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The next big idea is small

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” - Daniel Burnham

The next big idea is small.

Daniel Burnham’s plan for Chicago aimed at improving the lake front, rearranging a jumbled street grid, adding a regional transportation system and installing civic and cultural buildings along with parks (all of which were rare at the turn of the century). In some ways, Burnham’s plan was excellent. In other ways, not so much. While some of Burnham’s recommendations were realized, the Great Depression halted most of them.

Burnham’s influence wasn’t the actual infrastructure in the ground, it was that he helped spawn a profession that would eventually take large top-down proposals, usually associated with large roadways and modernists tower blocks, decided by a handful of experts to create mega infrastructure projects with little consideration for those of whom the plans were displacing. Due in part to the failures of this type of planning, the profession saw a backlash and a quick transition to a more bottom-up and community-based model. This is the basis of what we have today.

Considering the time and place, it’s easy to understand Burnham’s wish to have big plans. Central planning, as we know it today, was a foreign concept to the builders of turn of the century Chicago. Burnham’s endeavors were as much public planning as they were public health. Everything I’ve read leads me to believe that it was a confusing, noisy, polluted, beautiful mess of a place – and the strength of these original plans was that it provided needed infrastructure and health improvements to even the dirtiest of tenements.

It’s hard to draw parallels between infrastructure development in 1900 and 2012. Unlike 112 years ago, most all of our cities, towns and villages have the basics. In 1900, when infrastructure expansion and planning schemes were underway, it was likely because it was connecting to people living in an particular area to the grid. Now, we build infrastructure in hopes that people will move there and growth will occur.

Take for example Elk Run. This is a proposed development in Pine Island, Minnesota, a town of around 3,000 people. Pine Island is a nice small town, but one with some overly ambitious plans (you can view them here). It’s looking to bring a 2,325 acre development to the edge of town that includes a 200 acre “bio-business park” (thanks to “aggressive incentives”), 1.5 million square feet of commercial / retail, over 1,500 single family houses and a brand new high school. It’s a classic old economy “make no little plans” styled project that refuses to die.

To accommodate the new proposed growth, the State government sunk $34 million into a new intersection and a collection of frontage roads where nothing exists beyond countless rows of bean stalks (locals are already starting to refer to it as a “bridge to nowhere”). All this money is being allocated under a plan to get numerous large companies to relocate bio-research facilities, headquarters and jobs to a small town in southern Minnesota. All while doubling the existing housing stock and adding the commercial and retail space equivalent of 14 Wal-Mart stores.

Does anyone think this plan isn’t insane?

This is where Burnham links to modern day. Elk Run is how we do growth today. It’s our modern day “big plan”. If we build it, they will come, or so the thought goes. Burnham’s Chicago Plan was to connect and incorporate existing spaces with each other. Our system has ceased to be a one of expanding and improving existing infrastructure and has morphed into the big plan with little consideration for context.

Today, we need many small plans that can be placed together into a semblance of a whole. This should be our new big idea.

Imagine if Pine Island were to create a “small” growth plan. Instead of a new $34 million interchange to induce growth, what if they would have updated an aging sewer system? Used it for civic or school improvements? In fact, they could have given each man, woman and child in town over $10,000 (or used it on a dozen other more productive initiatives). If they were more realistic about economic development, Pine Island could have taken the money and given out low-or-no interest loans to existing businesses looking to expand.

This isn’t a call to end long-range comprehensive plans. In lots of circumstances, they are necessary. This is a call to consider that many small plans can be much more effective, and more risk-adverse than one large project. Large plans like Elk Run expose us to tremendous risk if they fail. The future of our plans need to be everything that Elk Run isn’t: small, numerous and nimble.

Burnham was right about a lot of thing, except that little plans “probably will not themselves be realized“. I think he’s wrong here, and it’s not just me. Tactical urbanism and the popularity of small area community plans are proving him wrong as I type. I’d contend that it’s our propensity to chase big, wild and exciting plans that has left us with intersections and bridges to nowhere and struggling municipal coffers.

