Thursday, April 15, 2010

From Savannah to the Burbs: The American Art of Subdivision

Suburban Surreal, originally uploaded by Ann Douglas.

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 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.

Savannah’s fabric of repeating wards of 40 identically sized town lots arose from the need to settle a colony in as fair, attractive, effective and efficient a manner as could be conceived for its purpose (seems familiar, huh?). A single formal syllogism drives Savannah's form: because all the lots are to repeat in size, the wards are to repeat in fashion.

Source: UGA Hargrett Rare Library Map Collection

Founded in 1733, Savannah's parcelization schema was a partial solution to the trustees’ desires to establish a Southern colonial economy not predicated on slave labor (you could say Savannah's trustees were early forerunners of the kind of social reformers that spurred the abolitionist movement). Thus, settlers had to be accommodated with homesteading tracts of land, which single families could then independently farm. But Savannah was also a frontier port on land heretofore and precariously claimed by Spain, and the needs of defense required that all families also be able to live in close proximity. So, a tiered land-allotting strategy was devised. Not only were all the settler families to receive identically sized town lots, where their actual homes would be erected, but they were also given rights to equal allotments of 45-acre farm plots in the hinterland south of Savannah. In addition, they were given smaller garden lots of five acres each closer in to the city, in a kind of "greenbelt" phalanx on either side of the common land held directly south of the city.

 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
What is noteworthy about all this, especially in accounting for the agrarian based economy of the American colonies, is that Savannah did not socialize or replace (with slave labor) the need to homestead. Rather, it sook a different way to make the cut. In Savannah, the act of subdividing itself represented a generative, economic act (as well as a pragmatic solution and moral imperative). It reconciled the acts of urbanization and agrarian development, which were so awkwardly accounted for in the plans of other colonial settlements, William Penn’s included. It had the insight of the fourth dimension.

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”.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What the Charette could do for BarCamp

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Yesterday I attended BarCampCLT III.  Again, an energizing experience.  Too bad I'm a city planner... all this web app development stuff is a bit far removed from my typical day-in and day-out.  I feel like I'm missing out in the real action in this city.  ...Nevertheless, I have a suggestion as a planner who deals quite often with community participation.  BarCamp, I think, needs to take advantage of all the latent talent in the room through participatory strategies that involve team-building and idea-generating. BarCamp needs to employ a Charette, an intense design and problem-solving session.  Charettes prove very useful in getting informed groups of stakeholders to propose novel solutions to problems while also steering them to share visions and create ownership in the project/solution/plan.

Here's my suggestion:

I think BarCampCLT should try out a "Start-Up" theme next time around. 

Keep the morning round of sessions the same, but for the second (afternoon round) have everyone in the room pitch ideas instead for start-up business concepts...perhaps based on what they heard in the morning sessions. These could be serious concepts or totally joke concepts.  Just as sessions are typically voted on, then, the actual start-up concepts compete right from the bat to become sessions. (An aside to my planner readers: We planners could also take a lot of great ideas from the BarCamp "unconference" participatory process. See also other related "unconference" approaches). The more successful ideas will then be able to attract an eclectic and informed and expert crowd of creatives to put their mileage on the start-up least for an hour and half or so.  Instead of having individuals lead session topics, let them instead hone their start-up management skills by leading the participants to outline a business plan and marketing strategy.

If the start-up session is well-attended, have the participants divide into smaller groups of 5-8 people so that everyone has a chance to participate and have those sub-sessions come up with their own approaches to the same concept.  (Alternatively, you can follow the Charette Procedure, but that would require a really adept organizer).  These sessions, easily, will be more convivial and interactive than your typical BarCamp session (except for those sessions that involve massage-therapy or D.I. von Briesen, of course).  Dedicate the last 20 minutes or so of a session to have the session participants practice their "live commercial" skits of the hypothetical product launch ...Face paint, "costumes" (made out of flip-chart paper), and-AHEM-balloons might come in handy here...(we all missed you Balloon Boy!!).

