Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Tactical Commons

Insights from Gen. James E. Oglethorpe's Development Plan for Savannah

Part One


Ten years ago, after a visit to Savannah at the end of 2009, I began to research the Oglethorpe Plan for Savannah and record my thoughts on this blog. Already back then, I was inferring things that I would never suspect would actually be backed up historically, such as the influence of John Locke on the plan. I already suspected then that I was scratching the surface of a deeply rewarding study, and by the middle of the past decade, my hunch had borne out in ways I could not have imagined. 

I shall begin posting the important lessons this past decade of thinking about Savannah has surfaced to me. This is just the first installment, and our introduction. Because these thoughts started on this blog, I think it only proper to revisit ProperScale and rekindle the love affair with Savannah's origins from whence we left them here last.

For a shortish preview of my study, you can consult my 2018 Twitter thread on the Oglethorpe Plan to peek at where my studies took me these past ten years.

A Subdivision Plan is Publicized

One of the most incredible artifacts of American colonial history is an 18th century sepia drawing housed in a repository of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Georgia. It depicts the early progress of construction for the settlement of Savannah, the first settlement of the charitable trust governing the Colony of Georgia then at the southernmost frontier of the colonies. Under the leadership of the sole attending member of the Georgia Trustees who had directed the settlement of the colony, Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, 114 English colonists landed at this pine covered bluff on the 1st of February, 1733. They had erected a dockside crane by the first week of their landing, and within a little over a month, the 35 settler families had completed the timber magazine and its battery of cannon and had erected two clapboard homes on the lots staked out, with work in progress for others.

Savannah, Georgia in the 10th-14th months after its founding. Sketch by George Jones, after Peter Gordon's account and Noble Jones's Nov. 1733 plat map ("His Majesty's Colony of Georgia in America"; London, Feb.-June 1734; located in: Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia)

This drawing depicts the state of the colony only a little over a year later. Very likely produced at the hand of a London draughtsman named George Jones in early 1734, it is a striking oblique perspective. Composed as a bird’s eye image of the town as viewed from the Hutchinson Island side of the Savannah River, it richly details the general situation of the town on the flat plain of the bluff on the southern bank. To an amazing level of detail, it depicts each individual home and public structure of the colony, including Oglethorpe’s tent, and charmingly illustrates the unmistakable characteristics of the surrounding Southern Pines, the tranquil commerce of trade ships and native canoes in the river, and the Trustees’ cattle lolling about Hutchinson Island in the foreground.
These details were probably informed by the memory of the colonist Peter Gordon, an upholsterer from London, who had left the Savannah colony in early November 1733 after serving a stint there as Savannah’s first bailiff. Gordon had returned to London to seek medical care for a fistula and brought with him a copy of the town plat drawn by its surveyor, Noble Jones. Most likely with this, Jones had included instructions for the production of a perspective, which George Jones used to prepare a sketch by the February of 1734. The same general composition was later approved for printing in mid-1734 by General Oglethorpe himself, who had returned to London after leaving the colony at the end of March 1734 to seek military reinforcements. Hereupon, some additions may have been sketched in for the commissioned engraving, and so the perspectival view, as the printed engraving claims, likely represents the state of the colony as it had stood that March in just its fourteenth month of construction. 

According to Oglethorpe's December 1733 letter to the Trustees, however, three and a half of the wards had already been occupied by that time (at what state the housing was in, he doesn't make clear). This is substantially more than depicted on Jones's drawing. The sketch could actually be conveying the state of the wards as they stood the November of 1733 from Peter Gordon’s accounting. Regardless of the case, the general extent of the program of construction - considering the travails and hints of discord communicated in the preserved correspondence we have - is simply remarkable, both in the breadth of the execution and the thoughtful, thoroughgoing cohesion of the details. What’s evident from the correspondence, however, was that neither the colonists nor Oglethorpe seemed satisfied with the speed of progress. You almost get the impression that the drawing was more of a clarion call than a mere propagandist effort - a tool to convey the urgency of the work needing to be done. Rather than today's absurdly atmospheric architectural renderings, it instead shares a curious semblance to the kind of plat maps you see in subdivision sales offices, with a portion of lots marked “sold” with red tags. Functionally, it really did serve a similar kind of marketing prerogative in inducing immigration to the colony. 

