Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Avenue

The Reader, originally uploaded by True_Bavarian.

An Odonomy of Savannah VI: The Avenue

For the purposes of this blog and my odonomy of Savannah, I co-opted the Commissioners’ Plan for Manhattan to name the streets that travel against the loading grain of a grid “avenues”. In Savannah, the avenues are coincidentally also the north-south traveling streets. (The fact that these streets travel north-south in both Savannah and Manhattan’s case has nothing to do with their functional strengths …Sorry Chicago, but your street nomenclature system is perfectly useless to an odonomy of grids.)

I think of avenues as having two tempers, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When they are square to the grid, they are in the Dr. Jekyll temper. They are usually lean and no-frills in this temper. Except for the seasoned commuters, no one really pays them any attention. But when they tilt and slant and become radial, suddenly they become strapping, boulevard-like Mr. Hyde streets that dominate over the fabric. Due to its nomenclature system, the streets named “avenues” in L’Enfant’s DC, happily, are true avenues as defined in this odonomy. For these special Mr. Hyde avenues, I will modify them as “grand avenues”. Grand avenues function very similarly to loading street boulevards, except for the fact that their tendency is to be less curvilinear.

(And so the Odonomy begins.)

Avenues are not the streets that diverse uses are loaded onto or accessed. These streets are not focused on serving abutting uses. They are not the streets with the “destination”. They are the streets, rather, that lead you there. This is not to say that these roads can’t be fronted by uses, they are just the streets that are obsessed with the travel experience itself: the strolling in the shade streets, the promenade streets taken with a friend for an ambulatory discussion, the streets for “taking” (or “crossing” or “collecting together”). Ideally, they should evoke in the traveler the sense of “going to” or “arriving” at a place. In landscape design terms, avenues are associated with long rows of trees planted with equal spacing along the travel way. Such repeating elements evoke the sensation of discerning your progressive arrival to a “place”. I think design applied for these sensations of travel appreciation, paced progression and place-arrival is proper, instructive and useful for designing good avenues in the urban context.

Avenues can of course be grand, well-loved streets tremendously busy with pedestrian activity. In Manhattan, they are so active, by the way, in part because of the primary north-south orientation of the island and in part because the blocks in the loading dimension are really long, making the breaks in the loading grain critical concentration points for travel. While their tendency is to be lean, many avenues are wide streets, and they often also have separated travel-ways.

Here are several tendencies to notice about avenues:

1) Simplicity/utility: Avenues are not fanciful, variegated streets at the fine scale. Their short sections seem to keep them from carrying through a complete thought block to block. So they simplify to a simple beat, a staccato. Avenues are not your royal “Main Streets” or “Grand Boulevards”. They are your lean and gravitational rook and bishop streets.

2) Directness: Avenues tend to have straight segments. Often this gives them long, dramatic vistas. This is another reason why repeating elements are great streetscape elements to give them: to emphasize the perspectival lines and lend readability to distances, which is nice in a city every once in awhile. These vistas give us a sense of a city’s breadth and size and that directness is important for our mental image of the city as well.

3) They Like to Climb: Avenues travel against the grade as well. This is by default, since loading grains like to follow contours rather than travel against them. Your steepest streets in the city will therefore tend to be avenues (of course, in grade tolerant cities like San Francisco, this tendency does not hold).

I have begun a gallery in Flickr, called Carrying, which captures the qualities of environments that are inspirational for designing good Avenues. Next time I need to design a streetscape for an avenue kind of street in my work, these kinds of images will be part of my design wall.

Price Street, one of Savannah's "avenues".
I hope you are beginning to sense why such a proposed street taxonomy would be useful and important in design and discussion of city form. Savannah had to teach me this. To understand the way street networks function in highly interlinked (urban) contexts, we need exactly this pronounced and precise taxonomy in order to work for the city in more sensitive ways. We need to know what the warp and woof of the fabric are so we can realize how to thread and tweak the streets for interesting effects. Savannah, however, shows us that all roads are joyfully not the same. Certain functional hybrids can coexist happily in the fabric…so fluent is Savannah with these lessons of exception. It is, in fact, one environment where seemingly small fissures and disruptions and rules of exception have interesting consequences, an interesting jazziness.

