What Might Daniel Burnham Say If He Could Revisit Chicago Today?

Chicago Civic Media
10 min readJul 19, 2019


By Steve Sewall, Chicago Civic Media

City Planner Daniel Burnham, author of the 1909 Plan of Chicago

July, 2019

Digital age Chicago would do well to heed Daniel Burnham’s heretofore neglected insistence, in his 1909 Plan of Chicago, that “After all has been said, GOOD CITIZENSHIP is the prime object of good city planning.” This “what if” piece makes the case for a civic-purposed DIGITAL INFRASTRUCTURE to do for Chicago what Burnham’s PHYSICAL INFRASTRUCTURE has always done: help create a safe, world-class city of citizens who love Sweet Home Chicago.

Chicago’s reputation as a World Class City owes much to the happy provision for a 17-mile publicly-owned lakefront first advanced by city planner Daniel Burnham in his 1909 Plan of Chicago. The many by all accounts was ahead of his time. So far ahead that one might well ask what this industrial-age city planner would have say if he could return, redivivus, to spend a month in Chicago to investigate how Chicago can best plan for its digital age future.

To find out, let’s imagine Burnham addressing the City Club of Chicago at a very special evening event in 2019. (Ticket price: $40.) But this event, in a long-overdue first for the City Club, is being televised citywide for all Chicagoans to see.

As we look in, City Club Chairman Edward H. Mazur has just invited Mr. Burnham to share his thoughts about what he’s seen during his hectic month of sightseeing and picking the brains of city leaders and Chicagoans from all over the city.

An imposing figure with a deliberately formal bearing that most would considered pompous today, Burnham strides up to the podium looking very much the man with something to say. He grips the podium with both hands and raises himself to his full height of over six feet. But then he leans forward slightly, scanning his audience with the calm intensity of a conductor gathering his orchestra to perform a symphony by Beethoven or Brahms.

A man of manners, Burnham begins mildly, thanking his hosts for their welcoming tributes and expressing his unbounded pleasure with his month-long visit. Warming to the moment, he offers effusive praise for the sheer size of Chicago, the Chicagoland Region, and the amazing diversity of its population. He calls it a digital-age City of Big Shoulders and a digital-age We Will City evolved from the industrial-age I Will City of his time. He has come alive; he speaks with sweeping gestures, his sonorous voice rising or falling with every swoop.

Then, a pause. A breath. And a new, humbler tone of calm astonishment. Calling himself old-fashioned, he speaks of his astonishment upon first seeing Chicago’s modern skyline. And the city’s extraordinary road/rail/air transportation systems. And the restored Chicago river, with its graceful river walks. He notes Chicago’s splendid museums, cultural centers, ballparks, restaurants and flowered sidewalks — and then, pausing, perhaps to hold back a tear — his joy and pride upon seeing the fine condition of the 18.5-mile public lakefront that he confesses was his proudest gift to the people of Chicago.

In all this there remains in Burnham a touch of effusive grandiosity that prompts a wag or two in his in audience to wonder if the great man might be windier than the Windy City itself.

Burnham pauses again. Lowering his eyes to the podium, he brings his audience down much like the conductor signaling his orchestra to soften, between movements, from allegro to andante. And when he speaks, his voice is filled with regret. “May I turn now to something that has perplexed me during my weeks with you,” he asks, looking up, “something that I must say I am simply at a loss to understand.”

“This has to do with your modern communications technologies. I find them astounding. Unlike anything I could have dreamed of. So strange as to be almost alien. Yet wondrous, a miracle. They have transformed your lives and your city, utterly so. Yet you take them utterly for granted, like the air you breathe. And this is what I am at a loss to understand.

“Even after a month with you, I find myself astonished, everywhere I go, at the sight of you talking seemingly to yourselves with those odd little boxes affixed to your ears.”

Burnham exchanges a smile with his audience. But only momentarily.

“Something has changed between your time and mine. Something in the way people relate to each other in public. In my day, people would often acknowledge each other in passing. A mere nod of recognition. I valued them. They expressed a sense commonality community that were part and parcel of my Swedenborgian upbringing. In the past month, I’ve given up nodding. No one nods back! And I feel saddened. It’s as if a small courtesy between strangers — a touch of civility — has vanished from you.”

At this point, while the heads of a few in audience nod in approval, the head others are turning askance at this sign of eccentricity. Still others are wondering if Burnham will ever get to his point. A salesman as well as a city planner, however, Burnham won’t disappoint for long.

“All this brings me to the topic I wish to discuss with you and the citizens of Chicago hearing me on television tonight. It vitally concerns nearly all of the Chicagoans I have spoken with over the past month. It is the wartime levels of violence that afflict such huge portions of your city.

“My particular concern, if I may speak bluntly, is with your manifest inability to address your violence effectively over the past six decades, since the rise of your drug-dealing street gangs in the 1960’s.

“But what most astonishes — and disheartens me — about this state of affairs,” Burnham says eyes wide in perplexity, “Is the extent to which you seem to have resigned yourselves to violence. You seem regard this violence as a plain, hard fact of Chicago life, like your brutal winters.

“I hardly need to remind you,” Burnham adds, “that this violence is no act of God or nature. It’s man-made. Chicago created it. And Chicago, I submit, can unmake it.

“In your digital age have used the miracle of modern communications technologies to transform virtually every aspect of your lives. You could be using these resources to make your city safe for all residents. But I don’t see this happening.

“What I see, instead, is a dogged and, to me, utterly unaccountable reliance on your hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned police to maintain public safety. I am baffled. I see a digital-age city using industrial-age resources to address a digital-age problem.

