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What Is the City Beautiful Movement?

chicago worlds columbian exposition 1893 city beautiful movement
Daniel Burnham and Fredrick Law Olmsted believed that a new aesthetic approach to the built environment held the power to ail social order.

By IBI Insights


April 4, 2019

By 1910 America was on the verge of an urban majority population, marking a pivotal moment in the nation’s history. From 1860 to 1910, the US population tripled from 31.4 million to 91.9 million residents. The industrial revolution was drastically changing the American landscape and people clustered in the urban centers in search of manufacturing jobs. Cities could not support the mass migration and quickly became overcrowded, consumed by poverty and poor sanitation. Overall urban ugliness at alongside corrupt government structures set the tone for social unrest, labour strikes and disease. Those who could afford to do so took advantage of modern transportation advances and retreated from the city to escape the growing blight.

Architect and Urban Designer, Daniel Burnham, and Landscape Architect, Fredrick Law-Olmsted recognized the dismal state of American urban affairs and hoped to reverse these conditions. They believed that the built environment held the power to permeate the urban psyche and foster a more civil society. Their ideology became known at the City Beautiful Movement and was first introduced at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The City Beautiful Movement takes inspiration from the seductive grand plazas, wide avenues, symmetrical design and monuments that adorn the popular French Beaux-Arts style of architecture. Olmsted and Burnham believed that citizens would be so dazzled by life in a Beaux-Arts city that it would inspire them to respect their environment and in turn become loyal, dignified citizens. During this period of civic monstrosity, the City Beautiful Movement held the cure to ail social woes.

After the World’s Columbian Exhibition, the movement gathered support from progressives, reformists and utopians across North America. In 1901, Washington D.C. produced a comprehensive planning document for its monument core based on City Beautiful ideas. The plan, titled The McMillan Plan, proposed eliminating the existing Victorian landscaping of the National Mall and instead replacing it with grass for people to use for leisure. The City Beautiful movement believed that inclusive green spaces provided a place where the lower classes of society could learn appropriate social behaviors by observing upper class citizens. By immersing people in a beautiful and cultural environment, the external enrichment would supposedly trickle into the minds of the public. This ideology is also reflected in the McMillan Plans’ proposal to construct several monuments and museums along the Mall’s east-west axis. While the McMillan Plan was never implemented in full, it continues to guide Washington’s urban planning policies today.

Daniel Burnham introduced the world to the City Beautiful Movement during the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

From City Beautiful to the 21st Century

Throughout the early 20th century, cities across North America- and the globe- began to implement Olmsted and Burnham’s ideas. Chicago, San Francisco, Manila, Regina, Ottawa, Seattle, Denver and more all utilized City Beautiful concepts to boost civic moral. During the Great Depression, ornate City Beautiful projects were put to rest, but the movement remains a central influence to urban planners and designers. The City Beautiful Movement brought light to the aesthetic relationship between the social and physical architecture of the city, an idea that persists at the core of human-centered planning and design today.

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