Monday, February 12, 2007

Urban Planning in Savannah: Past and Present

(This post was initially prepared for an invited lecture of the class visit of IDS 3535 of the Appalachian State University on October 14, 2006)

Gen. James E. Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733 and created a very unique city plan. Savannah’s city planning is very distinctive and differs from all previous American towns. Early city planning in Savannah divided the town into wards. Each ward was planned around a central square, which was flanked at its eastern and western sides by four trust lots. The trust lots were allocated for the sites of public building. Each square was flanked at its northern and southern by four tythings of ten lots each, which were reserved for houses.

When the town was laid out, the first ward of Savannah with its four tythings and forty homesites had been designed to accommodate the first forty families who came to Savannah, the oldest city in Georgia. The ward system was also conceived for a defense purpose. Oglethorpe was a great soldier and familiar with the classical principles of fortress construction and campsite planning. He created Savannah’s city plan to face emergencies. Each ward of the town was run by a Constable to whom four tythingmen reported for the activities of the families of each tything. Ten men in each tything were ready to bear arms at all times. The squares served as assembly points and drilling spaces for those militiamen. In case of attack, farm animals and colonists could take refuge in the squares.

The streets are a grid of straight streets and each squares is entered by a single street in the middle of the north and south side. Three streets enter each square from the east to west side. The ward plan of squares and grid street systems qualify Savannah as a landmark in the American urban planning.

A variety of theories has been devised by many scholars to investigate the origins of Savannah’s urban plan. John Reps, an urban planning professor at Cornell University, in September 2006 presented the similarity between the patterns of urban design of the Piazza Carlina and Turin and that of Savannah. He asserted the absence of written record that makes the connection but he argued that the Piazza Carlina-Savannah connection is the best one of any Savannah’s urban design theory so far.

Previously, Reps devised theory of the origins of Savannah’s urban design that connects St. James’ square in London with Savannah’s squares. London’s St. James’ square is a self-contained neighborhood that provided site for a church, shops and houses of several sizes and types. The church, shops and houses faced the square or straight streets intersecting at right-angles. Reps also offers the possibility of multiple squares appeared on a plan for Peking in a book travels in 1705, on a plan for an ideal army camp by Robert Barret in 1598, and on fortification books authored by Pietro Cataneo in 1567 as the origins of Savannah’s unique plan.

Savannah historian William Harden argued that principles of the Roman architect Vitruvius were also found in Savannah’s city plan. Other scholars such as Laura Bell Palmer and her grandson Malcolm Bell III asserted that the grids and squares in 17th century Beijing and in Sicily’s old fortified towns respectively were found in Oglethorpe’s design in Savannah.

Today Savannah retains much of the Oglethorpe’s unique city plan and attracts millions visitors each year. In 2003, nearly six millions visitors came to Savannah spending more than $1.5 billion and supported nearly 16,000 jobs locally. Tourism industry in Savannah boomed dramatically since the mid-1990s. The city's popularity as a tourist destination was solidified by the 1994 non-fiction novel of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil which was set in Savannah.

The present existence of the Oglethorpe’s city plan is also result of the Section 8-3030 of the Zoning Code of the City of Savannah and the establishment of the Savannah Historic District Board of Review. Section 8-3030 of the Zoning Code of the City of Savannah is adopted in 1973 and revised in 1997 to protect the Savannah Historic District. The Savannah Historic District Board of Review was established in 1973 and exists to protect the values of property associated with history, unique architectural details, or related to a square, park or area within the Savannah Historic District. In addition,

Any exterior work within the Savannah Historic District is required to go through the design review process by the Savannah Historic District Board of Review. A Certificate of Appropriateness is required for any of the following action in the Savannah Historic District: demolition of a historic structure, moving a structure, alteration to the exterior appearance of any structure by additions, renovation, or material change; new construction; awning; walls, fences, and sidewalks, signs; and in some areas paint color.

In addition to the Savannah Historic District, the City of Savannah has designated other neighborhoods as local historic districts including Victorian Planned-Neighborhood-Conservation (PNC) District, the Cuyler-Brownsville PNC District, and the Mid-City PNC District. The Zoning Ordinance of each local historic district lists the permitted uses, development standards including lot area, setbacks, and heights, off-street parking requirements and visual compatibility requirements. No building permit will be issued in the local historic districts until proposed plans have been reviewed and approved as complying with the Visual Compatibility Guidelines and Standards by the Visual Compatibility Officer at the Metropolitan Planning Commission.


Catherine Harper said...

After reading your blog I thought I should take a tour of Savannah historic sites. I have realize that Savannah is a more iimpotant city than I thought it was. There are many things that visitors can do when they come to Savannah. Downtown Savannah offers a wide range of options to delight visitors by day or by night. From stellar shopping and world-class dining to educational museums and lively nightlife, Savannah offers the very best that the South has to offer. Savannah welcomes visitors from near and far. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing escape or a fun-filled journey, you’ll find just what you’re looking for in Georgia’s First City.

Eric Brown said...

Hello Professor Rukmana,

We are architects working on formal studies of Savannah public spaces. Have enjoyed your blog and look forward to perhaps meeting you one day. We are based just north in Beaufort.

Anonymous said...

I went to college in Savannah in the early 1990's and am now studying growth management at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. My experience living in Savannah is proving to be influential in my own ideas of what makes a good city. I found living there to be a perfect blend of urban form and nature. I miss it every day.