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Big Data's Colorful History in Chicago Urban Planning

What would Daniel Burnham do with Google Maps? During a Lunch Talks lecture at the Chicago Architecture Foundation last week, architectural historian and architect Jen Masengarb used questions like that as a starting point to examine the ways Big Data was a big deal in Chicago urban planning long before the advent of spreadsheets and algorithms. Her presentation pulled from historical records such as the Chicago Blue Book, a turn-of-the-century social directory of the city's elite, and meticulous, street-level maps created by progressive sociologists, and showed how data sets like the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps functioned like the Zillow and Redfin of their day.

We spoke with Masengarb and asked her to run through a few examples that illustrated data-driven urban planning and included plenty of old maps to geek out about.
Her first case study came from the pioneering work of social researchers such as Sophonisba Breckenridge and Edith Abbott, who collaborated with the Hull House. To help advocate for improved conditions in West Side tenements and publicize and quantify the plight of residents, these two pioneers worked with colleagues to create detailed maps with block-by-block demographic data.

"These cool maps were the infographics of the 1890's," says Masengarb. "The information they collected and stories they told were instrumental in the work of Jane Addams and helped get tenement codes reformed in the early 20th century."

A few decades later, a similar study and data analysis would make an impact on the same area, but with much different ends. The Chicago Plan Commission was tasked with building the Congress Superhighway, now the Eisenhower, through the West Loop, realizing Burnham's original vision of a Congress Parkway that would stretch to the suburbs.

To help clear the way for the development, the group created studies of housing stock in the area, similar to those made for the Hull House. But instead of using the data to help these neighborhoods, these studies were used to justify knocking down buildings (and potentially low-balling eminent domain payments). Notes on some of the studies include "ramshackle and neglected structures" and "obsolete heritages from a past generation."

"There's a bit of sad irony in the ides that these pioneering data collection methods used by women in the 1890s to advocate for social change were then being used to advocate for demolition," says Masengarb. "All for the same neighborhood, but for different ends."