Making ‘little plans’ on Burnham’s big day

Daniel Burnham would have turned 170 years old this Sunday. The legendary architect and urban planner famously said, “Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.” The other, more famous phrase attributed to him, though with less certainty, is: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.

After once working on a big regional plan for the Chicago area, myself, now forgotten on a shelf collecting dust, I decided the statement “make no little plans” is one of the silliest I’ve ever heard.

There is enormous value in little plans. Like, say, if the City of Chicago would make a “little plan” to fix all of its potholes, and just focus on that for a while, then everyone’s life would be improved enormously. Or, if every Chicago homeowner would make a simple little plan for his own yard, i.e. to kill the weeds, plant new flowers, get some grass to grow, and just keep implementing this idea for a few seasons, something remarkable would occur. The whole city would be marvelously transformed, and we would indeed become a City in a Garden and a wonder of the world.

Heresy meets history

I recently enunciated this heresy before a class of young planning students. I told them, be weary of big regional plans, they’re often futile affairs performed to please some bureaucracy in Washington. Focus instead on small plans, which can be implemented, and can actually get stuff done.

But that night I had a strange dream…

D.H. Burnham, himself, looking 170 years young, appeared to me. Apparently, he’s been enjoying his time in the great beyond, a circle he joined in 1912, just two months after the Titanic’s demise. Burnham said he converses daily with Vitruvius and Hippodamus of Miletus, in the pantheon of planning saints. Together they gaze in wonder for all eternity upon the Divine Ideal Diagram, the perfect city plan.

But he had taken a break to set me straight, he said. And, as Virgil appeared to Dante, so Burnham now came down to me… at least in my dream.

“Dan, did you really say, ‘make no little plans’?” I asked him.

“Certainly I said it,” he replied, a bit impatiently, “because I certainly believed it while I was working on The Plan of Chicago, and my other city plans in San Francisco and Washington, and the like.” Awed by his presence, I unleashed a litany of praise for his plan, for Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, and especially for the beautiful parkland along the south lakeshore, which we now call Burnham Park.

It was along the south lakeshore, I noted, where his plan had achieved its greatest form, with a naturalized shoreline, lagoons and an island of emerald green, all leading down to Jackson Park.

“Yes,” he said, appearing pleased by my praise. Then, frowning, he added, “but Chicago never finished my plan, and only a northerly island was built.”

So, what do you think of our President Obama getting park space? I asked.

“A beautifully designed museum is fitting in a park,” he replied. “My plan foresaw more museums in Grant Park, which would have become a great center and beautiful setting for the city’s cultural life. But these were disallowed by Montgomery Ward’s lawsuits.”

Yes, I said, but a museum was eventually built just south of the park, and later an aquarium and planetarium were placed around this.

“And the three are beautiful, indeed,” he replied, “in their park setting along the lakeshore.”

“Remember,” he went on, “in my plan I also had placed a stadium in the park along the south lakeshore, and expected to see other useful structures there. These are urban parks that, with careful design, should serve many needs and uses by the city’s people.”

I then noted that the stadium he foresaw became Soldier Field, which featured lovely, classical colonnades. But, I felt obliged to add, much later, Chicago allowed a ‘flying saucer’ football stadium to be inserted into it.

“Shocking,” is all he said in reply.

And that’s not all, I went on more confidently now (forgetting for a moment I was speaking to a ghost), but just this year, Chicago wanted to let Star Wars creator George Lucas put a ‘flying saucer’ museum next to the ‘flying saucer’ stadium in your park.

Burnham paused, as if in thought, then replied in a grandfatherly tone, “My son, let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. A stadium, a museum, all serve the peoples’ needs, and the lakeshore provides a gracious setting for them. Yet these must be carefully planned and well designed, of a classical quality that shall reflect beauty through the ages… Wait, there was a ‘war’ between the stars?”

I briefly explained the film to him, but then returned to the subject of museums. So, it would be ok with you to put a couple more museums in our south side parks, in hopes they will stir up a little economic activity in those struggling neighborhoods?

“Yes,” he said, “so long as these are designed with dignity, and carefully planned by skillful planners.”

Sensing the shade now yearning to return Burnham to his heavenly berth, I made motion to utter just a final thought. He waited. “Go on,” he said.

Seems to me, I mused, we might have gotten two. If our mayor had been thinking, then he might have asked his friend, Mr. Obama – maybe twisted his arm a bit – to put his museum over in Washington Park, which could really use the help. And then let Lucas put his sci-fi palace in Jackson Park near the lakeshore like he’d wanted. And the South Side would have gotten two.

The ghost stared in silent contemplation.

But… I sighed, seems our famously calculating mayor didn’t see all the possible chess moves. And well, now the moment is gone…

“Hmm… politicians,” he uttered, frowning. “Curious fellow, that one.”

And with that, the spirit of Burnham bade me farewell. Wanted to return to Europe, he said, especially to see Le Grand Paris, the City of Light’s ongoing reimagining of itself.

“I haven’t been back since I died,” he said cheerfully.

I smiled. But then, as he faded from my consciousness, remembered one last thing I had wanted to say.

“Happy Birthday, Dan!”

Based in Chicago, the author is a nationally published writer, researcher and urban planner specializing in metropolitan challenges and regional development. In 2009, he co-authored Beyond Burnham: An Illustrated History of Planning for the Chicago Region. Contact him at