Why is Savannah’s ward grid so musically tuned that way? Well, this is what this effort is about. We need an Odonomy to apprehend that. First sit back and let this primary conceptual distinction between the “loading street” and the “avenue” stew a little in your head. Allow it to live a little with you, and tell me if you do not begin to read the city in a new way. Please let me know what you observe. Delightful realizations about your local street network probably await you.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Vamping the Street

An Odonomy of Savannah, Part V: Loading Streets and Avenues--the First Division

Before we can understand the interesting jazz of Savannah’s streets, we need to first master a few necessary chords. We need to first discern her vamps and primary riffs. We will then be able to see how she breaks from them and how she improvises her music.

Savannah's "Loading Streets"
The highest road division category in Savannah is the division between what I call the grid “loading streets” and the grid “avenues”. Loading streets are streets that are oriented along the dominant “loading” grain of a street fabric. Uses tend to be “loaded” consistently onto the loading streets—that is, most of the lots in a grid tend to front loading streets consistently across the grid. Loading streets are thus your “street address” streets. Main Streets are typically loading streets. Wide boulevards, such as Allan Jacob’s boulevards, tend to be loading streets. Loading streets also include the service alleys that access the rear of the lots. What I call grid “avenues”, in contrast, are streets that travel perpendicularly or diagonally against the dominant loading grain of a grid fabric. When oriented perpendicularly to the loading streets, avenues are typically traveling along the short sides of the majority of the blocks. They also slice diagonally across the grid at times, especially in cities designed in the Grand Manner. The streets diagonally oriented against the grid, as in L’Enfant’s DC and Haussmann’s Paris, are “avenues”, even though they, of course, function much like loading street boulevards and likewise invite frontage along them (but, this is the important distinction, they do so in disruption to the adjacent loading grain). Many arterial avenues tend to attract building frontage onto them even though they may travel against the dominant loading grain of the adjacent fabric. (Note: Savannah does not literally name its grid avenues “avenues” – I’m using the term “avenue” as a functional category of grid street that I have chosen, as I’ll discuss later, because of historical associations with the character of “avenues” and because of important precedents of this particular street type in America).

Savannah's "Avenues"
Note that above I am using the term “loading street” and “avenue” to signify the role of the street in relationship to the greater grid fabric. Just because a street segment has uses fronting it does not necessarily distinguish that segment as a “loading street”. What matters more in this “odonomic” classification system is how streets relate to the greater grid. For now, I’m not dead set on these terms, “loading street” and “avenue”, I just can’t think of a better way to name these important grid street classes at the moment (suggestions welcome!). I don’t know if there is a form theory of city grids somewhere that has a name for these two street characters already, but I wouldn’t know, since planners never seem to be even aware of this important distinction between grid streets. It seems they usually are happy resorting to talk instead of functional classifications of roads that apply, really, to branching, suburban, non-grid contexts, and they coerce that terminology to fit urban/urbanized street networks. This kind of talk, in fact, is precisely my biggest hang-up with the new ITE manual Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares. (Overall, DWUT represents a positive step forward for walkable thoroughfare streetscape design in America, but ironically to me, this manual, which was first unveiled back in March at the ITE 2010 Technical Conference in Savannah, could use a careful look at Savannah itself to understand how its so-called “contextual” approach might be hampered by its papa bear, mama bear, baby bear urban thoroughfare classification approach; …I’ll get to that later.)

What creates the distinction between loading streets and avenues is the fact that most parcels want to front the same streets. Human-beings, being commercial and civic creatures, like to concentrate access to lots on the same public streets. This tendency creates well ordered street fabrics and also churns out higher real estate values. Why? The value of the frontage is a result of the fact that the middle parcels of most blocks can only be accessed from a chosen side of their block. Thus, block subdividers typically favor the loading grain of the most important adjacent street. This puts the access to at least half of the lots in their blocks at the important frontage side, where they are most likely to capture more eyes and potential customers/users. Another way to look at the value of favoring the nearby loading grain is to realize that when adjacent uses have access points on the same street, the travel time of users traveling between them decreases. A greater diversity of destinations of nearby uses within closer distance to each other reinforces the overall value of their street’s frontage. We may not be cognizant of the hidden economic and very rational reciprocating choices behind our drive to create and perpetuate loading grains in the grid fabric (although individuals obviously intuit it), but we create cities this way because of our social intelligence. A lot about city form is realizing that much of productive human activity is a collective phenomenon that may escape the notice of most of its individual agents. Such beautiful creatures we are.