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Reader Comments (20)

This reminds me of ideas we were trying to spread when I was working in the Sustainability Group at the City of Vancouver...

At that time, Vancouver was just wrapping its head around the Neighbourhood Energy Utility it built for the Athlete's Village, and starting to think about how to build NEUs across the city and link them together.

My point was that a connection standard and financial software was needed, but not much more. What if a homeowner decided to install a geoexchange system? If you are doing all that work, why not scale it up a bit and connect the two houses on either side? Then the homeowner sells energy to their neighbours, and gets a nice cheque. Scale it up a bit more, and start connecting the houses across the alley or the other side of the street. So, now you have these little blossoms--micro energy utilities. The City should be the one ensuring the micro-utilities can connect to each other, and ultimately to a City grid that will come along in the future. The City grid may end up being unnecessary, as the micro-utilities make an Internet of Hot Water, all interconnections.

So, first the billing mechanism, so a neighbour can sell heat next door, then a connection standard, so all that hot water can be shunted around as desired.

I am interested by the notion that utilities used to connect ot people who were already there, rather than trying to draw people in. I wonder if the idea of the Internet of Hot Water would actually work, or if a City grid is necessary.

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuben


Interesting Pennsylvania development. The Rt. 33 interchange in Palmer township. Greenfield development at it's worse.

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRon

I trust you noticed your link at ($34 million into a new intersection) contained a 'fact' sheet on the brilliance of the Diverging Diamond Intersection.


August 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteradam.

I like a number of ideas presented here - transition to a more bottom-up and community-based model - Tactical urbanism and the popularity of small area community plans - small plans placed together into a semblance of a whole. I agree that this should be our new big idea.

I am also reading into the article a distinction between forced artificial growth as exemplified by the Pine Island development and the more natural 'organic' growth you proposed as an alternative. I did a quick check at Google Public Data on Minnesota's unemployment rate to see if there was a local need for new employment. Seems Minnesota is doing better than California it this aspect. The new growth is seemingly for growth for its own sake and skewered economic benefit. It will be political leadership that will benefit along with the developers so I don't see them changing anything soon. Your approach makes a lot of sense but I believe one would have to go straight to the community itself to see it brought to fruition.

I am wondering if Burnham's plans were within the conceptual framework of the Athens Charter of which I learned about through reading from CNU and the related debate. I have sympathy for the perspective that, "the strength of these original plans was that it provided needed infrastructure and health improvements to even the dirtiest of tenements." Also remember someone writing about the vision of New York to create a subway system built for a future population.

These may seem two conflicting perspectives but I believe that we need to connect them. Doing so invites complexity but by digging deeper, I believe that we can find solutions.

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Dowling

I just drove down Highway 52 this weekend, and I must say, it's becoming more over-engineered with each passing year. That's a nice chunk of farmland and river bottoms to be giving up to something like this. I wonder how many incentives were used to lure these California-based players up this way? Certainly promising to build a $34 million interchange doesn't hurt.

I have this growing skepticism of "biotechnology" as a jobs panacea in small-town Minnesota and beyond. If you're putting that forth as the answer to your town's economic woes, you might be better off investing the proceeds from the municipal liquor store into lottery tickets.

If this developer is looking for more desperate communities and wants to score a cool million square feet of space, I invite them to come up to Fergus Falls and check out our abandoned state hospital, which, if the promoters are to be believed, would be the perfect home for the next big biotechnology venture. It's been so perfect, in fact, that it has managed to keep itself vacant for the last ten years in order to save itself for that one special firm.

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJake Krohn

"The next big idea is small." Can we imagine this "big idea" being the restoration of self-locomotion as the normal - perhaps even the primary - mode of access in our EXISTING communities? If so, what might be the "small" part?

