Last Thursday, the often-nerdy Barack Obama erased all remaining doubt that he is positioning himself as America's "Planner In Chief".


In an 11-minute speech, Obama outlined an ambitious plan to build a national high-speed rail system by upgrading existing rail systems and investing in 10 high-speed rail corridors, including San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco. In so doing he drew upon the most famous quote in American city planning: Daniel Burnham's "Make no little plans." Based on the reaction I've seen on Facebook and elsewhere, Obama has now won the hearts of America's planners. It remains to be seen whether Obama's rhetoric can be translated into reality – and how much that will benefit California's own long-delayed high-speed rail project.


The Thursday speech was classic Obama, combining soaring rhetoric about transformation of the economy with a practical argument that change in transportation is necessary. It was also mostly a photo op/sound bite event, as the stimulus package already contains the $8 billion. The only "news" was Obama's announcement that he might put as much as $1 billion a year for high-speed rail in the federal budget over each of the next five years, making $13 billion altogether.


In the speech, Obama stumbled over his statement that "nobody is talking about replacing cars" and pointed to the stimulus' investments in highways. Not surprisingly, he invoked the name of his favorite president – Lincoln – who pursued the transcontinental railroad for "a nation connected from east to west even as he was trying to hold north and south together." And he waited until almost the very last second to invoke the name of Chicago's most famous planner.


Obama and Burnham


Burnham is clearly on Obama's mind these days, and, he apparently assumes, on everyone else's mind too. In his Thursday talk, Burnham was a throw-away line – "Make no little plans. That's what Daniel Burnham said in Chicago" – as if everybody watching knew who Burnham was and what he was talking about.


Maybe it's because the president is thinking about the possibility of Chicago getting the Olympics in 2016 – an achievement parallel to putting on the Columbian Exposition, whose architecture, shaped largely by Burnham, ushered in the City Beautiful movement. Two weeks ago, in making a videotaped pitch to the International Olympic Committee, he again invoked Burnham's famous phrase.


Burnham's words, he told the International Olympic Committee, are "being lived out by the Chicago 2016 organizers standing before you, by the people who call Chicago home, and by all those men and women across America who are eager to welcome the world to our shores and who have taken up our city's Olympic dream as their own". This is pretty much the same thing he said about the American people and high-speed rail last Thursday.


Having lived on the South Side of Chicago for more than 20 years, Obama would have to know about Burnham. In Chicago, Obama lives just a short distance from the site of the Columbian Exposition and many other civic improvements called for in Burnham's 1909 Chicago Plan.  


Burnham's park and parkway system wends its way throughout the South Side. The president clearly feels a connection to the ambitious dreamer of a century ago. There is little question that his imprint on America's built environment will be strong and enduring. Whether it will be as positive as Burnham's remains to be seen.


The Impact on California High-Speed Rail


Meanwhile, Obama gave every indication that his administration would throw a lot of money at the California high-speed rail project.


The high-speed rail project struggled for many years before a $10 billion bond to kick-start it was placed on the ballot last November. Despite the struggling economy, that measure passed, a fact that Obama commended the voters for. In his Thursday remarks, the president said high-speed rail in California hold the potential to overcome "crippling congestion on highways and in airports" and to promote  "smart urban and rural growth."


Days before Obama's speech, Mehdi Morshed, head of the Caifornia High-Speed Rail Authority, said he hoped to capture half of the $8 billion for California. That's still not nearly enough to build the system – the project could cost as much as $85 billion – but combined with the state's $10 billion it could be enough to get private investors interested.


"Private investors are very interested in the project," Morshed told the Sacramento Bee, "but because it takes so long, they want us to do the initial items, the environmental work, acquisition of the rights of way, building some pieces … so they don't have to wait 10 years to get some return on their investment."


No small plans indeed.



– Bill Fulton