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Make No Small Plans

When Hillary Clinton was in Chicago in April, she talked at length about the infrastructure problems we face in the United States.


When Hillary Clinton was in Chicago in April, she talked at length about the infrastructure problems we face in the United States because the federal government isn't preparing for our future needs. Just as the Eisenhower administration planned the federal highway system, long-term thinking is essential to the fabric of our country and cities.

Over the last century, Chicago has developed a number of plans that addressed the future of the city. The first of these was the 1909 Plan of Chicago, in which Daniel Burnham proposed that the city lakefront be a place for culture and parks. A friend from Los Angeles recently commented that Chicago could be Cleveland had the city not developed its lakefront. It's also probable that had our mayors and business leaders not made some key decisions, Chicago could be Detroit, where there is a ghost of a downtown core, left behind as businesses moved to the suburbs and elsewhere.

The 1909 plan laid the groundwork for the lakefront park system and Lake Shore Drive, North Michigan Avenue and the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Burnham also developed the concepts for lower and upper Wacker Drive, one of the key developments that made the downtown accessible and available for the transportation systems that it needed to support the downtown development that would occur over the next century.

Fifty years later, the Development Plan for the Central Area of Chicago included initiatives for Federal Center and Daley Plaza, McCormick Place, University of Illinois at Chicago and the Oak and Ohio Street beaches. This plan focused on the "the economic betterment, comfort and general welfare of the people." One of the problems of that era was that several buildings were razed for urban renewal initiatives, such as the Chicago Stock Exchange in 1972, designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. What was gained was a foundation that would encourage future business and commerce to develop.

Chicago 21: A Plan for the Central Area Communities was created in 1973, and its focus was "to restore the historic role of the center city and to preserve what is unique about Chicago." Some of its initiatives included Dearborn Park in the South Loop, an extension of the "L" to O'Hare, extension of the loop Pedways and redevelopment of the Ogden Slip, where the North Pier development stands today.

The creation of the Museum Campus and relocation of Lake Shore Drive were components of the 1983 Chicago Central Area Plan: A Plan for the Heart of the City. Lakefront Gardens, later to be known as Millennium Park, was conceived in this plan, but was only completed in 2005. The street-scaping of Michigan Avenue, Wacker Drive and Congress and Halsted Streets were all concepts outlined in this plan.

The Chicago riverwalk was also part of the 1983 plan and even then was not a new idea. It became mandated by the city in 1998 as part of any new river development project and has provided a number of new venues along the river. Eventually there will be a connected and walkable riverfront system from the lake to the South Loop and perhaps up through River North.

One noticeable hole in the plans is the lack of a comprehensive strategy for affordable and public housing. Burnham's original plan was the most thorough, including ideas and designs for public housing. Only recently has the city mandated the affordable and assisted living housing with a zoning bonus available to developers for inclusion of affordable units.

One obvious change in the city since the 1983 plan is the increase in residential units, creating a 24/7 downtown. In addition, with some 50,000 students attending classes in the loop, we're witnessing a return to the classic idea of a central city.

Proposals in the current Chicago Central Area Plan: Preparing the Central City for the 21st Century include ideas such as building a park over the Kennedy Expressway that would connect the loop to the west, where future growth is planned. The city is also planning for a West Loop Transportation Center along Canal Street, which would link the various transportation systems of the city and connect them to both airports. The connectivity of Chicago is still a major focus, including plans to add green space over the Illinois Central railway, which separates the city from the lake to the south of Grant Park.

All too often "planning" is viewed as a liberal orthodoxy with high cost and little value, but lessons of 100 years of city planning record achievement unmatched in any other U.S. city. Daniel Burnham says it best in the final chapter of the 1909 plan: "If, therefore, the plan is a good one, its adoption and realization will produce for us conditions in which business enterprises can be carried on with the utmost economy, and with the certainty of successful issue, while we and our children can enjoy and improve life as we cannot do now. Then our own people will become home-keepers, and the stranger will seek our gates."

Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: Fall 2006