Daniel Burnham on Chicago’s Safety in the Digital Age: the Timeless Value of Good Citizenship

Chicago Civic Media
11 min readJul 19, 2019

By Steve Sewall, Chicago Civic Media

Chicago’s Great City Planner, Daniel Burnham

Strange as it may sound, Chicago’s claim to be a World Class City today rests on the shoulders of one man: a Swedenborgian visionary who dreamed up and mapped out his magnificent Plan of Chicago well over a century ago.

The Commercial Club of Chicago, which underwrote Burnham’s plan, sums up its contribution to the city as follows:

The plan earns worldwide recognition and inspires a 50-year development and beautification program. Wacker Drive, Grant Park, the lakefront parks, museums, and most of Chicago’s major rail and highway corridors result from the Plan of Chicago.

Without Burnham, Chicagoans today would likely be completely cut off from Lake Michigan by an 18-mile wall of mansions, factories and high rise apartments. All 18 miles of Chicago’s lakefront would resemble the two and a half mile barrier of buildings running north on North Sheridan Road from Hollywood (5700 N) to Juneway Terrace (7700 N).

How about that on a sunny July day when your family is aching for a day at the beach?

Burnham was a man ahead of his time. So far ahead that maybe it’s reasonable to ask what this industrial age dreamer would say if were he to return, redivivus, for a close look at digital age Chicago.

So let’s imagine him visiting Chicago in the year 2019. And tonight, to conclude his four-week stay in Chicago, he’s scheduled to address the City Club of Chicago.

It will be a farewell address. Ticket price: $40. Way out of reach of most Chicagoans. But this event is special. In a long-overdue first, the City Club has arranged for Burnham’s talk to be televised citywide on WGN Channel 9 (Chicago’s very own) and WTTW Channel 11 (Chicago Public TV) for all Chicagoans to see. For free!

As we look on, City Club Chairman Edward H. Mazur has just concluded his glowing introductory remarks and invited Burnham to share his thoughts about what he’s seen and learned during four hectic weeks in Chicago.

The long applause that greets Burnham as he strides up to the podium, looking very much like the man of hour and a man with something to say, seems to warm the man to the moment.

He’s an imposing figure. On the pompous side, perhaps, though his audience readily allows that he’s a creature of a bygone age.

Grasping the podium with both hands, Burnham rises to his full height of well over six feet. Leans forward slightly.

Then, silently, unabashedly, he scans his audience with the calm, riveting intensity of an orchestra conductor gathering his players for the opening notes of a stormy symphony. He’s serious.

Ever a man of manners, Burnham begins mildly, graciously thanking his hosts for their hospitality and expressing his unbounded pleasure over his month-long visit.

Warming to the moment, he speaks of his initial, tourist-like impressions of Chicago. Of his jaw dropping at the sight of Chicago’s cloud-piercing skyline.

Of his pleasure upon seeing the restored Chicago River, with its graceful walks. And the city’s splendid museums, cultural centers, ballparks, restaurants and flowered sidewalks.

Predictably, he marvels at the superb condition of the 18-mile public lakefront that he confesses was his happiest, proudest gift to the people of Chicago.

And then, he expresses his amazement with Chicago’s integrated road, rail, highway, public transit and air transportation systems. Their role in making Chicago a global economic power.

“It is all so new,” he says, noting the sheer size of Chicago and the Chicagoland region coupled with the amazing size and variety of its population.

More than ever, he says, Chicago is the City of Big Shoulders: a digital-age We Will colossus every evolving from the industrial-age I Will City of his time.

The man has come alive; he speaks now with sweeping gestures, his sonorous baritone rising or falling with every swoop of his arms or clasp of his hands.

A born salesman, Burnham retains through all this a touch of effusive grandiosity, prompting a wag in his audience to murmur that the great man sounds windier than the Windy City itself.

Another pause. Burnham is now bodily quieting his audience with the authority of a conductor quieting his orchestra to a pianissimo.

And his voice fills with bafflement.

“For all the greatness I have seen in my weeks with you, I must now turn to a topic that perplexes me no end. To something I confess that I’m simply at a loss to understand.”

“It has to do with your modern communications technologies. First may I say how they astound me. How their power strikes me as all but alien. Unimaginable. And that’s why I’m so puzzled. Puzzled at the sight of many of you taking them so much for granted, like the very the air you breathe.