Loading streets tend to travel along the long dimensions of the blocks. It makes sense that blocks want to be long in the loading grain direction as that loading frontage is value and avenues have less direct access to uses. Thus, minimizing the avenue side dimension of blocks makes sense for land use efficiency and infrastructure investment purposes. But I think the block short dimension also represents an advantage in itself. Avenues increase the overall value of the grid network. Their shorter segments mean they intersect more often with loading streets and thus produce the global economic advantage of the grid gained from connectivity. Sometimes, they also use this connectivity value to increase value to themselves. They actually create higher pedestrian activity and related real estate value on their abutting parcels especially when certain geographic and geometric conditions are in play. Both Bull Street in Savannah and Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue are avenues that powerfully attract activity and offer real estate advantages for similar—but also different—reasons that are instructive to me.

Yes, by the way, even city grids composed of perfect squares have dominant loading grains. They always do. In such places, as in downtown Portland, the greater geography and geographic features, such as grade change and water frontage, and important internal features, such as linear parks, help create the dominant direction of the loading grain in subareas (although, the direction of that grain is prone to change, subarea to subarea, more often in these open fabrics).

Because every use in the suburb needs to cater to vehicular access, any of the street patterns that create the suburb stem from underlying, locally-focused, proforma-driven imperatives to maximize the loading condition. An avenue type of street is just a waste of infrastructure for subdivision designers. A cul-de-sac, not coincidentally, is a loading street by default, and, in fact, it is the utter maximum condition for the loading of uses unto a street, an accommodation to the fact that cul-de-sac residents do not have an economic advantage to maximize access to their homes (making internal avenues unnecessary); in fact, the economic advantage goes the other way. Even though some collector streets in a subdivision have to be avenues (or avenue/loading street hybrids), the residential suburb detests the avenue.

In part because of that suburb many of us have grown up in, loading streets are what most people have in mind when they think of a street, so much so that we may miss the network utility of the humble avenue, if indeed we are even aware of it as a distinct type. I certainly did not think about the urban avenue much before I got really acquainted with Savannah’s historic grid. New Urbanists are no exception to this tendency either. Judging from their default donut block plans and default street typicals, New Urbanists love maximizing the loading condition as well.

The avenue is the most urban of streets. In my next post, we will get more acquainted with this stranger who quietly serves us. This humble, utilitarian street type has many strengths. It is a street type that tends to be neglected by planners. It is not often as stately as the Main Street or the Boulevard. It is not as intimate or human scaled as the rear-yard alley. But the Avenue is the workhorse street of the grid. It provides the cross-bracing and the hanging threads of the structure. As you can probably tell by now, I like it a lot.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thinking About Savannah

It was a surprise to me to discover on Discovering Urbanism how much content I’ve posted throughout this year long journey thinking about Savannah, following my first visit to the city in Dec. ’08. I’ve begun my forays into Savannah’s Odonomy quite tentatively. That visit to Savannah made me invent this term. Odonomy is the “study of roads”, the study, more particularly, of how to classify their qualities in relationship to one another. More than a taxonomic endeavor, it is an act of synthesis. I have yet to even begin that discussion, I’m still trying to synthesize my fragmentary notes and unwritten thoughts. And still uncovering new realizations that make me reframe my thoughts.

If I plod, it is because the associated topics are both interesting and slippery to me still. Like the cities we love to walk in, they deserve the honor of slowly getting acquainted with. Of letting them soak beneath the skin a little. Of distilling with greater clarity in some warm evenings sitting on the balcony in thought. I had and have a lot to learn yet.

