"City beautiful" revisited: An analysis of nineteenth-century civic improvement efforts

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In the arena of American urban planning history, there has been nothing so evocative and immediately recognizable as the urban form normally associated with the city beautiful movement: Classically inspired, monumental architecture; wide, tree-flanked boulevards and large civic spaces; the grand urban axis punctuated with statuary, or obelisk. The most famous expression of the movement in the United States is the mall and surrounding area in Washington, D.C., along with lesser known achievements in places like Chicago, Kansas City, and Denver. This highly public face of city beautiful has been clearly, and correctly, associated with white, middle-class, male-dominated membership that developed particular methods of operation. These included the reliance on professional opinion in the name of efficiency and beauty, a search for reform by working within the political and economic structures, and belief in the positive effects of behavior modification through environmental improvement. The historiography on the movement also indicates a shared involvement of both men and women. And yet the first two elements of that methodology would immediately indicate the exclusion of women from meaningful involvement - since access to higher education (necessary to obtain professional status) and political structures (at a time when most were not allowed suffrage even at state level) were very difficult, if not impossible, obstacles to overcome. The reality of women's position in society then begs the question of exactly to what degree, and in what manner, they were involved in city beautiful. A review of the historiography of the movement, in particular William H. Wilson's 1989 seminal work, provides some clues toward an answer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)107-132
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Urban History
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Urban Studies


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