The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City Discussion Questions

  1. Carl Smith quotes Daniel Burnham as saying Chicago’s rise had resulted in “the chaos incident to rapid growth, and especially to the influx of people of many nationalities without common traditions or habits of life” (p. 1). How does Burnham’s Plan of Chicago provide solutions to this “chaos,” and does it address this lack of “common traditions or habits of life” among Chicago’s citizens?
  2. The City Beautiful movement of which Burnham was a spokesman advocated that a beautiful urban environment would bring out the best in a city—creating integrated communities, reducing social conflict and increasing economic productivity. Thinking about specific neighborhoods and incidents in the 100 years since the plan was published, do you find this to be true?
  3. Smith quotes Burnham in this critical passage of the plan: “At no period in its history has the city looked far enough ahead… There can be no reasonable fear lest any plans that may be adopted shall prove too broad and comprehensive” (p. 98). Considering the challenges that lay before Chicago both at the time of the plan (1909) and in the present, are Burnham’s claims here justified? Specifically, how might the city look far enough ahead at the present time? And what is the attitude in Chicago today toward grand planning?
  4. Smith comments on several aspects of the Burnham plan that never came to fruition. These would include the transformation of Congress Parkway into the “major east-west thoroughfare” (p. 149), and the unbuilt Civic Center. Were these missed opportunities, or were there good reasons for leaving these projects on the drawing boards?
  5. Do you agree with Jane Jacobs’ criticism of Burnham, expressed in her work The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), that Burnham’s “emphasis on civic centers and monumental designs … degraded rather than improved the neighborhoods around them” (p. 157)?
  6. If Burnham were alive today, which parts of the plan would he commend as most successful? As least successful? What new plans do you think he would propose?

The Chicago Public Library thanks The Great Books Foundation for providing these questions.

Content last updated: October 31, 2009

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