Urban Studies City Beautiful Movement
Robert Freestone
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0069


The City Beautiful movement was an influential force in city planning, landscape, and urban design in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, primarily in the United States but also globally. It came as city planning was becoming established as an integral component of city building processes. Emerging from various initiatives already working toward a more attractive and inspirational built environment, and alongside but also intertwined with other aspirations such as greater efficiency and improved public health, the primary message was elevating the aesthetic qualities of cities and towns. This imperative responded to the adverse environmental effects of market-driven urbanization, which lacked the coordination and civicness required to deliver holistic beauty. The diseconomies of urban life came into sharp relief at the turn of the twentieth century highlighted by accelerated population growth, the pollution and social problems accompanying industrialization, traffic congestion, and a devalued public realm. The movement involved numerous actors, including architects, landscape architects, planners, politicians, government officials, businesspeople, and community members, working collaboratively on particular projects and within various organizations and networks concerned with city improvement and beautification. These goals were captured across many different projects: individual buildings often with government and cultural functions, urban precincts comprising a mix of buildings and public spaces, public art, college campuses, streets and boulevards, parkland and parkways, river and lakefronts, and comprehensive city plans. Beyond a shared environmentalist notion that improved physical surroundings elevated the quality of urban life came diversity through nuanced aesthetic values addressing built and natural environments, formality and informality, small- and large-scale, iconicity and assemblage. Architecturally, significant inspiration was drawn from French beaux-arts design with its valuation of rational, classical, and symmetrical forms. The governance of City Beautiful enterprise also varied across a spectrum from community-driven exercises in local improvement to state-sponsored and privately commissioned interventions. The latter usually communicated major statements on deeper ideological values of power, authority, and patriotism. In America, the heyday of the movement extended from the 1890s to the 1920s: from the economic boom of “the Gilded Age” into the social reformism of “the Progressive Era.” Alongside positive environmental improvements also came social displacement; like so many planning interventions there would be winners and losers. While making its mark on cities and towns big enough to value the dividends from design, the movement would be eclipsed by new values as architecture discovered a more adventurous modernism and city planning moved onto more practical formulations.

General Overviews

Wilson 1989 is the most authoritative book-length account of the (American) City Beautiful movement. Well-reviewed, it filled a major gap in the planning history literature in overseeing the movement’s origins, aesthetics, and ideology through scholarly research that broke away from the then-prevailing architectural accounts. Wilson’s account conveys a movement accommodating itself to, rather than challenging, the prevailing political-economic order. Its coverage extends to most of the other sections in this entry. The revisionist essay Stelter 2000 examines the movement as an international phenomenon with mixed blessings, but one that celebrated city life. Encyclopedic and reference work entries complement these longer accounts. Some of these on online forums such as Britannica Online and Wikipedia generally provide summary derivative or idiosyncratic accounts. Fenske 2014, Gale 2004, Ozuduru 2014, and Silva 2005 are brief but more considered. Freestone 2019 describes an eclectic historical movement that lost its vitality with the professionalization of planning from the 1910s but left some positive legacies for planning practice. The survey Fairfield 2018 sticks to the American narrative and highlights some of the key actors in spreading the word: notable architects and social reformers, organizations such as the American League for City Improvements and the American Park and Outdoor Art Association, and countless municipal improvement associations.

  • Fairfield, John D. “The City Beautiful Movement, 1890–1920.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Edited by Jon Butler. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    An extended and authoritative reference work entry dealing with the key elements of the American City Beautiful movement from its origins and highpoints in Washington, DC, and Chicago and then transition from the 1910s to acknowledge more pragmatic concerns. Includes a discussion of the literature.

  • Fenske, Gail. “City Beautiful Movement.” In Grove Art Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    A brief reference work entry on the American movement.

  • Freestone, Robert. “City Beautiful Movement.” In The Wiley Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Studies. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2019.

    This reference work entry grounds the beginnings of the City Beautiful movement in the United States but takes an expansive global view of its popularity and legacy in the twentieth century.

  • Gale, Dennis E. “City Beautiful Movement.” In Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Architecture, Vol. 1. Edited by R. Stephen Sennott, 496–500. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004.

    This reference work entry concentrates on the American architectural legacy of the City Beautiful movement in public buildings, civic centers, grand malls, and ceremonial boulevards.

  • Ozuduru, Burcu H. “City Beautiful Movement.” In Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research. Edited by Alex C. Michalos, 925–927. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2014.

    A short reference work entry that refers to the links with more regional-scale ventures and the latter-day “New Urbanism” movement.

  • Silva, Carlos Nunes. “City Beautiful Movement.” In Encyclopedia of the City. Edited by Roger W. Caves, 69–70. New York: Routledge, 2005.

    A short reference work entry on the American movement.

  • Stelter, Gilbert. “Rethinking the Significance of the City Beautiful Idea.” In Urban Planning in a Changing World. Edited by Robert Freestone, 98–117. London: E & FN Spon, 2000.

    Drawing mainly on American and Canadian planning history, Stelter argues that the City Beautiful movement was a positive movement for urban change in three ways: in celebrating the city as a work of art, stressing the need for more integrated rather than piecemeal urban interventions, and aiding the emergence of more broadly-based city planning.

  • Wilson, William H. The City Beautiful Movement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

    DOI: 10.56021/9780801837586

    This major account of the American experience by one of its leading historians is focused on case studies in Dallas, Denver, Harrisburg, Kansas City, and Seattle. It affirms the beneficial aspects of the movement in its optimistic promotion of the public realm.

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