So far, I’ve focused on the easily isolated features of Savannah’s form (or features lacking thereof) that bear immediate comment and can apply straightforward lessons. These can be found on the links graciously provided by Daniel on his post of my efforts …Thank you so much Daniel for providing me the valuable service of indexing and summarizing this! My own fragmented notes turn out to be amazingly more discursive, I now see, when I put them on this blog to communicate to people. I go through the bother, I should mention to you my readers, in order to invite you to perchance help and guide me in the journey. Lend me not just your ears but your insights, please. :)

Too, I haven’t been prepared to really start an Odonomy. Before I really could get into the task at hand, like Louis Kahn, I knew I could not authentically face Savannah before I first sook her “Form” (which I attempted my previous three posts). That is the search for the big “F” Form of Savannah. Big “F” Form, as Louis Kahn preferred to capitalize it, is the Origin, the spirit of Savannah’s “wanting to be”. Big “F” Form leads to the Design, the result of the Form. Today’s Savannah is a result, it is the “answer” of a process. But the process began with the Big “F” Form, the Question. And Louis Kahn knew that, in essence, the quest for the Form was a spiritual Quest, one which the original posers of the Question would not necessarily know they were asking. The Question is asked in “Volume Zero”, not Volume One.

What does Savannah want to be? I don’t think I’ve managed yet to unlock Volume Zero yet, or read its first page, but at least I could sniff for her Form by reading Volume One and asking, “What did Savannah want to be?”.

It was interesting discovering what some of those What did’s entailed and how many insights they led to as I ploughed Savannah’s colonial earth for the Question. Most notably to me, Savannah’s colonial Origin has a lot to say about the subdivision fabrics our society prefers. Our society prefers these repetitive patterns for simple economic reasons, sure, but ones that are quite clearly inflected by the confounding social tendency to segregate by class in open, liberal societies. It is a settlement segregation tendency, yes, but, as ABC's Lost and John Locke’s Savannah show us, not the default position. This clumping tendency is in fact in constant tension with our predilection for creating egalitarian relationships when the social stakes are heightened (as in times when groups face common enemies), which can sometimes bridge the barriers of socio-economic divides. This bridging process, instigating the “middle class churn”, does not occur naturally or happily in our liberal society always, but it does occur in contexts of pioneering tension. Urbanism can be a social lubricant of sorts when it invokes a return to Hobbes’ “state of nature”. This is an interesting thought, because the very state that can make life in the city “nasty, brutish and short” is also the same state that, under heightened stakes, sparks the drive to create a muscular civil society and start new economic enterprises. The Others just need to find each other in new reciprocating contexts, something that often requires the coaxing of humanitarian connectors (as well as transformative leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Savannah’s Origin, in its subdivision strategy, also teaches us how to create the kind of subdivisions with the fourth dimension in mind. She tells us that “zoning” or “transects” may not be all that helpful in that enterprise. What matters more than anything is city form. How streets relate to parcels and how streets relate to each other. That redirection to the system structure points us to a physics of land use form that can adapt with the natural tensions that develop in cities, the unpredictable transformations that occur in cities, legally and illicitly. These are transformations with simultaneous centrifugal and centripetal pulls, transformations that do not meld in a stepped or layered order, that are the result of those unstoppable exercises in low-level conflict that cities never cease to enact and re-enact. The real “transect” of the city, my friends, is fissured and layered. In real and normal cities, there are always cracks and bumps and islands and abrupt disruptions living in and between those so called “transect” zones. These families of errata actually make cities resilient, and make them work socially and churn economically. The ideal section of a healthy and dynamic city is more a fault line slip than a transect, I suspect.

…Interesting philosophical ponderings, but, for the purposes of this present Odonomy, just background issues to think about. For now, let me pull aside from the Quest a little. Let’s leave it for another warm evening on the balcony.

The task now at hand is what is. The lower case “form” of Savannah today. This form represents quite a different city, both in its present structures and its transportation dynamics, than the city Oglethorpe founded and intended to perpetuate across the young, hot earth of Georgia. By narrowing in simple terms on what is—by asking simple, straightforward questions about Savannah’s form—is how we will get quickly to her deeper insights. The way I first began to ply open the book of Revelation quite usefully in contrast to my apocalyptic brethren, for example, was to ask far, far simpler questions than they. Questions philologists ask; not the questions dispensational televangelists, misanthropes or psychopaths ask. I asked not who the “beast rising from sea” represented and not if the “beast standing on the land” might be Obama. I asked, “Why does the beast from the sea arrive first?” Hmm…funny that succession seems familiar. Oh, hey, that’s interesting, the first beast that appears, actually, is the beast that falls with some of the stars from the heavens in the chapter before. Wait…Star Creature, Sea Creature, Land Beast...Doh! Genesis One again. …Boy, does this author have a literary method!