I am prompted to ask this question by the statement, "Unlike 112 years ago, most all of our cities, towns and villages have the basics." First, I beg to differ: 110 years ago most residents of cities and villages walked to most of their destinations - and their cities and villages were configured to reflect this. Today many of us life in self-fulfilling modal monocultures. We tell ourselves we "have no choice but to drive" - and so we do! Thus, by force of kinetics and spatial displacement we also drive out possibilities for OTHERS in our midst to walk, roll wheelchairs, push baby strollers, pedal bicycles, and share transit.

It is painfully clear that many of our communities today lack of one of the most basic of basics - freedom of movement for persons who cannot drive anywyere...and persons who PREFER to not drive everywhere.

OK so I will throw out an idea: what if a "critical mass" of physically-able men in a community which is currently dominated by motorists were to suddenly start walking and biking a lot more - and driving a lot less? (Note: I don't mean walking and biking for "exercise", but to go from "a" to "b".) Could a shift in habits among a sufficient number of citizens catalyze the formation a human-scaled ecosystem around them?

One thing is certain - empty parking lots in empty downtowns can be a very powerful incentive to redevelop. Imagine the combination of relatively-empty parking lots amidst relatively-thriving businesses!

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHans Noeldner

"Does anyone think this plan isn’t insane?"

Well, apparently the elected City Council and Mayor don't think so. Based on what I've read, it doesn't appear this was shoved down their throats. I'm not a big fan of public investment in speculative commercial projects. But, I am a fan of the freedom to allow a city or town to develop in accordance with the visions of their councils and leaders. Isn't New Urbanism asking the same thing of City Councils? To envision and implement new urbanist concepts? Or is the ultimate goal to legislate New Urbanism on communities whether they want it or not? I often hear the phrase at the top of this post leveled at New Urbanist plans.

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow


<q>These may seem two conflicting perspectives but I believe that we need to connect them. Doing so invites complexity but by digging deeper, I believe that we can find solutions.</q>

I am completely in agreement.


Remember roads aren't the only infrastructure. So are water lines, sewerage, electricity, phone and broadband connections, and a whole host of other things we today deem "necessary". Remember how potent a public health asset indoor plumbing is, and an economic one artificial lighting. Remember that most municipalities ca. 1900 didn't have these things--even those that needed them.

This is, I believe, what Nate means when intimated that most municipalities didn't have the "basics" 110 years ago.

The problem is that this large, centralized infrastructure planning has grown into a cancer, so that now places that don't need the basics get them, and get them to overkill, in the name of "growth".

The problem is that "Make no little plans", when applied to the periphery, is a mindless pursuit of diminishing returns--and is so everywhere in land use planning. This is what Nate is trying to allude to.

By the way, if there is a potent enough economic disincentive against driving, people won't. Hence why our oldest urban cores still have the lowest rates of car ownership in the country. If there is a potent enough economic incentive to walk, people will. But, because at a public-policy level, we incentivize driving to the exclusion of all other forms of transport, any economic incentive for walking must come as a disincentive against driving.

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Steve -- I definitely get your point about streets/roads not being the only infrastructure, and completely agree that things like sanitary water and sewer are enormously important.

And your point about public-policy level is really profound - something that few of the ped/bike/transit advocates in my acquaintence seem to get. "...any economic incentive for walking MUST come as a disincentive against driving." AMEN!

My hope is to shift and widen the conversation somewhat, from "Here is what 'people' will do/won't do in response to economic incentives/disincentives" to "here are our obligations as citizens". I have stated the following in a number of public venues, to both elected officials and candidates for office:

"I believe it is our duty as citizens to choose behaviors and habits which make our own street, our own neighborhood, and our own community safe, practical, and welcoming for OTHER people to walk, roll wheelchairs, push baby strollers, and ride bicycles. I believe it is our duty as a self-governing people to direct our branches of government to facilitate and implement these goals at every level of society."

In most cases I have challenged the officials and candidates to get out there and experience what their street/neighborhood/community it like for the non-motorist as things are AND AS THEY ARE NOT. I ask them to make a promise - to walk to the grocery store twice a month; to ride a bicycle to church, whatever. Some have promised; some have punted. In every case the audience loved it. I know in my gut I am on to something here.

