Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Past Planning for the Future: DC’s 1950 Comprehensive Plan …

… or, Planning Atomic-Age Washington

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

[Editor’s note: A complete revision of the current DC Comprehensive Plan was started by the Office of Planning  in 2016, and with community ward meetings having been conducted to receive public comments on the draft plan, it is now being readied for submission to the City Council for adoption.]

In November of 1950 a slender pamphlet appeared, “Washington Present and Future.” It was a promising if unprepossessing volume, the first in a promised series of six. Over the next six months it was followed by five more: “People & land”; “Housing and redevelopment”; “Open spaces and community services”; “Moving people and goods”; and “Regional aspects of the comprehensive plan.”

These six would comprise the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital.

In some ways, this first (six-part) document was nothing unusual. Washington was, and is, a city of plans, starting with Peter Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 design. But it is three underappreciated plans which gave us today’s Washington.

Andrew Ellicott revised L’Enfant’s design and gave us the street network familiar today. The subsequent, erratic 19th century expansion of residential development out from Washington City into that part of the District of Columbia beyond the L’Enfant plan area prompted Washington’s next great plan, the 1898 Highway Plan.

The Permanent System of Highways, as it was officially called, defined the pattern for the entire street network of the District, with the Highway Commission administering this street plan. [1] Once those roadway decisions had been made, the next defining plan, which was the subject of an October 2016 article in this space, was the 1920 Zoning Plan and its modifications.

The highway and zoning plans set the bones and flesh of the development of the District — streets were designated and land uses defined. What yet remained was locating public facilities.

The 1901 McMillan (officially, Senate Park) Commission started that process; it’s influence was more nuanced — playing an important role in the redevelopment of the core center city of Washington, but a more limited one further out — along with encouraging development of parks. All of these plans (Ellicott, highway, and zoning) were “comprehensive” in some fashion with respect to the particular scope for which they were designed. The development of an even more “comprehensive” comprehensive plan would take many more years.

… complete article here:



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