So,…the question is: What is Savannah’s present method?

Well, like Genesis, I’ll begin answering that with simple, higher-order divisions and proceed down from there. Next week, we will revisit the primordial garden of Odonomia and begin naming, dividing and pairing things. No longer will we just tip our toes in to feel the temperature of the water. Finally, our journey is on toward an Odonomy of Savannah…

Saturday, May 8, 2010

John Locke's Savannah

, originally uploaded by armless.
An Odonomy of Savannah IV: Origins
~ part iii ~
the middle class churn

If John Locke had a hand in shaping Savannah, what insights can he give us to understand life in the latter day suburb of America? Our love for civil society, as represented in our love for religion, volunteerism, campaigning, fundraising, organizing and any noble service (particularly military) were abundantly present in colonial Savannah, but more than anything I think of the respect paid by the Savannah ward plan for the family unit. As in today's suburbs, every individual dwelling was given an equal shot at independent enterprise, the right to “the pursuit of happiness”. Savannah’s equal lots posit the importance of occupations as mutually interchangeable and equivalent in a way. I cannot help but to think how much this same respect for work life and occupations similarly forms the bedrock of many of the conditions that comprise America’s economic and social fabric today.

Americans, like people everywhere of course, take great pride in their occupations, a matter of core identity to most of humanity. What is behind this pride is the more humble sentiment that one is plugged into one's community. Most people want (or allow) others to know exactly how they are contributing to their greater community. How they are reciprocating. How they are useful or how they are advancing things and even shaking things up. In the suburban context, it is simply easier to “reciprocate” in communities of peers not distant from one’s own class, ethnicity and upbringing because the exchanges are less burdened and less open to question. (My friend Tamara Park prodded exactly this American psychosis for creating reciprocal tacit expectations in her book Sacred Encounters; I myself was a ...hmm... bungler in that exchange).

When pioneering in hostile or shifting territories, the ante to reciprocate is upped further. Interestingly, during these exact times of heightened stakes, where social relationships return to Locke’s “natural state”, questions of status may suddenly become fluid and “peer” categories can be pricked to transcend the divergent social backgrounds and contexts that separate them. We can embrace the Other in such times. Savannah tells us more about this dynamic.

An example of where this reciprocating pioneering phenomenon can be found on display is in ABC's series Lost, a tale of “shipwrecked” fault-ridden/down-and-out strangers marooned on a mysterious island. Lost works so well as an American fable, I believe, because, for one, it shakes up traditional peer networks (American story-telling, like the Bible, is so filled with a love for the topsy-turvy tales of the table-turning, social-leveling, come from behind, little man gets his day, David vs. Goliath variety). Secondly, especially by using the device of counterposing the background stories of its characters as they navigate their new relationships on the island, Lost raises the antes of peer connection that Middle-America so appreciates in the gut. Lost tells us why we love to a fault our sharp Jacks and Kates, our deadly Sayids, our hey man Hurleys and our resolute but unpredictable Sawyers. These are the kind of people we reciprocate with, even if it is often done by the seat of our pants against the grain of good reason. We relate to the characters in Lost because we are the children of pioneers after all. Lost returns us to Locke’s “natural state” of man, where life is a shifting stage of allegiances held in tenuous balance (interestingly, the character in Lost most grafted to the Island is not accidentally named “John Locke” himself). What drives the action in the island is the tension between our need to reciprocate with our tribe and the desire to correct or transcend our fate. Towards evil ends these dual motivations diverge, towards good ends, they converge. This double-pronged pioneering heat-seeking state, pitted and expanded as it has been by the American Dream, is not going away any time soon. It behooves the urban designer to think more about it. Could it actually be in the egalitarian ethos that patterns our culture?