Imagine what might be possible if even a small number of vocal citizens in a neighborhoods and communities throughout a region stated these beliefs and issued these challenges. It is no less important to move men's hearts than to lay brick and mortar.

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHans Noeldner

Everyone - Thanks for the comments.

Hans - I think Steve (above) did a great job of summarizing what I was going after: "The problem is that this large, centralized infrastructure planning has grown into a cancer, so that now places that don't need the basics get them, and get them to overkill, in the name of "growth" ... The problem is that "Make no little plans", when applied to the periphery, is a mindless pursuit of diminishing returns--and is so everywhere in land use planning. This is what Nate is trying to allude to." - Steve, you are awesome! Thank you.

Jeff - I'd agree that cities should have more autonomy and that this project wasn't shoved down their throats. They wanted it and, in that sense, are no different than the thousands of other communities who've walk down this path. I don't think it's fair to draw parallels to New Urbanism. It is about choice, and Pine Island chose poorly. They will make an interesting academic case study one day.

Brian - Great points. I'm looking to expand on these issues, and I'll try to keep you posted. I'm not sure of the relation to the Athens Charter, but Burnham's time on Earth didn't overlap to my knowledge. Conceptually was it there? I don't know. It's a good question.

Adam - Yes, I did notice it was a DDI and intentionally decided not to mention it. DDI are a hot topic and can bring along a whole different conversation on their own. I didn't want to the conversation to stray, so I left it out. But, I do agree with your comment: "sigh..."

Ron - I'll check out the PA development. Thanks for posting.

Reuben - I like the geothermal example and wish I knew more about it to comment. On the surface, what you proposed sounds like a solid idea. One of my goals is to diversify my reading list to dive into topic like that.

Best -Nate

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel

@ Steve & Hans

I just don't see how forcing people to get out of their cars will work. Creating public policy to disincentivize driving (whether that's a higher tax or user fee or simply not making roadway improvements to where congestion discourages some drivers) will be met with public resentment. Maybe short term you can do it, but long term I don't think it will be politically sustainable.

Even in the oldest urban cores, where automobile ownership is low, the places are packed with cars. And it's not just here. Go to Europe - again, packed with cars. Almost everyone wants to drive. It is freedom. My father-in-law just lost his license because of age related health reasons. This is a guy who grew up in the 20's and 30's walking most places. He has lost a lot of freedom of movement and is now dependent on others for transportation. He doesn't like it. I think that is representative of most peoples feelings towards driving. They are willing to walk some. But for the most part, they want to drive.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

I've been following this development (or lack of development) as a predictor of what might happen in Northfield if we move forward with our own business park. I wrote about it here: http://www.betseybuckheit.com/posts/another-business-park/

I keep trying to say: too much infrastructure and doesn't foster incremental, flexible development. I hope Northfield will learn from Elk Run before it's too late. Thanks, Chuck, for shining some more light on this issue.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBetsey Buckheit

"Creating public policy to disincentivize driving"

Jeff, you realize we have been spending decades making almost every conceivable effort to incentivize driving right? We charge taxes for motoring infrastrcture that are far short of covering the cost, we let repeat traffic crime offenders get behind the wheel again as soon as possible no matter the risk to the right to live of others in that drivers path. Our zoning codes are full of government mandates that force private property owners to accommodate cars.

Many of the policy recommendations that might be associated with New Urbanism are in fact a relaxing government mandates aimed to push people into cars.

The older apartment building I live in today would be illegal to build today because of zoning codes created since it's construction would mandate far more car parking.And as such the cost of renting would be considerably higher if it were to be built again today since it would have to include an underground parking garage to fit the number of spaces. I am sick of Government mandates to push people into cars and punish people who don't have them, either because they cannot afford one or simply don't one.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGary Kavanagh

@ Gary Kavanagh

Is it the public policy that incentivizes the driving or is the policy shaped by the fact most (not all) people want to drive?

