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Savannah’s Squares Inspire New Urbanists

SAVANNAH, Ga.—Unlike the 20th-century experiment that reinvented much of America’s built environment as suburban sprawl, colonial-era experiments in city design have proven to be both highly adaptable and enduringly beautiful.

Thus it is no accident that leading urbanists have flocked this week to Savannah, Georgia, for the annual Congress for the New Urbanism, to collaborate on how to recover a tradition of human-scale cities that may have once seemed a quaint province of historic preservationists.

Of course, Savannah is indeed quaint, and preservation efforts have made walking down its intact antebellum streets somewhat like going back in time. Shaded by live oaks and Spanish moss, the city’s famous series of public squares break up the street grid every few blocks and are perhaps its signature feature. Remarkably, these public spaces were there from the beginning, when the first sections of the city were laid out in the 1730s.

The Englishman James Oglethorpe, a leading innovator of his day who was in conversation with leading lights such as philosopher George Berkeley and American founder John Adams, is today celebrated for coming up with the unique grid-and-square system, which allowed the city to expand over subsequent decades—and in fact, centuries—while maintaining both a rational and beautiful urban-design framework.

It was a plan that drew on Enlightenment-era confidence in reason, though it was not an entirely secular one: The series of squares allowed for multiple church buildings, for example, to sit in prominent locations. (Catholics were initially excluded from the new colony, but one of America’s oldest Jewish congregations was formed in Savannah in 1735.) This pluralistic approach was in contrast to many of the settlements in New England, where there was little toleration of those outside the reigning Congregationalist regime.

The physical form of Oglethorpe’s plan was made up largely of 60-foot-wide lots, grouped into “tithings” of ten, and allowed for a wide variety of uses, from large single-family detached homes to sets of three slim rowhouses. All these residential rows were backed by “lanes,” the Savannah parlance for an alley, which Savannah College of Art and Design Professor Robin Williams explained have through centuries of technological change provided a utilitarian space for hiding infrastructure—stables, sewers, electric and telephone poles. (And against the original vision of founder Oglethorpe, they also were long a corridor where slaves were hidden from the front of the community.) Closer to the squares and in between residential sections are “trust” lots, or places dedicated to civic or public uses.

Notre Dame School of Architecture Professor Philip Bess argued at one Savannah CNU session that the city’s design has many virtues, but is not perfect. The wards, the groupings of small lots around squares that measure only 600 feet square and a bit over 10 acres, “are arguably too small,“ with the result that open space may actually appear too often as one moves through the urban fabric. Still, Bess laments that Savannah “never become a model” for American cities, “but it should have.” He pointed out that Chicago’s grid, for example, lacks any system of public neighborhood spaces, and suffers for it when it comes to the placement of prominent civic and religious buildings.

Bess’ Notre Dame graduate students have thus embarked on a project to design a new railroad suburb for Chicago inspired by Savannah. The new model takes the advantages of the Savannah approach—easily replicable mixed-use neighborhoods that plug in to the existing order, allowing for straightforward and incremental city expansion over time—while correcting for what Bess sees as the minor deficiencies of design monotony and somewhat of an imbalance between public and private realms.


An attempt to recreate all the charm and livability of a place like Savannah overnight would be futile, but many New Urbanists believe that the basic DNA created by Oglethorpe and others holds lessons for those who seek to create communities that are both sustainable and beautiful. The emphasis on high-quality public spaces that make moderate density livable, for example, is a lesson that can be applied to any number of new and existing neighborhoods.

There is increasing demand for the kind of traditional urbanism seen in Savannah in real estate markets—with the result that unless the market and regulatory authorities create more Savannahs, only the most wealthy among us will be able to live in such places.

This wasn’t always the case. Savannah’s economic success over the last few decades has led to a new problem of balancing increasing tourism with the needs of existing residents. To remind the Congress how much things have changed, local activist Vaughnette Goode Walker read a passage from the March 1990 issue of The Atlantic, in which a travel writer reported that “Savannah doesn’t know how good it is. That’s why it’s so fun to visit.”

Today Savannah knows how good it is. New Urbanists know, too. And increasing numbers of Americans want to live in a place inspired by its simple but captivating design.

Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.


13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Savannah’s Squares Inspire New Urbanists"

#1 Comment By TR On May 17, 2018 @ 10:59 pm

Absolutely none of the criticisms make sense. The squares are too small but open space appears too often? Who’s been driving rather than walking?

The only real problem with Savannah is too many tourists, which used to not be the case before “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

#2 Comment By JonF On May 18, 2018 @ 8:46 am

Agree- Savannah is the most beautiful city in the South, perhaps in the entire US. And it exists on a very human scale. It has none of New Orleans’ booze-soaked decadence, none of Charleston’s pretention, and the sickly Lost Cause nostalgia that slaps you in the face in Richmond is entirely lacking.

