These massive, six-month long exhibitions, when popular, had many purposes over the years including showcasing new technology, cultural exchanges or to demonstrate best practices such as the one put on in 1974 by business leaders to create environmental protection in the community where I began my community marketing career.
Ostensibly to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas, the one in 1893, as designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham, was a prototype of what cities could and should become.
It came near the end of six decades when the countryside had been turned into vast seas of tree stumps. Two-thirds of the deforestation since colonization began occurred during this brief period.
America the Beautiful had been America the Desecrated.
The prototype in Chicago spurred the Progressive Era’s grass roots’ “City Beautiful Movement” that would transform cities and towns across the country beginning with aesthetics.
Coupled with President Theodore Roosevelt’s movements for conservation and then ecology, these evolutions brought America the Beautiful back from the grave.
Two years following the 1893 World’s Fair and 285 miles east, the surging City Beautiful Movement also spawned in Detroit the formation of the nation’s first community destination marketing organization (DMO.)
Initially intended to leverage the new appeal being created into visitor-centric economic and cultural development, soon these organizations became the guardians of sense of place.
Insight for this revolutionary city-centric marketing approach was innovated based on observations that travelers are primarily drawn by overall destination appeal rather than by individual facilities or events.
It is for the same reason that while North Carolina remains focused on attributes such as mountains and beaches, it is the overall appeal of its cities and towns that for decades now has generated more than 80% of the state’s revenue from tourism.
Rather than as mere stops coming to and from the mountains and beaches, cities and towns are driving the vast majority of this visitation for other reasons now with these areas as an add on.
The 1893 event and the City Beautiful Movement was also at the root of why cities discovered renewal and appeal from fostering green infrastructure including urban forests, parks and open space as well as classical architecture.
That era was also the origin of the modern planning movement along with the idea of zoning land use, improved sanitation and cleaner water. But at its heart, the movement was about aesthetics and sense of place.
It soon resonated with cities large and small across the nation. The first city plan in North Carolina was created in 1913 for Raleigh, the state capital, by its Woman’s Club, but because they lacked the vote it went nowhere.
Olmsted Brothers created a plan for Duke West Campus in Durham. Mill towns were also among the first to employ planning, and business associations began pushing the idea of planning to cities and counties.
In the meantime, planning was employed for neighborhoods in Durham, Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh that are still among the most vibrant and popular in these cities today.
By the end of the 1920s, Asheville (1922), Durham (1927) and High Point were the first cities in North Carolina to create comprehensive plans. Keep in mind this is also the period when Durham’s first generation began historic preservation and massive reforestation.
An earlier sign that the City Beautiful Movement resonated almost immediately among first generation Durham industrialists is their prompt and prolific application of Romanesque Revival and other forms of classical architecture on warehouses, factories, homes and churches.
Repurposed as performance halls as well as residential, offices, research labs, restaurants and stores today, these distinctive buildings are symbolic of the “built” part of Durham’s vaunted sense of place.
Unfortunately, back then many other cities and towns in the old south used the planning movement not to encourage aesthetics or sense of place but to further perpetuate a then-legalized form of racism.
The area surrounding Asheville had been entirely deforested by the time of the City Beautiful Movement. George Vanderbilt reforested the estate around his Biltmore House and used a plan influenced by the movement for its village.
It is symbolic that Asheville stepped up with the state’s first comprehensive plan even though, still to this day, the surrounding county has no zoning.
It speaks volumes that this county and others around the state who failed to learn or came late to the lessons of the City Beautiful Movement are working today on behalf of special interests to outlaw its embrace by cities and counties that did, perhaps hoping to regress to that era of desecration.
It is ironic that with some exceptions such as the exec of Durham’s DMO, which was only founded in 1989, those today with careers spawned from the City Beautiful Movement seem often apathetic about their role as guardian of sense of place.
Many are now even enablers of its destruction, such as when they utilize roadside billboard and other forms of blight while hypocritically giving lip service to more than a string of increasingly anemic but valiant scenic preservation successors to the City Beautiful Movement.
Hopefully, on the upcoming hundredth anniversary of the creation of a trade association for DMOs back during the heyday of the City Beautiful Movement, its members will take a long hard look in the mirror.
Do they regain the spirit of the City Beautiful Movement that spawned their first predecessors as guardians of sense of place or do they continue to sit back while it is destroyed?