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow


Whether the outcome is a product of people influencing policy or not, the outcome is essentially communism for cars, and those who cannot or do not want to drive are punished severely for it, which is neither fair or just, even if it may be the product of quasi-democratic process.

And given the grossly bloated energy dependency liabilities of the United States, rising health costs, and the human impact on the environment getting to levels so extreme it is eating at our own economic base, to use such strong government incentives to push people toward driving cars and burning profuse amounts of vital finite resources is beyond madness.

If people genuinely wanted to drive so much, lets rollback the market distortions that favor driving and see if people are willing to really put their money where there mouth is, instead of distributing the costs beyond the smoke of bureaucracy or placed into unpaid for infrastructure liabilities for future generations to be burdened with.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGary Kavanagh


Considering that most parking minimums and zoning laws which essentially force people to use cars for their every day needs came about as our vast suburban experiment was just beginning, the public policy really has been incentivizing driving for 60 years or so.

I do think you have a point about New Urbanism supporters often going so far as to demand new development to take the form of new dense town centers and preclude any suburban development. I, personally, would love to see the entire country stop building suburban developments, but I think New Urbanists often shoot themselves in the collective foot by demanding "No new suburbs!" in almost the same way as Tea Partiers demand "No new taxes!" The real goal of all of this should be to remove disincentives for traditional development patterns, remove incentives for suburban development patterns, and get local governments to wise up about the longterm liabilities associated with promoting low-intensity development over their decaying town centers.

As for old urban centers being packed with cars because people want to drive, I have to disagree. When there is a real option of walking in an enjoyable environment to do any task, mundane or not, people are more likely to avoid getting in their car than to drive to a destination. I lived in Europe for 5 years (4 in Switzerland and 1 in London), and quite literally everyone I knew would choose to walk to a destination through enjoyable surroundings even if it took substantially more time than driving to a similar destination. The exception (as there is to everything) was when the weather was foul or we had a particular time constraint. I've spent the past few months in extremely rural Alabama, and I can tell you that the results have been exactly the same as in Switzerland or London, just that there is much less available with an enjoyable walk and the climate is almost always terribly hot (though street trees and/or street awnings make it manageable).

The criticism is worth keeping an eye on, though, as it is easy for contradictions to creep into an idea when everyone commenting is in the same mindset. Keep it coming.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSkyler Yost

Wow, what a great conversation here!

Jeff, I'm not saying we should force people out of cars, but I do believe we should not be shy about expecting one-another to behave as citizens. That means choosing responsibility - both for what is now, and for the future we want to bring forth. A citizen doesn't say, "It's not a problem for me." A citizen doesn't say, "It's someone elses fault." A citizen doesn't say, "I shouldn't have to take risks or make sacrifices."

And citizen doesn't say, "I don't have any obligation to know how my community FEELS for people who can't drive."

Speaking of feeling, one thing we need, and need desperately, are tools and programs to teach the "externalities" of driving to citizens - especially (a) elected officials, and (b) young people. I'm talking VISCERAL learning - which is impossible to get while sitting in a classroom, sitting behind a video screen, or sitting inside an automobile. There is no substitute for spending time on the other side of the windshield.

Also, you ask whether policy drives driving or driving drives policy. Yes to both - and more! The way out of this paradox is for us to demand responsibility from EVERYONE rather than honoring excuses. When we are with other citizens we should focus attention on citizens (ourselves) as cause. When we are with elected leaders we should focus on policies and infrastructure as cause.

Gary, right now a distinct majority of Americans want motoring subsidized - and it's externalities kept external. The fact that an increase in gas taxes is a political non-starter says it all. No doubt the leader of North Korea could force a motoring majority in his nation to absorb the "full costs" of their motoring, but not our leaders in Washingon. We need a voting majority who WANT the subsidies ended and the externalities internalized. OUCH!

