Management & Labor

Urban Vision Through Corporate Ayes

Once upon a time in this country, architects did everything they could to sound like romantic poets. Generations of history students have faithfully copied down Daniel Burnham's pompous but powerful admonition to "make no little plans--they have no magic to stir men's blood."
by | June 2002

Once upon a time in this country, architects did everything they could to sound like romantic poets. Generations of history students have faithfully copied down Daniel Burnham's pompous but powerful admonition to "make no little plans--they have no magic to stir men's blood."

For sheer metaphorical grandiosity, however, I like a different Burnhamism, one he included in his Chicago revitalization program of 1909. "The great flowers of fine arts," Burnham wrote, "are born on the stalk of commercial supremacy."

On this occasion, the famous architect was being not only florid but also politically prudent. His master plan had been underwritten by Chicago's Commercial Club, the organization of local manufacturing and mercantile interests. In order to obtain future support for his artistic visions of a City Beautiful, it made sense to play to the vanity of the interests that could afford to underwrite it.

On the other hand, it's hard to quarrel with the main point. Dreams of metropolitan greatness, particularly dreams that involve the construction of large projects such as office towers, parks and bridges, nearly always require enthusiasm from the prevailing corporate elite--the equivalent of the meatpackers, department store owners and railroad tycoons of Burnham's time. "It has been so," the architect proclaimed, "from Athens to Chicago."

It certainly was so in the Chicago of the early 20th century. During the two decades that followed publication of Burnham's plan, much of his vision was realized. Not all of it--Burnham's idea of a monumental new civic center remained on the shelf--but the majority of the 1909 plan came to pass: huge parks, forest preserves, a pristine downtown lakefront and a wide, promenade-like boulevard connecting the north and south banks of the Chicago River. There are many reasons why Chicago escaped much of the center-city blight that afflicted most of urban America in recent years, but the 1909 plan is at least part of the explanation.

If it worked a century ago, could it work again? An experiment is underway to find out, promoted by none other than the Commercial Club, which is flexing its aging muscles as the prime sponsor of a new regional master plan, Metropolis 2020, and of a permanent organization of the same name, dedicated to bringing the plan into effect.

History does not repeat itself, of course. Many of the elements of local politics in Chicago, as in any city, have changed beyond recognition in 90 years. The Commercial Club itself is no longer the preserve of merchants, manufacturers and meatpackers--as many of its activists now seem to come from academia, philanthropy and social service as from corporate boardrooms.

But Burnham's fundamental insight remains valid: Big things rarely get built in any city or metropolitan area without the active participation of the economic elite. If Metropolis 2020 represents the thinking of the current elite--the banks, the law firms, the real estate investors and the remnant of manufacturing influence (and it clearly does represent them)--it is worth studying carefully as a clue to important future events.

Considered that way, Metropolis 2020 is a remarkable document. It commits Chicago's civic leadership to a New Urbanist platform of public transit, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, mixed-income zoning, area-wide land use planning, substantial environmental remediation and a brand-new Regional Coordinating Council with bonding authority to bring the whole package together.

One might be tempted to view the Metropolis 2020 program as an odd departure from traditional corporate orthodoxy, except that it isn't really unusual anymore. Something fairly similar is going on in quite a few cities around the country. In the words of George Ranney, the president of Metropolis 2020, "there's a sense of restlessness and concern in the business community right now." The restlessness extends far beyond Chicago.

Atlanta may be the best example. Two years ago, when the Georgia legislature voted to create a Regional Transportation Authority, with broad land use planning powers, it was the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce that did most of the work. The Chamber managed the entire process, from drafting to lobbying to media relations. Since its creation, the regional authority has taken small, cautious steps toward freeing metropolitan Atlanta from its 20th-century dependence on the automobile. But the business community has taken larger steps, including the relocation of major facilities from the suburbs to the central city in an effort to reduce commuting time, congestion and ozone emissions.

You see it in California's Silicon Valley, where the CEOs and middle managers of the major technology companies are finding the pleasures of corporate success compromised by highway congestion that makes it difficult for them to leave their offices and go anywhere during large portions of the day. These are people who don't need to be sold on Smart Growth; more often than not these days, they are the ones trying to sell it to others.

