The Burnham Plan Centennial - Bold Plans, Big Dreams

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Son of the planner

With northeastern Illinois in the midst of what could be its most meaningful regional planning effort ever, it’s a good time to remember Daniel Burnham.
No, not the main author of the Plan of Chicago. His son, Daniel Burnham Jr. 
For more than 30 years, the younger Burnham labored long and hard to integrate the transportation, housing, economic and recreational concerns of the city and suburbs as the president of the Chicago Regional Planning Association.
The younger Burnham helped to “lay the groundwork for greater cooperation throughout the metropolitan area and became a respected voice on planning issues,” write Joseph A. Kearney and Joseph P. Schwieterman in their essay, “In Father’s Footsteps: Daniel Burnham Jr. and the Chicago Regional Planning Association.”
The essay, included in the recently published “The Plan of Chicago @ 100” (Lambda Alpha International), also notes, “Several Chicago-area expressways and many pioneering projects in a variety of suburbs are products of the association’s work.”

Dreams never quite achieved

Yet, the story of the Regional Planning Association is generally one of great dreams never quite achieved. And, in his personal life, Burnham Jr. suffered through bankruptcy and, in the early 1940s, endured devastating personal losses, including the death of one son and wounding of another in World War II. In 1961, he and his second wife died tragically in a collision when their car stalled on Kelsey Road at U.S. Route 14, west of Lake Zurich.
Born on Feb. 22, 1886, the youngest of five children, Daniel Jr. was in attendance at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition for which his father served as director of works, making an international name for himself.
“Due to his son’s ability to relate to others, the senior Burnham apparently considered Daniel to be most like him and, as such, placed high hopes in his career,” write Kearney and Schwieterman.
Daniel Jr. was 26 when his father died. Also an architect, the son decided early in his career to work to apply, as he wrote, “the Chicago Plan principles to the vast tracts of vacant land in the regional plan area outside the city.” In 1923, he helped found the Regional Planning Association, a voluntary organization with members from three states. Two years later, he became the group’s president.
It was at this time that Daniel Jr. began working with other civic leaders on a 1933 world’s fair to mark Chicago’s hundredth birthday. Burnham Jr. was named director of works of the Century of Progress fair, the same post his father had held at the exposition 40 years earlier. He also played a major role in the fair’s financial planning, according to Kearney and Schwieterman.

A follow-up to the Plan

Meanwhile, in 1933, Burnham and his top aide at the Regional Planning Association, Robert Kingery, took up an offer to write a book that, as a follow-up to the Plan of Chicago, would detail the work that the Chicago Plan Commission and the association itself had been doing to reach the Plan’s goals.
“Daniel immediately set his sights on creating such a volume in hopes it might serve as an updated companion to the Plan of Chicago and act as a catalyst for large-scale regional cooperation,” Kearney and Schwieterman write.
Yet, the effort was hamstrung by the Depression and World War II, and it wasn’t until 1956 that the report, “Planning the Region of Chicago,” was issued. But the moment had been lost.
The Regional Planning Association, the only group of its kind for decades, was being pushed aside by a new quasi-public agency, the Northeastern Illinois Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, created in 1957. A year later, Burnham signed the papers to disband the association.

The idea of regional planning

Still, by keeping the idea of regional planning alive for more than three decades, Burnham played an important role in the moving toward a more efficient, healthier and more beautiful region.
Kearney and Schwieterman note that, at an association meeting in 1943, the audience included Kingery and two other men, William Edens and Dan Ryan.
“As history would prove,” they write, “Burnham had aligned himself with extraordinarily talented men. Kingery, Ryan and others were busily laying the groundwork for public investments that would transform the region over the next twenty years.
“Kingery had set his sights on creating a system of tollways throughout the region. Edens was held in high regard due to his pioneering efforts to finance road building a quarter-century earlier. Ryan, a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, had drafted a five-year plan for highway construction and launched the acquisition of rights of way for two of the region’s first expressways.”

The highways named for those three men haven’t been unalloyed blessings for the region. But, good and bad, they are reminders of how regional thinking can result in sweeping changes to the landscape and the way people live their lives.

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