The Birth of City Planning in the United States, 1840-1917

A review of Jon A. Peterson's history book

Tom Eggum, P.E.
Senior Consultant
TKDA
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Why would a public works engineer (even a semi-retired one) who is not a history buff want to read and report on a 325-page book on city planning? 1. Professional curiosity: I have been told that many years back, planners had been part of the evolving profession of civil engineering, but felt ignored by the rest of us and left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Are these articulate and visionary extroverts, city planners, actually mutant civil engineers? 2. My own perception of planning: Engineers and planners working together can accomplish works that would be much more difficult if done separately. Planners take the broad view, create conceptual plans that decision makers understand, and have a nice touch (a.k.a. "process") with stakeholders. Engineers can create and fund projects, and then actually deliver them to predetermined standards, on time, and within budget—a potentially successful if not heavenly marriage. 3. Ego: If my comments aren't too silly, friends and family will be impressed by national publication. No one need know I was the only volunteer.

Peterson writes of the period from 1840 to 1917, from the rise of cities to the rise of suburbs. Before 1900, developers did "townsite planning" applying a standard grid; and civil engineers, architects, and landscape architects did "special-purpose planning" that included water, wastewater, urban parks, and college campuses. Some of this was big and systematic, but was not comprehensive. The World Columbian Exposition of 1893, better known as the Chicago World's Fair and led by Daniel Burnham, was a highly complex and exciting undertaking, much in the public eye, and served as a dramatic motivator toward better city planning.

The 1903 MacMillan plan for the national Capitol Mall was the first major plan to include many urban features. Corps of Engineers opposition only spurred a grander and more ideal revision, which inspired other efforts typically devoid of engineering input. The late '90s saw the rise of the City Beautiful movement, a nationwide impetus to improve cities aesthetically. These, combined with a growing economy and President Theodore Roosevelt's "vigor," powered a voluntary and energetic tackling of projects in many cities, emphasizing civic centers, gateway railroad stations, processional boulevards, belt parkways, outer park systems, and public playgrounds. Separate from all this enthusiasm, engineers continued to work on water, sewer, and roads.

In the first decade of the 1900s, comprehensive planning spread beyond idealism into politics and finance. Charles Mulford Robinson mixed big and little proposals, working with prominent citizens and local organizations to create and promote marketable plans. Government authority began replacing voluntarism as the prime mover. John Nolen added function and utility to beautification. Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. asserted that the future could only be carefully guessed at. Burnham's 1909 Chicago Plan combined City Beautiful with infrastructure improvements. The 1909 Boston Plan emphasized comprehensive planning, atypically involving engineers. Imported influences arrived from England (garden cities and housing reform) and Germany (public administration and land use control). Bonding and lawyers entered the picture.

Traffic congestion at the Four Corners, downtown Newark, New Jersey, c. 1912. The Broad and Market Street intersection became notorious for its daily crush of trolleys and horse-drawn wagons. Newark City Plan Commission, Comprehensive Plan of Newark (1915). Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Despite their recognized expertise and necessary contributions to urban life quality, engineers maintained their marginal role. By 1909, Olmstead broadened planning's purview beyond beautification and social welfare—and beyond architecture and engineering as practiced. He sought to include all relevant disciplines, even engineers, because "practically all the planning of cities and 'additions' to cities that has been done in the United States has been done by engineers...[though] most of it very badly."

By 1910, City Beautiful was fading out, replaced by "City Practical." Funding came from chambers of commerce and suburban real estate developers, who influenced the outcome. Engineers were recruited for the comprehensive planning effort. Some responded, like Nelson P. Lewis, the Chief Engineer for the New York Board of Estimate and Apportionment. But unlike our English and Canadian counterparts, U.S. engineers mostly avoided city planning. While comprehensive city planning served as the rigorous "foundation principle and ultimate goal," city planners lacked adequate power and typically accomplished much less than they planned.

Peterson's "story" ends in 1917 with city planning growing as an ambitious and altruistic profession. City planning continued to grow in the 1920s, wobbled along during the Great Depression, seesawed in the years afterward, and "ultimately perished." However, many ideas and techniques survived and continue to be useful. Peterson closes by suggesting that although comprehensive city planning failed by its own standards, it nevertheless left a lasting legacy—basically standards and guidelines, that may or may not be used.

Civil engineers had a low profile in the evolution of city planning, which evolved from the convergence of City Beautiful with the growing practices of architecture and landscape architecture. Engineers built needed water and sewer systems and roads, but did not figure into the Lamaze of city planning until 1910 or so. City planning might have been more successful with more engineering support.

This reinforces my perception that civil engineers typically do critical and complex work without seeking attention—and sometimes without factoring in broader complexities. The architects, landscape architects and, finally, the city planners Peterson highlights were all broad-thinking, articulate promoters. Engineers responded with systems to make urban, and then suburban, living possible, but did not seem to weigh in on the vision and goals end. Why not, I wonder? And, have we changed much since?

While civil engineers, particularly public works engineers, have been urged in recent years to contribute actively to multi-disciplinary endeavors, and have responded to some extent, we still prefer doing things "our way." Perhaps this is partly why engineers become engineers. But most large and complex undertakings, particularly older city revitalization, require coordination, cooperation, collaboration, and compromise. Given their complementary skills, engineers and planners would both perform much better working as partners, much like in a successful marriage.

This is a well-written history book, but is not a handbook on city planning for engineers. It does contain insights helpful for background knowledge. And the maps and historic pictures are great, featuring many cities across the country. Should you buy it and read it? Yes...or borrow it and read it—it's expensive.

Tom Eggum, P.E., former director of public works and city engineer for Saint Paul, Minnesota, is a senior consultant with TKDA, a Saint Paul-based engineering, planning, and architectural firm; he is also a director of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He can be reached at tomeggum@mac.com.