Something formative in the long-standing frame of our culture is being conveyed on this sketch, and I don’t mean that cynically. Thinking over this composition of humble structures now for over a decade, a Promethean reflection of our development culture is brilliantly peering at us here. And yet, I have lately become aware in hindsight that this sketch has made our contemporary renderings of architectural utopias today read socially unambitious to me. They toot like the resolved lonesome notes of individualized futures, ill equipped and weightless in comparison to Savannah’s social project. My contemporaries have no similar faith in the might of voluntary mobilization for the public good. Not at this scale.

The First Levers of Association

What resourced this incredible scene? When inspecting the correspondence we have, the colonists of Savannah’s first year mobilized their work with at least three levers of association. Labor, naturally, was the first reason for company, comprised by the work gangs Oglethorpe organized at the start for construction tasks. These units were based upon the available abilities and trades of the colonists. Not all tasks, however, could be accomplished well by the gangs due to the inexperience of colonists, and so Oglethorpe found it necessary to supplement these often by hiring itinerant laborers and slaves from Carolina, explaining that the work had been proceeding too slowly. While they were short lived, the gangs were effective tinder to start the industry that created the scene depicted in Jones’s drawing. 

The construction tasks organized daily life for the colonists early on. What is important about these work units is that they initiated a collaborative framework for work projects, synchronized with all such units in the colony. Once that collaborative base was there to root from, construction roles could extend over to farming projects and other works. With the flow of newcomers, the aggregate of these embers would eventually glow stronger with the progressive specialization of work into professions and occupations. What George Jones captured in his drawing was the point in time when the furnace was beginning to get hot.

Jones’s drawing shows the progress of tidy, identically-sized homes that each settler family was building on one of the 60 by 90-foot town lots they were granted. These were located in square “wards” near the protected bluff edge by the Savannah River. Each ward unit, which was centered on an open square fronted by public buildings, contained four blocks of ten homes each called “Tythings”. Six wards of forty homes each were planned, but the drawing only depicts four wards under construction, one of which, Derby Ward, is all but complete except for a vacant church lot (where today Christ Church Episcopal now sits facing Johnson Square). 

In this post from my early days encountering the Oglethorpe Plan, I noted that Savannah’s uniformly repetitive ward fabric of 60 by 90-foot town lots arose from the need to settle a colony of commoners in as fair and efficient a manner as could be contrived for this purpose. The cellular pattern of four Tything blocks to a ward was also useful for military reasons, as each Tything of ten households comprised a militia troop that kept the night watch of every fourth night, which was rotated with the other three Tythings of their ward. Note that this meant that the four day guard rotation didn’t coincide with the days of the week, always falling one day more advanced than the week before and thereby preserving strict fairness in the calendar cycle with regard to sabbaths. This is your first clue to the high degree of intelligent comportment riding with the geometric qualities of the plan. 

The Jones drawing also shows that the first public buildings of the colony were among the first erected, and, as with the homes, they appear to be very similarly designed gable roof structures, rectangular in plan, about double the size of the homes in length and height. Most of these were located in a “Trust Lot” belonging to the Georgia Trust, which overlook the central square next to each Tything block. Initially, Jones’s drawing shows that these lots served public uses, such as the public guest house (“House for Strangers”) and the “Publick Mill” for the colony, but the trustees would also grant some of the these lots to congregations founded by the settlers. Thus granted in reserved prime locations near to all homes, the trustees could assign Trust Lots to spur the assemblies, charities and public halls of the town, as such associations could develop in due course in the colony. The Trust Lots, put in our terms, provide a prime reserve grant for civic enterprise, but, to access it, the common benefit must be clear to the greater colony, and the improvements must be collectively resourced. 

