, Georges Eugéne Haussmann, appointed by Napoleon Bonaparte, began reworking the city, making it more suitable and attractive for the vast numbers of visitors, merchants, manufacturers and residents who filled the city.

Burnham also recognized the contribution of the ancient planners responsible for Athens and Rome, as well as the planning tradition that went back for centuries. In the next section, we'll look at how this tradition manifests itself today in the hands of modern planners.