Chicago at a tipping point or turning poine: Taking Daniel “Make no small plans” Burnham at his word

This is a Post Script to my Future of Chicago story.

To begin, a few details about the conference itself. On June 15 I along with 700 others attended it. I’d signed up hoping that its Tipping Point theme of impending catastrophe might pave the way for radically new approaches to Chicago’s systemic crises: ways that would catch and hold the attention of all Chicagoans at our city’s critical hour. I heard none. Not one.

That said, all four 60-minute panels were informative. In addition, Mayor Emanuel gave a riveting account of the progress of his Pre-School Through College educational vision for the city. Then newly-appointed police chief Eddie Johnson ticked off 15 projects comprising his New Era of Chicago policing. All well and good.

Yet only 700 Chicagoans had to $95 each to hear presentations the likes of which all 2.7 million Chicagoans should be hearing. At the end of the day I left with the all-too-familiar feeling that civic discourse in Chicago has long been the perquisite of a tiny group of privileged insiders: business people, academics, non-profits and of course politicians. The City of Big Shoulders — the I Will City — struck me as having lost the will and desire to think big: to reinvent itself as a We Will city in which all Chicagoans involved in restoring order, harmony and purpose to individual lives, neighborhoods and the city itself.

How very odd, given Chicago’s proud history of thinking big about citizen involvement. In 1904 city planner Daniel Burnham gave Chicago the physical infrastructure that a century later lies at the heart of Chicago’s claim to be a world class city. Today Chicagoans still enjoy the benefits of his 1904 Plan of Chicago: its wide boulevards, its 600 neighborhood parks, its forest preserves and above all its magnificent, publicly-owned 26-mile lakefront. And historians still discuss the Plan’s core axiom: its principle that “after all has been said, good citizenship is the prime object of good city planning.”

Burnham’s vision in a nutshell. And an axiom for 21st Century city planners. (Thomas S. Hines, Burnham of Chicago, p 333)

That was big thinking. Visionary thinking. Today Chicago is in trouble. It’s a city without a vision. Chicagoans and City Hall are radically out of touch with each other. Small wonder that when it comes to resolving any of Chicago’s systemic crises, most Chicagoans — the vast majority, I suspect — see them as unsolvable.

This editorial appeared in 2014. How is Chicago doing today?

Helplessness can be contagious. Consider for example the conference’s deer-in-the-headlights implications of the “world spotlight” slogan. Consider also its tipping point theme: would not How will Chicago transform its tipping into a turning point? have challenged panelists to look forward instead of allowing themselves to stay mired in the present?

Among other things, this question might have prompted participants to look back to Chicago visionaries like Daniel Burnham with a view to seeing how their thinking could serve as models for solving Chicago’s multiple crises today.

Take Burnham, who put the most powerful available city planning tolls of his age — architectural ones and natural resources — to maximal use. If we could ask him to survey Information Age Chicago today to help us select the most powerful available tools of our age, his choice would be instantaneous. That’s because these tools would be staring him in the face on the screens of the TV sets and other electronic devices that stare all of us in the face.

Today we take these devices for granted. That’s the problem. We need to see them afresh, as Burnham would see them. The miracle of modern interactive communications technologies would astound him. At the same time, upon seeing the mostly commercial, social and personal uses to which we put these tools, he would be astounded — and appalled — at our failure to put them to effective civic use.

What would Burnham say to us today?

Considering these tools, Burnham would instantly direct our attention to a stunning parallel that exists between the physical (and architectural) infrastructure he gave the city a century ago and the idea of a mental (and electronic) infrastructure that Chicago is entirely capable of creating today. Note the mind/body connection in this parallel: it is holistic. It sees that individual and community health are to a degree functions of each other. They are partially interdependent, as is seen in recent research showing that unhealthy communities tend to produce unhealthy families and individuals.

This interdependence, from everything we know about Burnham, would be clear as day to him. And he always saw good citizenship as both the means and the end — the prime object — of the good city planning that promotes and maintains it. Good citizenship — the feeling of belonging to a community that’s larger than self or family or place of work or recreation or even worship — was for Burnham the strongest force in promoting the health of individuals and community alike.

Burnham was a physically imposing man, with great reserves of passion. With Chicago at its tipping point today, there can be little doubt about the intensity and urgency with which he would urge Chicago, before it’s too late, to create a civic-minded electronic (and mental) infrastructure that does for good citizenship what his architectural (and physical) infrastructure has done since 1904.

Four years ago the editors of the Chicago Tribune had roughly this idea. Inspired by Burnham’s 1904 Plan of Chicago, they launched their ambitious New Plan of Chicago as follows:

The Tribune editors elsewhere proposed to use the paper’s resources to connect the city’s “top down” leaders and its “bottom up” citizens in ways that would enable all (not just some) Chicagoans to resolve the city’s multiple “intertwined” crises. Commendably, the New Plan was holistic. Initially, it was inspiring. But in scale it proved to be woefully inadequate. Its audience was limited to readers of the Tribune’s editorial page: a tiny percentage, it turns out, of Tribune readers. No other Chicago media — not even the Tribune Corporation’s Chicago radio and TV stations — helped to advance it.

Eventually the initial “make no small plans” spirit of the Tribune’s New Plan gave way to the “small is the new big” thinking of Chicagoans whose doggedly incremental, finger-in-the-dike responses to Chicago’s systemic problems have not kept Chicago from reaching its current tipping point.

Burnham’s words, lest we forget:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Now you know the rest of the story.