Case in point: Savannah's utopian, equal-lot ward grid was so successful in Savannah that Savannah did not depart from propagating it to as late as 120 years after its founding! In that tenacity alone, Savannah was very prophetic about the dominant equal-lot pattern of residential land subdivision in America's centuries since. (Sadly, the injunction barring slave ownership did not last as long in Savannah--perhaps a good reason Savannah’s economy never usefully industrialized and diversified from its agrarian dependencies to grow into a harbor-fed metropolis like America’s historic port cities elsewhere on the Eastern seaboard).

Savannah's Origin tells us that settlers are simply seeking a fair chance at prosperity and the succor of fellow travelers, who, if not always peers in their ambitions, are certainly to be treated as such. The sawyers, the smiths, the millers, and tanners of colonial Savannah created the economic churn of Savannah and they formed the bedrock of a startlingly active civil society (here is where the first orphanage in America was founded – not, may you duly note, in Philadelphia or Boston!). The benefit of not existing alone in the homesteading enterprise, that on your street or in your church or school district is a community of folks of similar life experience – with mutually beneficial talents and skills and philanthropic motivations – actually inspires, sharpens and shores up independent enterprise. This is especially true for pioneering communities. I call this generative drive the “middle class churn”. At its root is an ethos of egalitarianism, a mutually reinforcing social drive, which produces the economic conditions that lifts the boats of all the participants that support and surround it. The labor unit in the egalitarian and liberal context is one which becomes exponentially more generative the better connected and coordinated and socially level people are with one another. This connection does not necessarily imply a personal connection, all it implies is that the services and products it produces can be enjoyed and accessed by more than a select subset of individuals. In fact, the middle class churn is an impersonal drive, to borrow from Adam Smith, an “invisible hand”. The difference between colonial Savannah and today is that the ipod and the networked office cubicle, not the need to farm and homestead, causes us to reciprocate in concert and share information and so create greater value and demand for our products and services.

Behind the less useful urbanist kind of polemic we often engage in (admittedly myself included) is a disdainful strain that treats the burb as so much blanched snooze-land of conformity thrown up in the landscape. Perhaps, like Savannah, we need to tolerate the condition of “sameness” a little more and poke and prod its squishy surface to see if the filling is not actually more diverse and dynamic than we suppose it or can easily get at with our urbanist forks. We may be judging the book by the cover and dismissing the insight it could offer. Like it or not, our burb-lovin’ North American folk (and Aussies/Kiwis) are the children of the British (humanitarian and pragmatic) Enlightenment. We need to explore and appreciate more the “snooze” condition of suburbia, as Lars Lerup encourages us to. “Snooze”, as Lerup posits it, can refer to the liminal state between dream-land and wakeful activity, where exciting things actually do happen and ideas, actions and new consequences are teased and resourced into being.

Moreover, the need to mow that lawn and the need to generate a new economic enterprise may actually spring from the very same desire to plug into – not check out of – community. We have underestimated the suburb’s role in tossing the ethnic “salad bowl” in better more generative more socially transcendent ways than we give it credit for. Just try to convince me that your gentrifying urban neighborhood is any less socially stratified and clumped than today’s outer ring communities. Yes, I realize that the “Others” in the urban neighborhood are more physically proximate and commercially connected to each other than in the burb, but, often, this is not represented in actual social terms. What bridges the social distance rather are Lost-like transgressions of social order as well as the connections that are created by the actual concentration of socially active connectors…i.e. real people with trans-communal or humanitarian agendas, which increasingly are just as likely to converge now in the suburb as in the inner city.

In short, urban planners of America, we need to understand that the greater challenge is inviting that American society (that we have, after all, helped to create) to incorporate better the advantages that small-footprint urbanism could provide it. We need to unplug urbanism to create greater reciprocating investments that increase the returns of the middle class churn. We need to get the smart phone to do exactly what the auto did for the last half-century. That implies for us urban designers a search for forms like Savannah’s, where creating access to opportunity for the greater number of inhabitants is for the benefit of everyone. Where the single-unit enclave is in contact with the open conditions that benefit social/civic identities, urban economic processes (what I call “zoning for the fourth dimension”), civil plurality and social integration.

