Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Redefining Urban Space: Language in the City Beautiful Movement

Redefining Urban Space: Language in the City Beautiful Movement

Kate Blatchford

Spurred on by Chicago’s World Colombian Exposition in 1893, the City Beautiful movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sought to improve American cities through ‘beautification’.  This took the form in some places of monumental building or city planning, and in others of a new support for municipal art.  The extent to which the movement succeeded varied by location.  Language used to describe and define urban space has a very real effect on how that space is viewed, and therefore how it is experienced and ultimately what is done with it.  This paper examines how language was used by and about the City Beautiful movement in order to further the goals of the movement.  In particular, it examines how urban space and landscapes were defined and framed by newspaper articles contemporary to the movement.  Articles regarding the movement in Washington D.C., New York City, and Detroit were examined.  Through discourse analysis, the paper finds that negative framing was used in discussion of the past and present of the city, while the potential future offered by the movement was framed positively.

April 5, 2019 - Posted by | abstract


  1. In researching the history of Belle Isle, Detroit’s preeminent specimen of the City Beautiful phenomenon, I consistently encountered the phrase, “the jewel in the river.” It has a certain chamber-of-commerce ring to it, but it caught on and is still used. A history of that label as applied to Belle Isle (the former “île au Cochon,” or Hog Island) would be interesting.

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 5, 2019 | Reply

  2. This is a very interesting topic, and I would like to read your paper to find out how newspaper articles contemporary to the movement talked about it. Which newspapers did you focus on? Also, I only say this because it was a weak point in my own paper, but how do you go to show that language had an impact on the way the space was viewed?

    Comment by Dina Charara | April 23, 2019 | Reply

  3. Do you think the City Beautiful movement will be strongly impacted by the push for climate friendly innovations in cities? I know many cities abroad have removed highways, installed land bridges for animal crossing, and invested in urban terracing which has impacted both the natural beauty of the cities and been a step towards reclaiming nature in urban environments. I know this seems tangential to your topic, but I feel a push towards climate friendly beautification would, and does receive similar negative press.

    Comment by Shannon McKeown | April 23, 2019 | Reply

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