“I confess I’m old fashioned. But even after a month among you, I am still surprised to see of you, wherever I walk, speaking as if to yourselves with those odd little boxes stuck to your ears.”

Smiles in the audience. Burnham briefly smiles back.

“So much has changed between your time and mine. On that we can all agree. Yet I sense something you may not. Something having to do with the way people passed each other on the street in my day and the way I’ve seen people do so today.

“In my time, people acknowledged each other in passing. Eye contact and a nod of recognition. That was all. But those nods meant something. They reduced fear. Expressed commonality. Even shared humanity.”

“A holdover, no doubt from America’s close, small town past.”

“Here in Chicago over the past month, I’ve not given up nodding. Because some people nod back. But not many. I’ve felt saddened, as if a common courtesy between strangers — a token of civility — has been lost.”

At this point, the heads of some older members in the audience nod in approval even as the heads of some younger members turn askance, sensing mere eccentricity. Still others wonder when Burnham will ever get to his point.

But he won’t disappoint them for long.

“Which brings me to the topic I want to discuss with you and the people of Chicago watching on TV tonight. It is your violence. With wartime levels of it.”

“Levels that frighten virtually all of the hundreds of Chicagoans I spoke with over the past month.”

“My particular concern, if I may speak bluntly, is with your acknowledged failure to address this crisis effectively over the past six decades. Going back to the 1960’s and the rise of both your citywide television and your youth-victimizing, drug-dealing street gangs.”

“I see an obvious connection between these two seismic developments. We will shortly explore it.”

“But for now, what astonishes and disheartens me,” Burnham says, eyes wide open in perplexity, “is that so many of you have entirely given up on the very possibility of safety. Have accepted wartime levels violence as a hard, given fact of Chicago life, like your brutal Chicago winters.”

“As a city, you are taking your violence for granted, much as you take your digital media for granted, like the very the air you breathe.”

“I hardly need remind you that this violence is no act of God or nature. It’s 100% man-made. Chicago created it. And Chicago, I submit, can unmake what it has made.”

“And the unmaking of your violence hinges, I am convinced, on your digital media. On the uses to which you put them.”

“Think about it,” Burnham says, folding his hands and adopting a discursive manner. “In a matter of decades, Chicago and cities worldwide have used the miracle of modern communications technologies to transform life as we know it: every aspect of life, be it personal, professional, cultural or political. Such is the power of these technologies.”

“So I ask: what keeps you from using them to address and solve your violence? To make Chicago safe for all residents?”

“Instead of using these technologies to this end, you have used them merely to resort on your violence. A useful and necessary use, but far from a complete or constructive use of them.”

“And instead of using them constructively, you have instead doggedly and to my mind unaccountably relied on your hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned police force to maintain public safety.”

At this point, Burnham’s demeanor changes utterly.

“I confess I wonder: have you lost your senses? Have you forgotten the tremendous healing power of your digital media? How can it be that digital-age Chicago has for decades been using its industrial-age, law enforcement resources to address its digital-age violence?”

Burnham pauses to let all this to sink in. His audience stirs. People are nodding yes or no, sharing glances of annoyance or approval.

Seeing this, Burnham looks for a sympathetic face in the front rows and speaks to the person as if no one else were in the room.

“So again: what is it that prevents you from using your digital media to connect yourselves — citizens and leaders — in ways that will make your city safe?”

“That’s the question I have put to so many of you in recent weeks.”

“Oddly enough, the question almost invariably makes people uneasy. Disturbs them. And although I hear many answers to it, the answer almost invariably strikes me as intended to satisfy one half of your population while completely overlooking the interests of the other.”

A wink to his audience of one. He proceeds:

“Let us look at recent history, when Chicago has addressed its violence both as a traditional police problem and as a modern public health problem. Both approaches are clearly indispensable. Yet together, they have yet even to reduce your violence. I believe I understand why. May I share my thinking with you?”

“In essence, your violence is markedly public violence. It is public violence perpetrated largely by disadvantaged young people. This violence results from massive breakdowns of communication among various publics: young people and adults, Black, Hispanic and White, and citizens, police and City Hall. From breakdowns, I must say, that your media are currently doing more to exacerbate than to heal.”

In any age, but especially in your digital age, the only remedy for a culture of violence and non-communication is in a culture of communication. Especially in an age of digital communications, public safety becomes fundamentally a matter of effective public communication.

