Daniel Burnham: Congestion is a Menace

This year is the centennial of the publication of the Plan of Chicago, a watershed initiative that was instrumental to the creation of modern urban planning in the United States. Chicago has been immersed in a year-long celebration of its publication and the decades long effort to implement the recommendations of its principal author: Daniel Burnham.

I wonder how many contemporary planners have really read the Plan of Chicago. If they did, the probably would be surprised by the following quote from page 100: “Congestion is a menace to the commercial progress of the city.” They would also be surprised that four of the six major recommendations involved building new transportation infrastructure and three of those points were focused on expanding road capacity.

The Plan called for:

  • Major new regional roads in concentric rings around the center city, reaching as far as southern Wisconsin and northwestern Indiana;
  • Improvement of the “lake front,” including the construction of what is now Lakeshore Drive, a major high-volume arterial linking northern and southern reaches of the region to downtown;
  • Major expansions of city streets and arterials, including multi-decking roads (e.g., Wacker Drive) and widening major avenues (e.g., Michigan Avenue).
  • Building and improving railway terminals to more efficiently ship freight to bypass the center city and improve the convenience of passenger travel into the central city.

The other major recommendations were for a system of regional partks and the construction of major new civic buildings and “centers of intellectual life.”

While the modern professional planning community tends to focus on the civic centers and parks outlined in the plan, one could argue the central question was how to improve mobility to foster the city’s continued development into a global mega city.