The City Beautiful movement was a design philosophy focused on the beautification of cities, which took place between 1890 and 1920. As many architects during this time had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the idea of infusing art and harmony with the spaces around them was the starting point of the movement, ultimately giving rise to urban planning. Urban planning grew not solely from the education of architects, but the need for social reform in American cities. Cities had been growing so fast that they were becoming ugly, shapeless, and densely populated. This was the main driver behind the City Beautiful movement – functionality within the city accomplished through urban planning.

Although it did eventually make its way to smaller towns, the City Beautiful movement’s focus was within cities – specifically Chicago, Washington D.C., Detroit, Cleveland, and San Francisco. In fact, Washington D.C.’s layout, known as the McMillan Plan, based its layout of monuments and addition of the National Mall on ideas from City Beautiful. 

The National Mall in Washington, DC
National Mall & Monument Grounds, Washington, DC; Source: Library of Congress

The designers behind the movement believed that if people were living in beautiful cities, they would in turn act like upstanding citizens and respect their environment. Ever since the World’s Fair, civic pride was becoming a popular aspect of design, meaning that public architecture – and now public space – was something that should be available to all, and it should be beautiful so that there is something to be proud of. 

The Washington Monument in Baltimore, MD
Washington Monument - Mount Vernon Place, Charles & Monument Streets, Baltimore, MD; Source: Library of Congress

However, as beautiful as the ideology was, there are many critics of the City Beautiful movement, who say that it was more about aesthetics than social reform. Many good ideas came from it though, such as public parks which had not existed before when populations of cities were not as dense; nicer infrastructure such as streets and bridges; and the use of sidewalks, waterfronts, etc. to bring the human scale back to cities. The importance of these ideas is still relevant and visible in urban planning today.

Rock Creek Parkway in Washington, DC
View along parkway - Rock Creek & Potomac Parkway, Washington, DC; Source: Library of Congress

by Mackenzie Kidwell

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