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.