The Burnham Plan for San Francisco: A Model For Master Planning?

Urbanist Article July 5, 2006

With the centennial observation of the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire, much ado has been made of Daniel Burnham’s Plan for San Francisco. Ignored by city leaders in the aftermath, his plan is one of the great “what ifs” of our collective history, as John King of the San Francisco Chronicle recently noted. What kind of a city would San Francisco have become if Burnham’s sweeping boulevards, western parks and terraced hilltops had been built? Whether or not you have an appetite for Burnham’s vision, the real question, in many ways, is whether San Franciscans have ¾or ever will have ¾a collective appetite for the kind of “master planning” that Burnham had to offer.

Burnham’s plan for San Francisco was an effort on the part of city leaders to bring the culture, civilization and neoclassical grandeur of cities such as Paris and Berlin to the steep, narrow and disheveled streets of Chinatown and North Beach. It was not a novel idea; similar efforts were underway in nearly every American city at the time.

In 1904, city boosters such as John Phelan brought Burnham to San Francisco to create a 50-year vision for the physical development of San Francisco’s public streets, parks, plazas and buildings. Working with local architect Willis Polk, Burnham painted with a broad brush, unconstrained by cost, feasibility or politics, and imagined a city many times larger than its population of 350,000 of the time.

Despite early accolades, it didn’t take long for the consensus behind Burnham’s plan to thin. His plan soon became known as “the cobweb plan” for its proposal to weave radial boulevards into a single intersection at Van Ness Avenue and Market Street, complete with a central obelisk. Hearing echoes of Hausman’s clearance projects in Paris, property owners demanded they be compensated for land taken to build Burnham’s boulevards. At a basic level, his presumption that San Francisco would be remade in the image of Paris failed to capture the cultural, economic and social energies shaping San Franciscans at the time.

Long before the Great Earthquake and Fire, popular support for Burnham’s vision eroded, if indeed it had ever been there. While some city leaders proclaimed the disaster an opportunity to realize his vision, it was quickly set aside and San Franciscans rebuilt the city as it had been. Could things have gone differently? Had the costs been less, would San Franciscans have embraced the Burnham Plan in the wake of the Great Earthquake and Fire?

There is a lot to be said for big plans: Burnham’s was the first to step back, take stock of the landscape and make bold proposals as to the kind of city San Francisco should become. Yet it made a mistake that many big plans do to this day: It offered a monolithic vision, frozen in time and cultural space. This vision was offered to a city whose people, many still newly immigrated, were more focused on establishing themselves than on contributing to such a grandiose idea of civic life. Burnham’s vision, while it excited the cultural sensibilities of the city’s elite, failed to resonate with the public imagination.

There have been other big plans – most notably the 1975 Urban Design Element of the General Plan, which reaffirmed San Francisco as a city with a strong sense of place, rooted in its human-scaled neighborhoods and historic urban fabric. The Urban Design Element celebrated the city street grid, recognizing the unique vantage points created on streets such as California Street, and the potential that such an unyielding public space afforded to improve everyday life in the city. The plan resonated; the ensuing wave of public support drove the largest, most comprehensive change to San Francisco’s physical character in the past 60 years – the 1978 revision to the city’s zoning ordinance. This revision established most of the height, bulk and other basic zoning rules that we live within to this day, with the exception of the downtown area, which was the subject of its own landmark plan in 1985. 

In recent years, Seattle learned that you don’t need a single master planner to end up with a master plan. As part of its Comprehensive Plan Update in 1999, Seattle set aggressive growth goals for its neighborhoods, and then helped hire planners to work with them on a strategy to accommodate it. The experiment resulted in more than 38 neighborhood plans developed by more than 20,000 people. This patchwork master plan addresses Seattle’s need to grow responsibly and has built an informed, “non-NIMBY” grassroots to address development issues. Most importantly, empowering the neighborhoods built the public ownership needed to get these plans adopted, and established a base of support for bond initiatives that are transforming the city’s libraries and transportation system. 

San Francisco faces unparalleled challenges: housing affordability, access to open space and community services, and the poor condition of our streets, parks and plazas are a few of the most pressing. While strong leadership is essential, the “total design” approach of Daniel Burnham is for cities such as Chicago, which have more singular cultural roots and a relatively “in place” population. West Coast cities, by contrast, are more transient and the sense of place more rooted in the character of neighborhoods than the city as a whole. Master planning here is a matter of craft – first developing a balanced, inclusive vision that resonates beyond city hall and advocacy-group insiders, then knitting together a patchwork of local solutions that address that vision, one neighborhood at a time. This seems likely to be San Francisco’s pathway to a better city.

About the Authors: 

Marshall Foster is director of city greening in the San Francisco Mayor's Office

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