Savannah, which was zoned single-family at its outset, is a double-arrowed sign post of where we came from and where we could be headed. Ask not how we can retrofit the suburb, but how urbanism can be emboldened to create a home for our suburban peeps. These are the same people, after all, that made that previous half-century in America the single most outrageous leap, in gross per capita terms, of personal wealth generation that history has ever known (and which, despite our early 21st century bungles, is in the process of scaling out globally now at a colossal and more interesting and more urban form directly as a result of it).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"Not For Us But For Others" -- The Humanitarian Roots of America's First Subdivision

First Presbyterian Church, Synagogue and Wesley Memorial Church, Savannah Ga., originally uploaded by scadspc.

Not a Single One To Dominate Above Them ALL: The old postcard image above is one of the best representations of Savannah's pluralistic love for civic institutions I know. The Synagogue in the foreground to the right is the Temple Mickve Israel facing Monterey Square. It was founded by the descendants of the first Jewish settlers of Savannah, who arrived in Savannah's founding year of 1733 after fleeing religious persecution in Portugal. They established the third oldest Jewish congregation in America. Doubtlessly, the principled laissez-faire approach formulated by Savannah's trustees in devising Savannah's pluralistic trust lot strategy can trace its moral and theoretical underpinnings to 17th century British liberalism inspired in part by John Locke. John Calvin's pragmatic hands-off approach to religious sectarianism might also have had a contribution here.

An Odonomy of Savannah IV: Origins

~ part ii ~
the natural state of man

Savannah's fabricke, I suspect, was the conceit of colonial experimentalists and humanitarians, young scientists of city form on the march, who, without a doubt, eclectically mined an array of ancient sources and contemporary precedents, but who, nevertheless, aimed to consciously evoke something that was yet to be formed to history. In this latter respect, I think the legacy of Christopher Wren must have been foundational to them, if indirectly so. I do not claim of course that Sir Christopher Wren, Britain's "Leonardo daVinci", must have invented a Form that Savannah derived from; no, merely, I believe that he was one of those seminal minds that laid the groundwork to propagate an approach to thinking about cities in experimental and unresolved - yet systematic - ways. These ways would prove useful to inventing conceptions of city form that are fundamentally "open", able to travel, profuse in options, and able to copiously adjust despite their obsequious dependency on burdened geometry. (Some would go so far as to call these patterned plans "fanciful", “rigid”, “artificial” and "abstract", as if of our other contemporary conceptions of city form, including supposedly "organically" derived plans, somehow evaded these terms). Richard Sennett's The Craftsman owns a gem of a discussion on how Wren's strange impositions of "clarity" tended to wonderfully leave his works paradoxically more open and tolerant of ambiguity and irresolution. (Indeed, this is a mystifying quality exhibited in Savannah's repetitive fabric that has delighted more urban design thinkers than myself.)

But Savannah's colonial settlement also is an approach to city-making that could only result as a consequence of a synthetic, rationalized approach to sympathetically address human needs and shortcomings. That is an Enlightenment approach, we note, particularly an approach of the British Enlightenment. As such, probably no need laid the cornerstone for Savannah's conceit than the socially patronizing need to rationally reconstruct the heart of London after the Great Fire of 1666, as is quietly evinced in Wren's proposal for the reconstruction, which Sennett so incisively treats in The Craftsman. Because of Sennett, I now refer to Savannah’s Form as "London's Spring". Savannah is London rising from the ashes at the behest of the British Enlightenment and then latent Protestant social activism. O a humanitarian's delight it is!

As I touched on my last post, Savannah's form sprung from the need to create a particular kind of planned settlement, the equal lot subdivision. An equal land apportionment system was devised to create reciprocal economic stakes and to facilitate communal cooperation, particularly in the vital matter of the colony's defense. In creating equal lots for settlement, Savannah was an early and peculiarly prophetic manifestation for the dominant form of America's settlement pattern, the suburban lot subdivision--even though Savannah cannot claim to be the progenitor of any such thing.

Savannah's town grid is functionally similar to the endlessly propagating suburban lot subdivision in some important ways (mentioned in my previous post). This is an accidental fact of history of course. But unlike most of the contemporary developers of the latter, Savannah's founders did not seek any personal ROI. Savannah's trustees, including Oglethorpe, were the kind of wealthy people who were into advancing the second chances of debtors. Their altruistic conceit not surprisingly resulted in an early manifestation of utopian city and regional planning. Indeed, their motto for the Georgian colonial prospectus (which is to this day on the seal of the state of Georgia) was taken from Augustine’s Confessions: NON SIBI SED ALIIS, "Not for Us, But for Others", which Augustine offered as the stance of principled humility that permeates Christian intellect. Literally, as far as the trustees were concerned, Savannah was “not a place for us”. A divested utopia. 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.

