Chicagoland: Making big plans since 1909 - Metropolitan Planning Council

Skip to main content

Chicagoland: Making big plans since 1909

Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning

Daniel Burnham never lived to see ground broken on his monumental 1909 Plan of Chicago. Yet today we enjoy many aspects of the plan, including North Michigan Avenue, a beautiful lakefront park system and the forest preserves. Burnham’s radical plan called for a unified Chicago with an orderly system of streets, active civic and cultural institutions, a rational highway and freight system and pristine natural areas.

But radical, you say? What’s so radical about those things? Remember, this was five years before Carl Sandburg penned his famous poem that described Chicago as the “Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” Stormy. Husky. Brawling. This was a time when Chicago was known for dirty industry, legendary vice districts, notorious mobsters, dicey politics and huge population growth.

Yet Burnham’s plan had the “magic to stir men’s blood,” inspiring a legacy of comprehensive planning in the Chicago region that has lasted for more than 100 years.

Stepping into Burnham’s shoes, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning launched ON TO 2050 this week, metropolitan Chicago’s newest comprehensive plan. ON TO 2050 is the latest in a line of regional planning efforts that coalesce around creating systems that integrate the entire Chicago region. It looks 10 years beyond the agency’s first regional plan, GO TO 2040, which set priorities for water infrastructure, land use, housing, transportation and other critical components of sustainable regional growth.

While many plans have been put forward since Burnham’s time, the methods used to create and implement those plans have changed. The way people interact with their environment and each other is complex and social structures are always fluctuating. So when we talk about “planning” in the urban context, we often refer to a buffet of practices and theories that have evolved throughout history. Over the last 100 years, planners have drawn on a number of strategies and approaches to drive the planning process.

Burnham’s 1909 plan was promoted by the elite, civic-minded Commercial Club. Prominent business leaders, with means and influence, worked alongside Burnham. They gathered data, documents and perspectives from countless influential stakeholders in the region. It was an incredibly top-down approach, and as a result the plan proposed little to address social issues of the day. It was a plan by the business class for the middle class.

As the 20th century progressed and the Chicago region grew beyond city boundaries, carrying on the planning tradition begun by Burnham became difficult. Suburbs embraced independence and often competed with one another for growth. So a group of civic leaders organized the Chicago Regional Plan Association in 1923 to help coordinate local governments in the region. In 1956 they released Planning for the Region of Chicago, the first successor of Burnham’s original plan. The process for that plan was based largely on a voluntary conversation between governments.

Around that same time the Metropolitan Planning Council (yours truly) stepped in and spearheaded the creation of a regional comprehensive planning agency, the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, which produced a series of regional plans throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. But these plans were just advisory. They set priorities for the region on water, open space, recreation and land development. Like most regions in the United States, Chicago unfortunately lacks any real central authority to make visionary plans a reality.

And then there was CATS. No, not those cats. The Chicago Area Transportation Study was a national model for “rational planning.” And by that I mean a bunch of planners and researchers basically locked themselves in an office for seven years, looked at some data and created a plan for much of the region’s highway system we know (and love?) today. They proposed building roads where the data (and not people) told them to go, even if it meant knocking down and dividing many neighborhoods in their way.

Currently, the region utilizes a more hybrid approach for regional planning. In 2005, the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission and Chicago Area Transportation Study merged to form the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. The combined organization sets regional priorities through long-term plans. However, they have no independent jurisdiction to implement the plan’s objectives. They can only prioritize funding for transportation projects.

GO TO 2040 is a great blueprint for the region, but would Chicagoland benefit more if the agency that created it had the tools to drive investments in accordance with all aspects of the plan? To address other objectives, the agency has taken great strides to work with local governments in the region to develop their own plans that uphold the long-term plan as much as possible.

MPC is proud to be part of this rich history and has supported regional planning alongside the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning for the last 10 years. MPC has aligned much of our work with GO TO 2040 and will continue to support the planning agency as it lays out the next blueprint for the region in ON TO 2050.

Northeastern Illinois faces unique challenges as a region that require local governments to work together better. MPC strives to develop creative solutions for regional collaboration and planning that balance local needs, enhance efficiency in government and have a strong focus on growing the region in an equitable way.

This week, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning starts the process of gathering input for ON TO 2050 from business leaders, local governments, interest groups and ordinary citizens across the region. Innovations in technology and communication have made it possible for wider participation in the regional planning process.

What will be in the plan? Strategies to implement congestion pricing, encourage walkable communities, enhance efficiency in government and mitigate climate change? The ON TO 2050 process will be looking at these big ideas and more to produce the kind of visionary plan that would make Daniel Burnham proud.


No comments

More posts by Madeline

All posts by Madeline »

MPC on Twitter

Follow us on Twitter »

Stay in the loop!

MPC's Regionalist newsletter keeps you up to date with our work and our upcoming events.?

Subscribe to Regionalist

Most popular news

Browse by date »

This page can be found online at

Metropolitan Planning Council 140 S. Dearborn St.
Suite 1400
Chicago, Ill. 60603
312 922 5616

Sign up for newsletter and alerts »

Shaping a better, bolder, more equitable future for everyone

For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

Donate »