burnham plan of chicago

Our Green City: The Green Legacy of the Burnham Plan


Do you know the name Daniel Burnham?

His is probably the name that come to mind most quickly in connection with Chicago’s urban planning and green spaces.  All the residents of our city “live inside the Burnham Plan.”  So before you head out to enjoy some of Chicago’s glorious green space, watch a fireworks display off Navy Pier or swim at a city pool during the upcoming holiday weekend, spare a thankful thought for this important slice of our City’s history.

Chicago’s Park History

Chicago actually boasts the oldest parks department in the country.  So Burnham, and his “Plan of Chicago” didn’t come before and create all of Chicago’s beautiful parks.  In fact, part of Burnham’s work as an architectural apprentice was to take field measurements of the existing bridges in Lincoln Park as his employer William Le Barron Jenney undertook improvements to them and made plans for west side parks including Humboldt, Garfield and Douglas.  Nevertheless, from both his early history and the city’s, Burnham was integrally involved with many of our early urban planning projects and choices.

The Burnham Plan: Grand Designs …

As a young architect, Burnham and his early partner John Welborn Root worked for the South Park Commission and designed a number of buildings for the south side’s early park system.  Later Burnham, served as the director of works for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and then helped re-work its design from fair grounds back to city park in 1885.

… And Neighborhood Green spaces

But Burnham didn’t only focus on the grand and the scenic – he also took on designs for field houses (local rec centers centered in smaller neighborhood parks meant to increase the public’s access to healthy activity and green space). Between 1869 (when the parks commissions were created) and 1900, Chicago had grown from 300,000 residents to 1.7 million, many of them living in tenement housing at least a mile from any open space.  The new parks he helped design for the south side during that time because a national model for urban planning and by 1907 President Teddy Roosevelt called it “one of the most notable civic achievements in any American city.”

burnham plan of chicago

The Plan of Chicago

Both the large and small scale elements played strongly into Burnham’s design for the city.  He saw the city’s growth and prosperity as an opportunity to push for even grander visions of interconnected transit, a network of boulevard streets, a regional train and highway network and a wide swath of lakefront space preserved for the city as a whole to enjoy.  An overlay of his plan for the city on an aerial map (shown above) shows that many of the green spaces he envisioned did come to pass.  Unfortunately, fewer of his boulevard streets exist.  There is room to improve on its execution.

Still, Chicago is fortunate to have the park system that it does and as we celebrated in our Tuesday Post: How Green Is Our City: Chicago’s Urban Green Space, new additions to our city’s open space are underway even now.  Organizations like the Burnham Centenial, celebrate Burnham as an environmentalist before his time and push for increases in regional transit, walkable spaces, and new recreation areas that have yet to make it off the drawing board since 1909.  

If you’d like to learn more about Burnham and the Plan of Chicago, check out:

  • The Art Institute of Chicago‘s digital files with images of the plan, history and photos of the process as well as early drafts and correspondence between its designers.
  • The Park District’s essay on Burnham and his early history by Park District Historian, Julia S. Bachrach
  • The Burnham Centenial’s Burnham Blog for a series of essays on how the plan and its creators are relevant to Chicago living today.