Our chances of bringing forth a better world will be greatly improved if we become an excess of people choosing responsibiltiy rather than a shortage of people choosing it. This is a far cry from hoping that tinkering with planning, policies, infrastructure, incentives, etc. can do the job.

By the way, none of what I am saying is intended to belittle planning, policies et al - they are enormously important. I could say, "everything is important", but I think "all of us matter" is more to the point.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHans Noeldner

@ Gary

I understand, and agree, accommodating non-auto travel has been woefully inadequate. But it is (slowly) getting a little better. Federal funds now require alternate transportation modes be considered on every project. Not exactly leaps and bounds but better than it was. I think that trend will continue as I do think people want to spend some time outside exercising, walking, biking, or other leisure/recreational activities. Whether it will break into a significant segment of travel demand (commuters for example) remains to be seen.

As far as fuel costs and foreign dependence, we will continue to use oil as it is the cheapest (even at $4-$5/gallon) form of energy. Even if gasl goes to $100/gallon, we are very clever when we have to be and I am confident someone will figure out how to go 500 mi/gal or use alternate, non-oil based energy. In other words, I believe cars will still be around in some form, they just may not burn gas.

@ SKyler

Some of the most insightful comments I have seen, particularly on NU shooting itself in the foot. There needs to be balance between new and old thinking. We've tried the "one-size fits all" for the last 50-60 years and it has a lot of problems to say the least. Don't want to repeat the same mistakes when implementing new urbanism. There needs to be a marriage between what we have and where we want to go from here.

@ Hans

I'm totally on board with personal responsibility and responsibility to community. But, we have a major battle to get people to leave their cars behind for any significant travel. Obviously it's not impossible (downtown Chicago or DC for example), but the solutions have to make sense within the context of their application. Even so, I think cars will be around in some form (and will have to be accommodated) in the future.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

"Gary, right now a distinct majority of Americans want motoring subsidized - and it's externalities kept external. The fact that an increase in gas taxes is a political non-starter says it all."

"We need a voting majority who WANT the subsidies ended and the externalities internalized. OUCH!"

“The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.” (de Tocqueville?)


"The American people like watching the Home Shopping Network because it's commercial-free." (Plagiarized from Will Durst.)


Just wanted to remind you of the obstacles ahead, and these quotes do that far better than I can. While most people have a vague sense of the mind-boggling complexity of western civilized society, the vast majority have absolutely no idea of the massive effort that is required to design, construct, and maintain the physical component of that society. That is why, when budgets get tight, accusations of government waste becomes such an easy sell to people.

But in those accusations, we find the key - money. By pointing out the economic impacts of our current development patterns, the message is stated in a language that people both find sympathetic and understandable. I agree with Jeff - Americans want to drive. We see it as a birthright of sorts. Trying to change society - not groups of individuals or even modest demographic segments, but society - to prefer New Urbanist development merely for the sake of it's physical aesthetic and purported convenience is practically impossible. However, educating people about the public burden of maintaining our current development pattern can have a substantial influence on the debate. Actually assigning costs of our current development pattern on the entities who benefit from it - reducing the externalities - could have a significant impact. And this is why the Strong Towns message is spot-on. By pointing out the financial costs of our current development pattern, the argument is re-framed from "What do I want?" to "What do I want that I can afford?"

But it won't be easy.

Ron...your link to the Rt 33 interchange project article in Palmer Twsp. PA. is right on the mark.

A worse project (in regards for the needs of this region) could not be imagined. And a worse form of convoluted payment schedule (to sooth the minds of the uninformed and inattentive public) could not be conceived of by the likes of Rube Goldberg.

For the record, I live in the closest real city...Easton, PA. My brother and his neighbors, who live literally across the street from this mess in Tatamy, PA., will have their small town way-of-life ruined for the benefit of a fat cat, local developer who is destroying 600-plus acres of close-in farm land for more sprawl crapola with no future.

This will be a long, slow disaster.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDennis R. Lieb
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