San Francisco 1905 (Burnham plan)


Albeit ‘rational,’ the plan was far from comprehensive by today’s standards. There was little mention of community members. Housing, social programs, economic development, infrastructure (beyond roads) were, for the most part, ignored. Where these aspects were included it was in relation to the development of roads and parks. Some examples include:

  • hospitals near parks
  • cemeteries turned into schools and hospitals
  • elderly home moved farther away near jail because it used valuable park land

Burnham’s plan was primarily focused on the preservation of the city as it was. There was little discussion as to the population and where to plan for areas that would experience population growth. The plan was largely concentrated on the expansion of parks by preserving green open spaces and working with landowners to form public-private entities. As a result of his conservation approach, the plan was not particularly inclusive or exclusive. Burnham’s plan made many assumptions about the use of land and property rights. His plan required a great deal of patience, money, and wholesale cooperation from property owners who would need to abandon their previous sites altogether to make way for parks or thoroughfares. The cost and time for implementation itself was monumental, and it is not surprising that policymakers and planners would not want to invest in such planning following the 1906 earthquake when reconstruction efforts were underway.

Burnham’s plan also reflected the racial politics of the time. The Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 suspended the immigration of Chinese. At the time, San Francisco had one of the largest Chinese populations living in and around Portsmouth Plaza, the city’s first public square and civic center. This area was considered centrally located and as a result on valuable real estate, which contributed to numerous attempts by politicians and city planners to relocate the community or eradicate it all together. Burnham’s 1905 plan completely destroyed the existing Chinatown, replacing it with one of his many grand boulevards and park lands. Though Burnham’s plan was not implemented, the Chinese community continued to be threatened following the 1906 earthquake. However, Chinese leaders did successfully convince municipal leaders and the neighborhood’s landlords that the “New” Chinatown should be rebuilt in a distinctive Chinese style as a means to attract tourism to boost San Francisco’s economy.

The commons are front and center in the San Francisco plan. People’s ‘private’ lives – their homes, their food, health and education – are, at best, inferences in Burnham’s plan.  Although these issues had surfaced in the public realm in the late 1800’s in the form of slums, undrinkable water and outbreak of diseases, the planners’ role, at this time, was not to address these issues.


Whether green space and the beautification of roads and other public spaces were the primarily concern of the public at this time is unknown. There are no public meetings, interviews or surveys cited in this plan. While Burnham is addressing the fundamental human need for clean air and open space he addresses few other basic needs.


Burnham’s approach was shaped by many cultural and personal factors including:




  • Burnham’s training as an architect – he was a spatial thinker and a smart business man




  • Burnham’s work with Fredrick Law Olmstead, the predominate landscape architect of the time known for his grandiose public parks
  • Participatory planning at this time primarily involved the white, male elite
  • The importance of green and open space gained attention during the industrialization of cities, especially before automobiles were commonplace and the wealthy could easily flee the pollution and crowds of the cities