Wednesday, May 12

Learning from Savannah

Eric Orozco has been mining some valuable lessons from the City of Savannah for over nine months now, making his blog series one of the longest-running and insightful I've read. My only experience with Savannah consists of a three-day stay in an historic district Bed and Breakfast, filled with hours of wandering and eating and more wandering. I came away with a fascination for the city and the intangible sense of magic everyone attributes to it. Eric's posts help me put words on some of this.

I don't have much to add beyond attempting a general summary of the posts thus far, in hopes they will keep coming!

(By the way, read the posts and expect to be drawn from Savannah into meaty philosophical dialogue and then back again.)

1. Odonomia and the Garden of Good and Evil.  When it comes to shaping cities, we like to classify our approaches as either form-based or use-based, when in reality this taxonomy breaks down on a number of levels. Most of the activity of real city building happens "illicitly," that is outside of the neat taxonomy we envision and apply in advance to a place. The unique wards of Savannah are an example of a rigid order that exhibits a wonderful diversity in both form and function in it's application throughout the city. I can't resist the money quote:
"It is as if the Platonic pattern from the mind of Oglethorpe (conceived for reasons very different than Savannah's needs today) was dropped into a fecund soup and allowed to copulate with the wonderful imaginations of every square district."
2. Savannah's Kind of Blue. Miles Davis, like the city itself, creates beauty by improvising on theme.

3. The Invisible Signs of Savannah. One of the aspects of Savannah's attractiveness is what it lacks: street signals and signs. Compared to a similarly connected street grid in Charlotte, a much lower percentage of Savannah's intersections have signs or signals. Instead, this city allows "the intimate scales of its fine-grain environment to dictate traffic control."

4. What the Savannah Square can do better than the Roundabout. While roundabouts have been a trend over the last few years for regulating traffic flow at intersections, the Savannah square is a similar alternative better suited for multimodal and urban settings. This is a brilliant post with diagrams that just needs to be read in it's entirety. The conclusion,
"Consider employing the Savannah square-flow strategy as smarter way to handle traffic flow while promoting a density-efficient land use mixture and bike and pedestrian friendliness. I would only use a roundabout when at least one of the intersecting streets (preferably both) is a thoroughfare or high-volume traffic street. Otherwise, I'd prefer to square it."
5. Admiring a Beauty. Like the medieval penchant for systematic order, the street grid of Savannah holds together nicely while creating a truly immersive experience for those traveling through it.

6. From Savannah to the Burbs: The American Art of Subdivision.The American suburb presents a puzzling question. How did a country that praises non-conformity and individual expression end up with an overall landscape of sameness? And what drives us to cluster around people like ourselves? The large-scale repetition of form has deep roots in American culture, and Savannah itself has its origins in a strictly egalitarian subdivision of land. Every settler was given a "tything" of 10 lots of 60' by 90' each, compactly arranged in town and a 45-acre allotment parcel for farming outside of town.

Savannah was built specifically to reproduce itself in a cellular fashion at a regional level,
"Carefully inspecting the arrangement of the 45-acre farm tracts, however, one can discern that they were arranged in a manner to encourage the future formation of hamlets and townships in the countryside, suggesting a fractal strategy of expansion for the entire colonization scheme of Georgia."
 7. "Not For Us But For Others" -- The Humanitarian Roots of America's First Subdivision. The original planners of Savannah must have had Chistopher Wren's London in mind as they laid out the street pattern. The British Enlightenment led to forms of city planning that were open to various possibilities of adjustment yet tightly geometric at the same time.

One difference between Savannah and the contemporary subdivision is the altruistic intent that the original trustees committed to while engaging in design. The town was explicitly for the poor and religiously persecuted.
"We would not be exaggerating to claim that Savannah is veritably America's first planned "habitat for humanity". The city was founded to give down-and-out British folks a second chance at life and prosperity."
The original Savannah had no center. Each of Oglethorpe's wards stood alone, and no hierarchy existed between them, keeping with the underpinnings of England's nascent movement toward liberalism. Interestingly, Oglethorpe himself never accepted a permanent lot, preferring to reside in tent directly along the river. He truly wanted it to be a city "not for us but for others."

8. John Locke's Savannah. The form of Savannah is not only shaped by the liberal ideals of equal opportunity for everyone, but also the everyday give and take of trades and services inherent to a dense urban marketplace. This type of human interaction should make us cautious about criticism of the suburbs on the basis of appearances of homogeneity and segregation. The real driver of community is not merely proximity of homes to each other - some urban areas can be as stratified as any suburb - but the existence of real people who serve as connectors across social groups. These connections can be surprisingly active in many of today's suburbs.

Following the lead of Savannah can help planners retrofit existing suburbs and, at the same time, help our urban areas become friendlier to the demographic conventionally attracted to suburbs. The city can teach us how to mix equal economic opportunity with truly vibrant community.

1 comment:

Eric Orozco said...

Wow Daniel, thank you very much for following this, indexing (I need to learn to tag things, huh?) and summarizing this saliently. ...All this and I haven't even gotten into the "odonomy" of Savannah's street types. Glad you are finding this Savannah series interesting, I'll try to keep it so.

What is still on the docket is to hopefully introduce a good formal working taxonomy of street order. We all recognize Savannah's street types, we just (confoundedly!) don't have a name for them. The sooner urban designers discuss street functions by those teased out by Savannah's rules, the sooner I believe we will learn how to work sensitively with transportation networks and how to apply land use patterns to them. ...I'll try not to be dry about it!