Burnham pauses to allow all this to sink in. Some in his audience are uneasy. Heads are turning sideways, sharing glances of annoyance and impatience. Seeing this, Burnham spots a sympathetic face in the front row and addresses it as if no one else were in the room.

“So what is it that prevents your from using your digital media to connect yourselves — citizens and leaders — in ways that will make your city safe? I’ve put this question to many people,” he adds. “But no one seems to welcome it. People find it bewildering.”

He winks to the receptive face. And proceeds:

“In recent decades you have has addressed violence as a traditional police problem and as a public health problem. Both approaches are indispensable. But they are wide of the mark. Far wide.

“In any age, in seems to me, though especially in a digital age like yours, public violence is much more than a traditional public safety, or police, problem. Much more than a public health, or medical, problem. Public safety is also — and fundamentally — a public communication problem.”

In my time, a key function of media — mainly of the daily newspaper, of which Chicago then had over a dozen — was to unify the city. Everyone read the papers. I leave it to you to decide the extent to which your complex media today are unifying or dividing the city.

“A degree of unity, I think we can agree, is a priority for any city in a digital age. With this in mind, if we look closely at Chicago’s digital media infrastructure, exactly as it exists today, we find some very interesting things. Promising things. Only a few days ago it occurred to me that Chicago is fortunate to have in place, ready-made, a loosely-assembled digital media infrastructure — one comprised of public, community, social and commercial media — which itself, without radical changes or alterations, is fully capable of unifying your divided, even polarized city.

“Bear in mind that in my day it took many years and millions of dollars to design and construct the industrial-age physical infrastructure of our 1909 Plan of Chicago. By contrast, I would ask you to consider that your digital media infrastructure — I would call it your digital-age civic infrastructure — is already substantially in place. It remains only for you to put it to effective, civic-purposed use.

Then, with all of the charismatic force of the “old straight forward manner” for which he was known in his time, Burnham again grasps the podium with both hands and, looking directly into the TV camera and his citywide audience, speaks as follows:

Drawing now from the civic-minded Swedenborgian convictions that inspired his 1909 Plan, Burnham declared that “Viable cities — safe and even joyful places to visit, work, play and raise a family in — do not take shape of themselves, naturally or automatically. They require planning. Forward-looking planning. The vision of the Plan of Chicago, in a word, was to give all Chicagoans a sense of belonging to their city. Of being a citizen and member of it. And, to an appropriate degree, of being responsible for it.

In the Plan itself I said that that “after all has been said, good citizenship is the prime object of good city planning.”

I urge your city planners, then to create a digital civic infrastructure for Chicago, housed in your existing media infrastructure. The goal? It wold be nothing less than to enable all 2.7 million Chicagoans — citizens and leaders alike — to think and act as informed members of a digital-age community in addressing and resolving systemic crises like citywide public violence.

Burnham had said what he came to say.

Visibly relaxing, Burnham steps back and takes a breath. Then, speaking casually, freely, as if among friends, he continues:

Well then, during my month among you, I’ve seen and learned so much. Especially about citizenship. About how it evolves. It’s struck me that citizenship — responsible membership in a community — begins in childhood. It starts as a feeling of belonging, whether to family, school or neighborhood. In my childhood, citizenship was a simply matter of being helpful.

But for young people today, your internet changes everything. And some changes are truly promising. It awakens their minds early on. It makes thinkers of many young people, I dare say even city planners, of some. This I saw firsthand during my visits to your schools. I was astonished. Your students taught me far more than I could teach them. Their ideas — including how Chicago might make itself violence-free — astounded me. May I say that much is to be learned from them.

Pausing to allow all this to sink in, Burnham returned to the topic of his proposed civic infrastructure:

Would it surprise you to hear that I see Chicago’s civic infrastructure taking shape largely of its own accord? It is poised to do so informally. It will self-assemble piece by piece, as each medium sees its profit potential and decides to participate in it in ways that meet with the tastes and preferences of its audience. The model for this civic media? It is your self-assembling sports media, which over the years has taken a highly function shape informally, one component at a time.

Another pause. Yet another change in tone. Burnham’s face now assumes a severe, fixed, almost statue-like look. Raising his hands and rubbing them together, he looks to his right and then to his left:

One final concern. Many of you will naturally be concerned with the possible corruption of a civic infrastructure. Self-serving individuals and special-interest groups or organizations will surely do their best to abuse it. In response, I would say this. The civic infrastructure I envision will maintain its integrity as long as it does two things: earns the respect and trust of Chicagoans and City Hall and produces demonstrably productive outcomes in the form of problems solved and promising opportunities realized.

The civic media I envision is rule-governed. But it needs no governing body to oversee it. Each medium will create and enforce its own rules.

Inevitably, some media will break their own rules or create poor rules. But an important function of your news media will be to quickly and publicly expose their conduct. Chicago’s sports media already do likewise. Chicagoans and Chicago sports fans what is fair play and what is not. Chicagoans will flock to civic media programming that earns and maintains their trust and will reject those that don’t. Because at stake is the safety of their neighborhoods.

With both hands now resting comfortably on the podium, Burnham thanks his hosts and takes his leave.

May I say in closing that it has been a joy to spend this month with you. Should I be posthumously fortunate enough to visit Chicago again a hundred years from now, I will do so with the hope that Chicago has evolved from the somewhat self-centered I Will spirit of my time to a civic-minded We Will spirit of genuine community.

During the long, warm round of applause that follows this thought, Burnham accepts the plaudits of his hosts: not just the City Club but also a few far-sighted members of the Commercial Club of Chicago which, in his time, had sponsored his Plan of Chicago.

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Steve Sewall, Ph.D., is a Chicago educator and Director of Chicago Civic Media.



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