“A degree of unity, I know we can agree, is indispensable for any digital age city. With this in mind, let us look for a moment at your digital media infrastructure — at Chicago’s public communication system — as it exists today.”

“When we do, we find some interesting things. Promising things. A few days ago I found myself thinking how fortunate Chicago is to have in place and ready-made a digital media infrastructure comprised of the city’s public, community, commercial and social media.”

“With no added changes or alterations, this infrastructure stands ready to help unify your divided city.”

“I say fortunate when of the many years and millions of dollars it took for me and others to design and construct the industrial-age physical infrastructure set forth in the Plan of Chicago.

By contrast, your digital media infrastructure — effectively your digital-age civic infrastructure — is already in place and ready to go.

Now, with all of the force of the charismatic, “old straight forward manner” for which he was renowned in his time, Burnham again grasps the podium with both hands.

Alternately facing the TV camera and his live audience, he declares in a suddenly stern, pulpit-like voice that “Viable cities — safe, even joyful places to visit, work, play and raise a family in — do not take shape of themselves.”

“They require planning. Far sighted planning. The vision of my Plan of Chicago was to for Chicagoans to have a sense of belonging to their city. A sense of living in Sweet Home Chicago, as I have heard people say.

In the Plan itself, you will read that, “After all is said, good citizenship is the prime object of good city planning.

“To be viable in its digital age, Chicago needs a civic infrastructure to do my physical infrastructure did for the city during its industrial age.

“And the goal of your civic infrastructure? It is to enable all 2.7 million Chicagoans — city leaders and citizens of all ages and backgrounds — to think and act as connected and informed citizens in addressing and resolving systemic crises such as public violence.”

Burnham stops. Steps back. Takes a breath. Relaxes visibly.

He has said what he came to say.

But then, speaking casually, freely, as if among friends, he goes on.

“Well then, during my month with you, I’ve seen and learned so much. Especially about citizenship. About its development. About the dangers to it. About its renewal.”

“You know, it strikes me that good citizenship develops best in childhood. Beginning as a feeling of closeness and belonging to family, it develops in school, in church, among friends and teammates or in a neighborhood. In my childhood, citizenship was a simple matter of being helpful.”

“But for young people today, your internet changes everything. I won’t dwell here on the changes that rightly alarm you. Because in my visits to your schools I have seen how the internet can make thinkers of young people at such an early age, even, I dare say, city planners of young people.”

“To be frank, much of what I learned in my time with you I learned from your young people. Their ideas — including even how Chicago can address your youth-victimizing violence — impressed me no end.”

Pausing to allow this to sink in, Burnham then returns to the idea of a civic infrastructure:

“Would it surprise you to hear that I see Chicago’s civic infrastructure taking shape largely of its own accord? As I have indicated already, it can do so informally. It can self-assemble, piece by piece, as each medium discovers its profit potential and decides to participate in ways that suit the tastes and preferences of its audience.

“That is how your sports media have taken shape, self-assembling informally, one component at a time, as each medium finds its best place in the larger whole.”

Another pause. And yet another tone shift. Burnham’s face takes on a curiously impassive, statue-like look. Raising his hands and rubbing them together, he looks to his right and then to his left:

“One final concern. It’s with corruption. Some will naturally resist the concept of a civic infrastructure for fear of its corruption. And there’s no denying that self-serving individuals and special-interest groups will hasten to abuse or disrupt it for various reasons and in various ways.”

“In response, the civic infrastructure I envision can resist corruption by doing two things well: earning the respect and trust of Chicagoans and City Hall and producing demonstrably productive outcomes in the form of problems solved and promising opportunities realized.”

“The civic media I envision will rules. But these rules will not come from a centralized governing body. To the contrary, each medium will set, publish and maintain its own rules. Media members of your informal sports media operate in this way.

“When all is said and done, Chicagoans know the difference between fair play and foul when they can see it. They will flock to civic media programming that earns and maintains their respect and trust and will shun media that don’t.”

“All the more so because they’re vitally concerned for the safety of their lives, families and neighborhoods.”

That said, and with both hands resting lightly on the podium, Burnham now thanks his hosts and begins to take his leave.

“May I say in closing that it has been a joy to spend this month with you. Should I be 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 day to a civic-minded We Will spirit of community.”

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

— — — — —

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



Chicago Civic Media

Making citizens and governments responsive and accountable to each other at all levels of government with impartial, problem-solving political discourse.