Make Little Plans: Maybe Daniel Burnham Was Wrong

Like every earnest student of urban planning, my career began underscored by the inspiring mantra attributed to Daniel Burnham:

A rendering of Michigan Avenue from Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago. The monumental buildings might have been part of a master plan, but the hustle and bustle of human activity that defines a successful place is better achieved through an iterative process.

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work....”

As one who dreams big, hopes for perfection, and loves to be original, I initially found in Burnham’s words a rousing battle cry for making better cities. I felt he and I would have been good comrades.

However, now several years into my career and at the risk of committing urban planning heresy, I am going to suggest that maybe Daniel Burnham was wrong. If there is one thing I have learned to value over the past few years it is iteration. And big monumental plans do not lend themselves well to the process of iteration. To the contrary, iteration requires many little plans, each building upon one another with small and adaptable steps.

According to Webster’s dictionary, iteration is “a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result.” In my experience, creating good places in our communities should involve at least a few iterations to discover, test, and achieve desired results. Hence, here are a few of the reasons I have become an advocate for making little plans.

1. Little plans empower creative ideas.

In one of my day jobs, I lead placemaking workshops throughout the Midwest. A component of the workshop involves a 2-hour temporary installation project with participants for reimagining a better public space in the local community. I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity that is unleashed when you give adults some construction paper, balloons, and colored duct tape. I have found that when the stakes are low, people are able to think outside the box and use limited resources in incredibly imaginative ways. Moreover, the initial impermanence means nothing requires perfection and nothing is an outright failure, which further liberates people to try different creative avenues for installation.

My favorite project to date occurred with a group of men in Port Washington, Wisconsin. Given only some caution tape, plastic chairs, construction paper, dowels, and string, they spent the first 20 minutes grumbling at me about what they could accomplish with such meager supplies. Eventually, however, the inner child kicked in, and they spent the next 2 hours building a 10-foot paper boat with a fully working sail to serve as a photo-op spot in the public park located along the city’s harbor. In the end, they were so proud of their creation, and the City of Port Washington has since been exploring more permanent, interactive public installations such as this for the park. Sorry, Daniel, but I have consistently seen little plans like these stir men’s blood far more than big plans.

2. Little plans show you what doesn’t work.

Too often we build things from big plans and no one comes. When this happens, our end results usually include a dysfunctional site, wasted money, and angry stakeholders. Given these outcomes, I would argue that many big plans are better never realized, despite what Daniel says. In contrast, little, iterative plans enable you to assess the opportunities and limitations that exist in regard to your site and your plans before you invest significant time and resources only to get it all wrong. Sometimes the greatest lesson that can be learned from a little plan is what does not work.

I was reminded of this during a recent placemaking workshop in Bloomington, Indiana. The group there was very excited about developing some of the urban alleys into more pedestrian-friendly, interactive spaces. One alley in particular had the most foot traffic, and the installation team thought it would be a great idea to add an artistic archway at the entry to the alley. We all thought it looked wonderful until a local resident walking by pointed out that this particular alley served as the main photo spot for capturing pictures with the historic courthouse on the square. Rather than an aesthetic enhancement, our archway had become an ugly visual obstruction in this iconic photo with the courthouse. Thankfully, this small project revealed a site limitation that could easily be accounted for in any future permanent installation. What a shame it would have been to unknowingly ruin one of the prime Instagramming spots in Bloomington!

3. Little plans make believers out of skeptics.

Sometimes the biggest hurdles to implementing plans and achieving change are the skeptics and NIMBYs in your community. Opposition from these groups often stems from the fear of “what if.” That is why rooting the conversation in reality rather than hypotheticals is a critical step for winning over the skeptics of change. I have found that it is much easier to foster consensus on small, real plans rather than big, hypothetical ones.

Starting with little, adaptable plans allows people to experience changes slowly and provides opportunities to direct and redirect any unintended ripple effects (good or bad). One of the top takeaways that workshop participants consistently share with me is their initial skepticism about the process and their realization that these small steps are crucial to engendering shared visions for big change.

Again, when the stakes are low, even the skeptics are more willing to indulge some risk. Take a little step. Root the conversation in reality. Then adjust and press on to those big plans.