The Tactical Commons

This Trust Lot civic strategy has some expedient features for organizational and economic development with quite some genius behind it. 

To construct the first public buildings shown on Jones’s 1734 sketch in just 10 months with all hands pitching in, for instance, the critical role of organizing the collaborative training and labor must be undertaken. The build tasks must be divided by skills required, the materials sourced and allocated, and the labor rotations rationalized in a planned out in sequence. Expediting development with teamwork, the collaboration will mobilize the drive to clear fields systematically and prepare lumber, bringing in organizational advantages, such as the forecasting and rationing of supplies with the processing of building materials. Moreover, the work gangs acting in necessary concert with one another will be passively eliminating hoarding behavior and wasted labor better by reallocating labor to where the need most benefits the whole.

The total construction activity arising from the division of labor in the colony would have certainly exceeded, in scale, timeliness and quality, whatever would have been undertaken had each colonist been engaged only in his own separate homebuild project in some homestead in the wilderness at the start. The drawing is incontrovertible evidence of what happened. I know this is quite a difficult thing for an American to intuit today, particularly if you are a consultant type. Due to our irremediable gigging culture and emptied ranks of middle-management, we are no longer our daddy’s Organization Men. But, in a very true sense, the Savannah commons is creating the “social infrastructure” for town building. Without its public projects at the outset creating the setting of group labor and quickly normalizing exchange value concretely, the colony could have fared for the worse. 

The collaborative framework of the Savannah Trust Lot scheme hints at many upsides, but an essential one is that it grants private industry resources and economic information it would not otherwise acquire easily. Based on person hours, the collective labor to build the public projects will allow laborers to assess the value of work and goods first hand, granting all colonists insight to the quantifiable value of tasks - such as the labor value required for production of quality lumber, for example. They will probably assess immediately the total lumber that is generated on one’s own effort versus the vast more totals generated by a team of laborers. Once the initial construction of public buildings are underway, as colonists also continue improving their properties on their own, a maturing supply chain will be set in place, alongside a field of skilled labor teams with wage and material value intelligence. From this, a labor trading economy will ensue that families can tap into for their own home construction and farm projects. 

This is an incredibly important spark of industry that a “booster” project for the commons can grant a community. In a pioneering setting, especially, where the settlers are new to the skills and methods of development and most are still untested in the field, common uses that benefit the whole of them are themselves the fuel that can spark the enterprises, the organization, and the specialization required to advance their industry - creating the springboard for each individual’s options for betterment and self-actualization in the process. 

Talk about creating an effective startup team strategy... You would be creating, more than a startup, a startup ecology with this sort of work plan. Until a better term is availed, for now it is a development strategy that I will call the “Tactical Commons”. 


Besides the catalytic value of the Tactical Commons, however, the important feature I want to stress is how it functions in the Savannah economy to maintain a kind of dynamic equilibrium between individual and collective interests in the colony, and this it does as an ambient and unsupervised quality of the Oglethorpe Plan - namely, with the egalitarian layout of private lots and the formalized (also egalitarian) frame for association and governance with the Trust properties. 

Like the body’s vestibular system in the inner ear, to use an analogy, the plan guides forward motion unobtrusively, helping provide the sense of balance and motion with the processing of all external input received. In the body’s case, separate input streams are received from the eyes and the kinesthetic input received from the entire skeletal frame of the body. Both latter input streams are distinct and independent sensorial processes, while the vestibulary input, which is structurally aligned with them, is a mediating stream that helps the mind to synchronize the differentials between them. Savannah’s setting of one group effort for every ten contributors is literally baked into the structure, and people can’t help but to do the things they are hardwired to love, share and run with. It’s stunning that we haven’t learnt to plan this way 287 years later.