#3 Comment By Liam On May 18, 2018 @ 8:49 am

” Remarkably, these public spaces were there from the beginning, when the first sections of the city were laid out in the 1730s.”

Actually, they are only in the original part of the city. Once the grid expands outside that, there are no more regular squares.

#4 Comment By Philip Bess On May 18, 2018 @ 9:32 am

The *wards* (at 11-12 acres), not their central squares, are too small. Hence the squares, arguably, occur too frequently for any new economically sustainable *urban* development model.

I conclude this, in part, from many pleasant hours spent walking Savannah’s historic center.


#5 Comment By mrscracker On May 18, 2018 @ 9:35 am

Savannah needs those tourists, though. It’s been a huge help to the economy.

#6 Comment By Theo On May 18, 2018 @ 11:09 am

Great piece. I didn’t know about the pattern of private and public land allocation that was established around the squares. It’s really an amazingly well built city. Wish I could have been there for CNU.

#7 Comment By mrscracker On May 18, 2018 @ 11:19 am

I’d agree that Savannah is the most beautiful city in the South and i think it’s the loveliest city in the US.

Every town has its own unique vibes, but Savannah has those qualities you mentioned too, perhaps in lesser degrees. Maybe not pretension so much, though.

And eccentricity could replace “decadence”, but if you visit River Street on St. Patrick’s day (or certain weekends) you’ll see Mardi Gras levels of alcohol consumption.

There’s a very active chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. One Confederate Memorial Day,the SCV member who was chosen to lay a wreath at the foot of the Confederate memorial in Forsythe Park was a black descendant.

So, Savannah does some of those things, but with a twist.

#8 Comment By JonF On May 18, 2018 @ 1:20 pm

Hi Mrs. Cracker,
Any towns that has bars will have some boozing going on. On my first Savannah visit, when I was a good deal younger, we even went out of the town that night and had some fun. But Bourbon Street it most definitely was not, and it isn’t famous for that sort of thing. And since Savannah is in the South there’s bound to be some CSA crap in it, but Savannah is not noteworthy for any Civil War action (unlike, say, Atlanta or even Nashville). Sherman’s men spent the holidays of 1864 there after a very minimal skirmish to capture the town, and they and the townsfolk got along famously– there were even some romances begun. As to what the tourist guides show you, the colonial past, the beautiful architecture and stately churches, and (when I was there at least) aspects of the city made famous by “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” far outweigh the Civil War.

#9 Comment By Chris L On May 18, 2018 @ 4:17 pm

If you want to “avoid CSA crap” I’d suggest a weekend visit to Detroit or Camden. Free of any acknowledgement of the formative past!

#10 Comment By mrscracker On May 18, 2018 @ 7:10 pm

Hello to you, too!
Yes, Savannah got a huge break during the War.
Gen.Oglethorpe originally tried to keep Catholics out, but now Savannah has Baptists complaining about its good old boy, Irish Catholic network.

#11 Comment By FL Transplant On May 19, 2018 @ 11:25 am

I’ve found Savannah a lovely city, and would certainly enjoy living in a place like it. However, I’m also in my mid-60s. When I asked my daughter, a Parson grad, what the thoughts were on SCAD, she said that it was considered a very good school but that the students didn’t like living in Savannah. I asked her why, and she said that they thought it was a very boring place. I mentioned the architecture, the squares, and all the the kinds of things the article talks about. She was quit for a bit, and said “exactly–the kinds of things YOU like as someone old enough to be their grandparent. It’s not a young person’s town”.

Which made sense. It’s a great place to live as a genteel, well-off late middle aged person. But I can’t say I would have liked living in Savannah when I was in my 20s.

#12 Comment By FL Transplant On May 19, 2018 @ 11:30 am

[Man, I wish TAC had an edit function.]

I think the same thought could apply to Seaside, covered in the article a couple of days ago. I lived on the Gulf Coast not too far from there, and visited a number times. A place I always enjoyed visiting, but then again I’m on the far side of 60. While I treasure the New Urbanism/TND boom, and live in such a community, I can see where something much more along the lines of Brooklyn, Chicago’s loop, Philly’s Rittenhouse Square area, or other urban areas would be much more attractive to someone in a different life stage from me.

#13 Comment By mrscracker On May 21, 2018 @ 10:38 am

Chris L says:

“If you want to “avoid CSA crap” I’d suggest a weekend visit to Detroit or Camden. Free of any acknowledgement of the formative past!”
I love history & enjoy the “CSA” stuff. I’ve lived near the battlefields, forts, & monuments & been interested in the War Between the States my whole life.

I’m not familiar with Detroit or Camden, but wouldn’t Detroit have something to acknowledge it’s part in the War of 1812?