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What Made the Burnham Plan Succeed? The Private Sector

Samuel Staley
May 4, 2010, 11:01am

Aaron Renn has an interesting post over on his blog the Urbanophile on Chicago's regional plan created by Daniel Burnham. His fundamental question is: Why did this one succeed? A big part of the answer, he thinks, is the plan originated from the private sector:

1. It was a private sector, business led initiative. I hear people today moan about the feckless political leadership in their cities. But Chicago wasn’t immune from this in the early 20th century. The rest of the civic leadership didn’t wait around for the city politicians to get their act together. Rather, the Merchants Club of Chicago (which later merged with the Commercial Club, a still existing organization) stepped in and sponsored the creation of a plan that they saw as critical to overcoming the challenges the city faced at the time and propelling its future growth.

This is very relevant today. Most cities have some corporate/academic vehicle that is often a prime force in local initiatives. This is the logical place for such a civic strategy to be developed today. However, I might suggest that unlike in Burnham’s day, having a broader stakeholder base is critical. Thus involving cultural institutions or other non-business groups, plus at least some form of broader community input is essential today. But I still think that it is generally the business community that is the likely sponsor for any plan.

Other factors were also important. The plan, for example, strategically built on several existing ideas and initiatives. The plan wasn't rushed; it took several years to craft and create. It was also practical.

But, it's useful to remember that even big questions are sometimes handled more efficiently and effectively by he private sector once key players have recognized a need. In fact, this helps build in public support. In my home town of Dayton, Ohio, for example, the floods of the early 20th century prompted business leaders to craft a flood control system that became a model for the rest of the nation and institute the city manager form of government in the first large city in the U.S.

This observation leads to another important insight from Renn's post: leadership is crucial. All the other stuff can be in place, but without meaninful leadership, nothing happens. That's true in both public and private sectors.


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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