Savannah was also, from its inception, purposely designed to be a haven for Protestant sects persecuted for various reasons. Huguenots, Portuguese Jews (Oglethorpe unilaterally expanded the sectarian envelope to include Jews), Moravians, Salzburgers, and Gaelic speaking Scots were represented among its earliest inhabitants. Partly for that reason, Savannah was designed to be incrementally augmented, ten families to one trust lot (in proportional but not necessarily actual terms). There was no one “central square” in Oglethorpe’s Savannah, no central axis, no landmark devised to dominate, no imperial terminated vista, no wayfinding schema. Not a single thought or provision of prominence for any single civic/religious or governmental edifice was implied in Savannah’s founded form. The concern for establishing a civil society with fundamental parity at all social scales is shown by the respect of the ward-grid plan for individual property and its conscious—indeed utopian and obsessive—concern for creating a plurality of civic institutions. This is physically represented by the reserved Trust Lots of the squares, of course, arranged with such cardinal parity that, just as the individual town lots represented the currency of reciprocally honored contracts created between free and equal men, the squares exist to facilitate the contracting between the semi-autonomous societies needed to formulate the consent of the governed. This contracting civil society, as the colonial experimenters would certainly be well-conversant about by the early eighteenth century, is what post-Hobbesian British reformers suspected upheld government and created healthy republics.

Savannah’s ward plan manifests, with imposed, Christopher Wren-like geometric clarity, the liberal, early modern (17th century) response, which was best represented by John Locke, to Hobbes’ more pessimistic prefiguration of the “social contract” in man’s nasty, brutish and short-lived “state of nature”. Savannah celebrates the pre-monarchic social contract. While I cannot claim that the writings of John Locke were the theoretical underpinnings of the Savannah plan, this systematized egalitarian utopia has the scent of Locke through and through (as well as the scent of John Calvin too – not to simply nod at the interesting contrastive referents provided by a popular comic strip). Savannah’s plan suggests a return to the “natural state” of man, a more open and ambiguous, pluralistic and irresolute state, where “equal” men establish contracts for government, and where free people condescend as a matter of civic piety to protect one another’s property, security and moral freedom.

Aside from English Common Law, no capricious hierarch or legal artifice would be allowed to circumscribe the colonists’ rights in immediate terms. In fact, the trustees (most of whom where members of Parliament) were so concerned with the threats that bureaucratic bugbears or legal disputes might impose on the colony’s developmental stages that they – I kid you not! – banned lawyers from entering the colony. The trustees hoped to create a plural and open civil society, free of even the burdens that their own wealth and attendance might impose upon it. (Although, of course, while Oglethorpe was present there in the first few years of the colony, he did not hesitate to impose it by signifying his commands with “You may think about....” and “Perhaps you are right, but...”. Every utopia, as Corbu found out, still needs a benevolent despot to found it.)

View of Savannah 1734. Source: UGA Hargrett Library Rare Map Collection

Probably no historical artifact tells me more about the Origin of "Lockian Savannah" than, in fact, the earliest image we have of the city. During Oglethorpe's entire on and off ten year stay in Savannah he had refused to take or erect a permanent domicile, electing to stay in a tent next to a few Southern pines that had been left standing for scant shade near the bluff's edge on Bay Street. A romantic to the end, Oglethorpe had never budged from the spirit of the prospectus motto. His court was a tent opening like that of the itinerant judges of the Old Testament. The image depicts a small battery off to his left to face the Spanish threat. In front of him, the first four wards are being infilled by identical houses in America's first equal lot subdivision. On the river below, passes the tranquil commerce of ships and native canoes. All around extending to the horizon is the flat wilderness ready for clearing and cultivation. A fertile land non sibi sed aliis.

View of Savannah 1734 (Detail). Source: UGA Hargrett Library Rare Map Collection