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”.)


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Daniel Nairn said...

This is truly fascinating stuff, especially the fractal pattern of anticipated growth you've discerned from the the 45-area farm tracts. I had no idea.

You know, if you can hold my attention for this long in a blog post, you really should consider a book on Savannah. Think about it; it's every planner's favorite southern city, and you seem to be in the right place to position yourself as an authority on it's design. Some of the lessons you've already pulled out are entirely relevant today. Just a thought.

One question I've had is why the unique ward system was dropped? Did the civil war throw everything off?

Also, I curious to know what an odonomy is. I might have missed that in an earlier installment.

Eric Orozco said...

Daniel, it is an interesting question why Savannah departed from the strict warding system established by Oglethorpe. I need to actually research that one, starting with how land assembly of the garden lots was conducted. A more interesting question, and one that I hope to answer in my next post is why was the warding system so successful? Why did it last 120 years?

Thanks for the thought about a book...Hey I'm open to any collaborative ideas. ') I find the blogging format, however, useful for simply distilling and presenting key facts with less dryness and more directness. I like how you can pull in from diverse examples and hold less pretension about needing to separate out the subject to keep its relevance to today's issues distant. Blogging forces you to apply historical lessons to contemporary issues. It contemporizes and it is a useful tool for urban thinkers in that regard.

Off the top of my head with regard to why the warding system dropped:

My suspicion is simply a combination of two things: the build out of the Commons areas and the fact that slavery had effectively rendered the tripartite agrarian arrangement (that the trustees hoped would continue) ineffective and irrelevant. To Savannah folk, the wards were part of that system, why continue it when it is no longer needed? There's also just the matter of shifting tastes. The creation of a single large park for the Victorian District probably also played a part in discontinuing the need to create small squares.

Eric Orozco said...

oh yeah, re: odonomy

"The study of roads".

Especially in regards to differentiating their forms and function in relationship to one another. This is not the papa bear, mama bear, baby bear classification approach favored by "Transect"-brainers, nor the traditional functional classificiation of roads. Rather it is an approach to listen to a system, and realize the way city form treat road form. In this case, Savannah is a wonderful teacher...It gives you a useful variety to discern typologies that are too subtle to evince in less patterned fabrics.