At the end,  have everyone gather to view the live-demos.  It would make for a fantastic conclusion to BarCamp that's for sure!  Which is what is TOTALLY missing in BarCampCLT.  I mean, ok, that post party was nice...but think what a beer party could be right after a total laugh-fest of a "concluding ceremony"!  (Again, live-demo commercial skits.  Enough said.)

Admittedly, the kernel of my Start-up Theme idea is totally stolen from Startup Weekend (one of the sessions I attended was about the lowdown on Startup Weekend)...only the "speed-dating" version of Startup Weekend.  Who knows if one start-up idea is serious enough to fly off the bat to become an actual start-up in hunt of an angel investor, but maybe in these interactions BarCampers will quickly discover the complementary minds and skill sets they need to actually create a formidable start-up team in real life.

NOTE: The important thing about a Charette session is that it has a time-limit.  You have to time it and announce the count-down. It should be an intense period of activity...particularly the last 5 minutes.  Like in Iron Chef, you have to wrap it up at the cut off, except, traditionally, the only alterations allowed in a Charette product are done "en-route" to the presentation/judging venue.  Unfortunately, planning "charettes" have lost the non-mechanical, intense spirit of their original conception over time, and now what planners call a "Charette" is a period lasting two or three days which often result in products that are often very polished, predetermined/formulaic that make their way into final deliverables ....I believe this approach to charetting is totally lacking the ("unconference", fly by the seat of the pants) spirit of a real Charette and, worse, often ends up leaving stakeholders suspiciously out of the actual decision-making process.  Charettes should not be an abbreviated stand-in for the planning process.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Understatement of the Year

THE TEMPLE MOUNT, originally uploaded by Yaniv Ben Simon.

"If an agreement is reached, then in religious and national terms, the two sides will have agreed to the idea of more than one truth existing in Jerusalem — that there’s more than one way up God’s mountain," Mr. Gorenberg told Ms. Sontag nearly ten years ago. "But," he added, "that’s a big if."

So ends a Robert Mackey post at the Lede: "Can an Undivided Jerusalem Be Shared?"

My own sense of Jerusalem is that Jerusalem is best shared undivided.  Jerusalem taught me that cities are the best teachers of the practical art of sharing space, of coexistence.  Someone once asked me what bearing  Jerusalem's urban form played in the conflict.  This was my reply:

...You’re asking me, who experienced this urban realm for three years. To be perfectly honest, the urban realm of Jerusalem’s Old City is an altar to coexistence. No artifact of man seems more suited to this sacred purpose. Jerusalem is a peace machine. She took away my hatreds. She would make me hang my grudge at the gate when I walked in, and how easily I forgot to take it back on the way out! The walls of Jerusalem are harmony screens that weather with remarkable resilience against external and geopolitical rivals to coexistence. The folks that wield power outside have discriminating agendas, but Jerusalem’s streets are shared indiscriminately by all. Her private and religious spaces are, ...well, particular to folks who share meals together, but surprisingly not overmuch. Yes, if you have blood on your hands, don’t pass through your neighbor’s gate (the blood here cries louder from the earth than in other places). But her public realm always welcomes you. No city I've experienced is a better peace-maker. Among the spice tables and racks of prayer beads, between the furry caps and kufiyehs, Jerusalem taunts your hatreds. She thinks little of toleration. “See,” she says to you, “you can’t tolerate better than you are tolerating me right now...Isn’t that remarkably easy?” She wonders how you multiply one love without another. If we do not notice her loves, it’s hardly her fault. She herself is fierce with her love for muezzin calls, she gathers trails of colorfully capped pilgrims into the wings of clucking churches, her soul elevates in the soothing murmur before the Western Wall. No she is not good with the thoughts of humans. But I had to live with her. Before I met her, her loves I made my hatreds, and then I sent prayers of deliverance on her behalf. She taught me to cancel one with each.