It is this same link between mobility and economics that drives much of the Metropolis 2020 report. Last year, in setting out a new set of "metropolis principles," the group argued bluntly that "the distance between housing, transportation and jobs can have a major impact on an employer's bottom line." Last August, more than 100 Chicago-area businesses, ranging from Allstate Insurance to United Airlines, signed a pledge to make future site-location decisions based in large part on whether a community offers housing "affordable to working people" and whether it "is served by reliable and accessible mass transit."

These same businesses are following a similar line on environmental issues. Last year, when Chicago staged a considerable coup by luring the corporate offices of Boeing Aircraft away from Seattle, one of the little-noticed parts of the deal was a $2 million commitment by the city to retrofit the corporate headquarters for energy efficiency. "Major companies want green and clean," Chicago's environment commissioner explained.

It may seem a long leap from the rather narrow issue of employee mobility to the Burnham-like sweep of a broad agenda that ranges from transit subsidies to green buildings. In fact, though, it makes political sense. As powerful as Chicago's corporate establishment may be, it requires allies. The breadth of the agenda helps create them. With virtually all the environmental groups and most labor unions inside the tent along with the corporate leadership, there aren't too many important interests left on the outside to protest.

So far, the only organized counterattack against Metropolis 2020 has come from the free-market Right. Early this year, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute issued a report taking the Commercial Club to task for what it called an "unjustified bias against auto travel and in favor of fixed-rail public transit use." But the report didn't make much of a splash. Grounded more in ideology than in practicality, it analyzed the mobility issue by proclaiming that "metropolitan residents simply travel too much." The institute recommended a drastically higher fuel tax, with corresponding reductions in the federal income tax, which it said "would induce enough movement of residences and elimination of frivolous driving to reduce car travel by 15 or 20 percent."

Possibly it would. But attacking congestion by telling people to stay home isn't a very appealing political program. In fact, the sheer implausibility of such proposals underscores the irrelevance of the whole critique. The only sensible conclusion one can draw from looking at the opposition to Metropolis 2020 is that there hasn't been any meaningful opposition at all.

That's not to say there won't be any. Most of the important things the Commercial Club wants to do require the approval of the Illinois legislature, where the Senate has been dominated for nearly a decade by suburban Republicans wary of regional solutions or any solutions at all that might appear to benefit the big urban octopus that Democrats control. "Suburbanites have been paying for Chicago forever," Senate President James "Pate" Philip warned a couple of years ago. "The free ride is over."

The legislature will be much easier to convince on Metropolis 2020 if it hears from the leadership of suburbs themselves, and particularly if suburban mayors argue that the idea of expanded public transit is popular with their constituents. Metropolis 2020 has been sensitive to this--it has two suburban mayors on its executive council and a popular former mayor on its staff. Suburban officials played a key role in the group's first real lobbying venture--a successful effort in 1999 to promote passage of Governor George Ryan's Illinois FIRST highway and infrastructure program.

But that was no more than a dry run. The really big things Metropolis 2020 wants to do--creating the Regional Coordinating Council, investing $500 million a year in transportation projects, subsidizing moderate-priced suburban housing to locate workers near their jobs-- will be much more difficult to accomplish, especially at a time of state budget austerity.

Some of the important decisions on Metropolis 2020 are likely to be made by state government next year, and whatever happens at the polls this November, it will be a state government substantially different from the current one. A new governor, a new set of House and Senate districts, and heavy turnover in both chambers will give the proponents of the plan an unusual opportunity for salesmanship--but will likely create new and unforeseen obstacles along the way.

In the long run, though, what matters more than the fate of any of the individual proposals is the coalition that has taken shape around them and will take shape in other parts of metropolitan America over the next few years. As Daniel Burnham understood, it's never easy to sell an urban vision, especially when it costs a lot of money. But it's easier when there's a healthy roster of CEOs backing it up. And it's easier still when they are CEOs who have spent a few too many hours stuck in traffic.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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