Think big – or do little things for big results.

Posted: February 13, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

About a year ago in a post about Lake Lewisburg, I mentioned the book by Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City.

It’s the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which became known as the “White City” due at least in part to the predominance of white buildings built for the fair.  It’s a fascinating story about how the Columbian Exposition, as it was also known, came together under the direction of Daniel Burnham, a Chicago architect, with assistance from Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for the design of New York’s Central Park.

It was a unique time in our nation’s history – and the world’s history, for that matter.  Electricity as a power source was just being developed and it was at the Chicago World’s fair that alternating current, as advocated by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, won out over direct current, as advocated by Thomas Edison and General Electric.

The world’s first Ferris Wheel, with a total capacity of 2,160 passengers (yes, that number is correct), was one of the main attractions of the fair.  It was huge.

It was a time when the cities of the world tried to outdo the others in creating the biggest, most impressive World’s Fair.  It was in this spirit, that Daniel Burnham is credited as saying,

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 will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

[Trying to determine the origin of quotes can be a little sketchy.  There is some evidence that this quote originated with Niccolo Machiavelli.]

I’ve always liked the Burnham quote because too often we settle for less than reaching our full potential.  This is especially true in West Virginia, where years of finishing near the bottom of the lists of good things and near the top of the lists of bad things, have programmed us to believe that great ideas and big plans are meant for someone else.  Generally, I think it serves us well to think big.

On the other hand, my Cincinnati LinkedIn correspondent, urban planner Della Rucker, has convinced me that bigger is not always better.  In fact, if not properly planned and carefully executed, the big idea could end up being a big mistake.  Rucker advocates small, incremental improvements.

It’s possible that the little things we do with public spaces can have a big impact.

Knowing that good visibility into a public space is essential for creating a feeling of safety and security, maybe all that is needed is some judicious pruning of trees and shrubs.

Knowing that the concept of triangulation encourages social interaction, maybe a plan to incorporate works of art into the space will make it more convivial.

Knowing that food and drink can seed a park with activity and social interaction, maybe vendors can be encouraged to fill the need.

So, yes, think big, but understand that we don’t always have to wait for the million dollar grant to improve our public spaces.  Small actions can yield big results.

In that same spirit, next week we’re going to take a look at how to create a good public space on a shoestring budget.

Oh.  I almost forgot.  The “devil” refers to a serial killer on the loose in Chicago at the time of the World’s Fair.  Great book.





  1. dellarucker says:

    Man… how cool! Thanks, Joseph.

    A lot of what worries me about how we approach planning and design as a culture is that we tend to assume that unless we do something big, we haven’t done anything worth doing. And we tend to assume that when we change something, that it’s going to be a straigh input- output process — We do X to the park, and Y will happen. But you don’t have to look too hard to realize that this is seldom what happens — you do X, and you might get Y, but you might also get Z, Q and who knows what else, and those might eliminate Y entirely or negate the good you thought would come out of it. That’s the scary part of Burnham’s/Machiavelli’s mantra. Instead of seeing communities as ecosystems, where one change creates ripple effects in every direction, the Burnham approach assumes that a community is a machine that can be fully understood and directly manipulated.

    The incredible thing about West Virginia communities is that many of them haven’t gotten badly screwed up by overaggressive architectural interventions in the past. I know there are plenty of communities threatened by the ecological impacts of mining and forestry, not to mention lack of jobs and businesses, but the towns themselves tend to be intact — no one bulldozed downtown to put up a shopping mall. That’s an asset — it’s a whole lot easier to build from something than from nothing. And West Virginia towns have definitely got something to work with.

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