An Odonomy of Savannah IV: Origins
~ part i ~
the insight of subdividing
From the air, the suburban subdivision is a puzzle. If E.T.'s ever came to earth and sized us up, the subdivision would probably first strike them as a bizarre social experiment in utopian egalitarianism. But then they would notice its preponderance across the North American landscape. Looking out of airplane windows, I’m always struck by its almost comical ubiquity. We, however, would argue that a subdivision's denizens pursue nonesuch experiment. How then to explain the penchant to settle in the burbs? Why does the subdivision struggle so heroically to be repetitive...to seemingly synthesize, codify, endlessly erect sameness? Doesn't this seem a little bit at odds with Americans' hedgehog compositions and our open admiration for the rugged nonconformist--the James Dean rebel who has little if any regard for the sized-up Joneses across the street? That cul-de-sac above is a curious form for the land that loved Thoreau and Robert Frost, even if it is literally a road "less traveled by".
What is this need to create the monocultural clumps of that suburb? Is this tendency to segregate into one's general social strata the fault of pro-forma driven developers that do not like to offer variety? Directly, yes, people buy what they have available to them to buy, and they tend to buy the best of what they can afford. Developers simply deliver the baseline expectations for what Americans expect in a home of a certain price range, and it is convenient for them to knock out those homes assembly line style.
But would Americans easily purchase that same new home in a subdivision development whose overall pricepoints and socio-economic target demographics varied greatly at the outset? I suspect not. I suspect people would still prefer neighborhoods where their home “fit in”. And I think they do take into careful consideration what kind of neighbors they are going to live around. I don’t know if it is necessarily something wired into the human condition that we prefer our neighbors to look as if they are equally well off (or poor) as ourselves, but obviously the subdivision is a testament to the fact that folks like to be around the kind of people they relate to (even if they never get past “hi”).
Perhaps we need to unpack this cultural condition more. Savannah shares an interesting characteristic with the typical suburban subdivision. I want to attempt a taxonomy (odonomy) of Savannah's streets in this series, but first I have to puzzle over the question of Savannah's origins, for to fail to see its essential module, the 60' x 90' town lot repeating ad infinitum, is to miss the functionally critical progenitor of Savannah's form.
Savannah's streets are a consequence of this city's colonial settlement pattern, a grid of town-lot wards that are interlaced with a 7-street order of contiguous streets, creating a cohesive and variegated street fabric that (nonetheless!) was arranged to serve identically sized lots. These town lots were much more size-constrained than the typical homesteading parcels given to settlers elsewhere in the colonies and curiously close to the size and shape of bungalow lots in our prewar suburbs. Even William Penn’s grided plan for Philadelphia assumes a much greater variety of residential parcels, some of its estate lots larger than an entire Savannah ward. Judged by contemporary standards, Savannah’s historic district was at its outset not much different than the typical prewar (grid-type) subdivision often found in our inner ring suburbs.
|Source: UGA Hargrett Rare Library Map Collection|
Plan of the Forty-Five and Five Acre Lots in the Township of Savannah
|Source: UGA Hargrett Rare Library Map Collection|
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. One must appreciate the trustees’ clever anticipation of the regional diversification of labor over time. As the countryside developed into farming communities, Savannah's trade port economy would allow it to urbanize, allowing more of its residents to sever from field labor as they transitioned to more service, manufacturing and trading occupations over time. Using their town lots as the family business center, this is in fact how Savannah urbanized. Eventually the satellite allotments were anticipated to be parceled out to posterity or to others, as the city expanded and the hamlets urbanized with an influx of colonial migrants. At the outset, however, everyone was encouraged to contribute to the needs of defense (hence the town lot) and cultivation (hence the satellite garden and farm plots).
Close-up Detail of the Forty-Five and Five Acre Lots Map
Already at its founding, this arrangement between private allotments, town-garden-farm, set up a north-south commuting pattern, which, to this day, is a functional strength of Savannah’s grid (I’ll discuss how later in a future installment to this Odonomy series).
I find the trustees’ tripartite subdivision strategy quite inspirational on a number of levels. It is certainly suggestive of applications for sustainable regional planning and urban design today. …The thing that amazes me about Savannah, America’s first equal-lot subdivision, is how many planning insights it never ceases to evoke. In this case, we really should contemplate revisiting one of our starting blocks.
To be continued...
(Next week, I’ll discuss Savannah’s conceptual origins and tackle that tricky matter of “equality”.)