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What Is the City Beautiful Movement?

3 minute read

Known for grand buildings and sweeping green spaces, the City Beautiful movement combined philosophy and architecture into a powerful planning ideology that still drives urban design into the present day.

Washington D.C. - The National Mall

Stefan Fussan / Flickr

As American cities grew and industrialized in the late 19th century, urban reformers sought ways to improve living conditions in urban 'slums' and create spaces of beauty and grandeur. Proponents of the City Beautiful philosophy believed that aesthetics could have an effect on human behavior and social order. In their view, harmonious, beautiful public spaces would lead to social harmony and increased civic virtue. City Beautiful was born in part as a response to poor conditions in urban tenements, but its emphasis on pleasing architecture and public spaces often came at the expense of low-income communities.

More than an aesthetic style, the City Beautiful movement relies on a set of ideals that include order, harmony, and structure—ideals reflected in an emphasis on Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts architecture, geometric layouts, and broad boulevards with sweeping views. Modeled on the imposing boulevards and imposing monuments that characterize many European cities, City Beautiful designs first captured the American public at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a project led by Daniel Burnham. Burnham's 'White City' was a sprawling template for the new American city, one which appropriated neoclassical structures to create a vision of progress and social harmony embodied in the built environment. Burnham later designed plans for Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Manila, San Francisco, and his home base of Chicago. For Burnham, a key role of city planning was to inspire good citizenship. He believed that a harmonious built environment, complete with parks that provided space for healthy recreation, would help assimilate new citizens and lead to more harmonious social relations. In this way, Burnham redefined urban planning as a tool for social engineering.

Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.

Daniel Burnham

Progressive proponents of City Beautiful saw their project as a social good–a way to improve public health and social well-being through good design and orderly city planning. The movement was centered in the United States, but was intertwined with similar philosophies around the world such as the Garden City movement in Britain and Le Corbusier's Radiant City proposal. City Beautiful designs incorporate monumental buildings anchoring long, straight axes and open spaces that highlight the grandeur of the structures around them.

Despite the stated goals of improving urban living conditions and eliminating "slums," many critics, such as Jane Jacobs, accused the City Beautiful movement of focusing on aesthetics to the exclusion of social factors and at the expense of people and communities. Indeed, the movement's history of slum clearance and displacement belies its lofty ideals. The first permanent large-scale City Beautiful project was the redesign of Washington, D.C., known as the McMillan Plan, which led to the creation of the National Mall and Lincoln Memorial. The plan displaced low-income neighborhoods to make way for new, monumental government buildings and continues to guide D.C. planning efforts. Halfway around the world, the Indian city of Chandigarh, one of the country's first planned cities and the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana, rises from the banyan forests of the Himalayan foothills. Designed by Albert Mayer and Le Corbusier, Chandigarh relies heavily on City Beautiful ideology and was built to symbolize India's newfound independence and forward-facing mentality. Here, too, the new city displaced thousands of farmers during its construction, and slum clearance projects continue to demolish homes and force people out. In Detroit, the Beaux-Arts Michigan Central Station, built with City Beautiful principles in mind, led to the displacement of the working-class Corktown neighborhood surrounding it as city officials worried about visitors exiting the station only to be greeted by a 'slum.'

In its quest to create rigorously planned spaces that would promote utopian ideals and inspire civic responsibility, the movement often reinforced the urban inequality it sought to alleviate and left a lasting impact on subsequent urban renewal programs.

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