Experiencing the City

April 27-29, 2017

“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, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.” – Daniel Burnham, creator of the 1909 Plan for Chicago

Burnham’s claim for the power of urban planning is extensive. For Burnham, the layout of a city produces an immediate impact on an individual’s daily experience. A good plan has magic that can ‘stir people’s blood’, excite them, prepare them almost to conquer the world. Burnham and Chicago’s planners made their elegant logics visible on the grid of streets and the ring of parks that surround Chicago, but the commuter who finds himself frozen in this grid on a near-daily basis may not have his blood stirred in quite the way that Burnham intended. In short, the noble diagram does not necessarily translate into satisfying experience for those who live within its realm after all. The pressures of daily life--like the notorious traffic Burnham could never have predicted--confine the commuter’s route just as much as they require the city itself to evolve. Geography constrains our actions, and the resulting traffic patterns require the geography to adapt: as we go about our daily lives, we constitute our cities while they also shape us. City and city dweller encounter each other in a dialectical relationship that leads us to ask how we make and transform our cities through our day-to-day encounters with them and with each other, and to inquire how the cities impact our lives and constitute us as their citizens.

Cities evolve, sometimes according to plan, but frequently according to unanticipated needs and practices. Despite the inevitability of urban transformation, our imaginations of cities often pin them to a particular time, and harden into conceptions of their identities as unchanging. Narratives about Chicago, for example, emphasize the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the Fire, the White City, Burnham’s Plan for Chicago, and Al Capone all figure brightly in the stories associated with Chicago while much of the 20th century lies in shadow. The imaginary Chicago rejects an account of its development through the socially turbulent period of the mid-20th century and in so doing, neglects what Chicago has become in reality. Chicago, however, is merely one example of how an experienced reality can differ from the original plan, and from our imagination of it. San Francisco, Como, Florence, Chicago, Venice - the cities examined in the seminar will help us see the tensions between noble diagrams and gritty lived cities, between ideal imaginings and reality.

By studying the human experience of urban forms and how they change through time, this seminar will allow us to consider the people and institutions responsible for the development of urban sites, and what they can teach us about urban planning today. The seminar will also ask how their work intersects with and informs civic identities, whether imaginary or not. We will consider how planners’ and developers’ noble diagrams feed the later development of cities.

Speakers will include Niall Atkinson (Department of Art History); Adrienne Brown (Department of English); Michael Conzen (Professor of Geography, Committee on Geographical Studies); Amy Lippert (Department of History); Jennifer Scappettone (Department of English), and our discussions will be led by Emily Talen, professor of urbanism (Social Sciences Division). 

Registration is now closed.