Originating from Daniel Burnham’s belief that city/urban planning should “promote a harmonious social order that would increase the quality of life,” the City Beautiful Movement spurred the grandeur and beauty of land planning, civic social order and architecture found in many American cities. Question is, how has this ideology changed in the modern world with sustainability and green building being applied to the built environment? We constantly learn about the environment and how as a society we greatly impact it daily. We subconsciously conserve, protect, and promote the concept of city beautiful in a modern world, but what exactly are the new sub-ideologies we find in a new century with our current understanding of the environment? These questions will be answered and discussed in the following, but firstly, lets understand the foundations of the City Beautiful Movement.
After the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago, which Burnham helped to create from nothing, neoclassical architecture became the main stay of American civic architecture. It emphasized the necessity of order, dignity, and harmony found not only in civic design, but an identity of America. From there the re-imagination of urban planning in Burnham’s plan of Chicago in 1909 drastically changed the American landscape in cities. His plan there and the concept of City Beautiful influenced the eventual city plans of places like Washington D.C.
At the turn of the century, there was an obsession by many to create an identifying American “look” or “culture” through architecture and urban planning:
“The central ideological conflict surrounding the City Beautiful pitted invention and innovation against continuity and tradition. The newness and cultural nationalism … lay in [American's] quest for a uniquely “American” culture, one with maturity and confidence enough to cease relying so heavily on Old World traditions. The obsession with New World originality and horror of all things European—was itself a kind of insecurity, and that maturity would consist in an acknowledgment that America was not culturally isolated from the rest of the world.”
Chicago took an aesthetic approach to solving the problems of a city’s inability to create form and order through a “more attractive and efficient physical environment” which would ultimately improve the social environment. Although much of the Expo in Chicago from 1893 is non-existent and was burned in a matter of weeks after the expo, the footprint left behind provided order and structure. What was once the expo is now today Jackson Park (which still houses the Museum of Science and Industry) and the University of Chicago buildings along Midway Plaisance.
Burnham went on to explain the importance of parks in the City Beautiful Movement:
“Fifty years ago,” he explained, “before population had become dense in certain parts of the city, people could live without parks, but we of today cannot.” Good citizenship, he argued, was “the prime object of good city planning.” Civic renewal more generally, Burnham believed, could provide healthy activities to those citizens who could not afford extensive traveling and who thus depended on the city for recreational and cultural enrichment.
That couldn’t be more true. As populations continue to grow and urban development becomes more dense, the importance for parks and green open spaces become greater. Places like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Central Park in New York, Memorials and park space in Washington D.C., Grant Park in Chicago are examples of how these spaces are poignant to successful city planning and the City Beautiful Movement.
With a general understanding of the City Beautiful Movement, Part Two will discuss the methods in which our cities are adapting to the City Beautiful Movement in the twenty-first century. Part Three will delve into nine specific planning principles for the twenty-first century as discussed and written about at length in City Building by Princeton Architectural Press.