Monday, December 10, 2012

Savannah versus Charleston: Parks

I recently wrote of my intention to look to the cities of Savannah and Charleston for insights that can be applied to North Bay urbanism.  I traveled to both cities in the waning days of summer.  My first observations were about the street grids of the two cities.  Today, I’ll look at parks.

In a week divided between the two cities, it was impossible to achieve a comprehensive perspective of the city park systems.  But I can speak to the parks which tourists, such as my wife and I, are likely to encounter.

Indeed, in Savannah we could have hardly missed Forsyth Park.  We choose a hotel directly across the street from the 30-acre park.  And we took several walks in the park, even eating one meal there.

The park has two distinct functions, with passive enjoyments in the north end and active participation in the south.  The north is anchored by a large fountain from which paths radiate in six directions, offering a wide choice of oak-shaded and Spanish moss-draped allees.

The walking paths offer numerous benches for quiet observation or casual conservation.  One evening, we listened to a young man play the didgeridoo, although not particularly well.  On another, we chatted with a homeless person, Sammy Davis Tucker, Jr., who was happy to take our picture and to offer his tourism thoughts on Savannah, all the while staying just on the safe side of the city panhandling law.  We rewarded him for his advice and even followed some of it.

The south is more open and largely configured as sport fields, which are well-used.

The park is surrounded by the features of urban life.  On the east is the hotel in which we were staying.  To the north is the original home of a local state college.  To the south is a small collection of counter-culture stores where I met a friend for lunch one day.  And every side was the graceful residences of the old-line urban South, some now serving as bed-and-breakfasts or other businesses.

Forsyth Park was reportedly conceived by James Oglethorpe as the termination of his land plan for Savannah.  And the fountain in the north end of the park is in alignment with Bull Street, perhaps the best example of Oglethorpe’s plan for neighborhoods and public squares.  However, as if often the case with urban planning, Savannah didn’t stop when it reached Forsyth Park.  Instead, it continued marching south, enfolding the park into the urban fabric.

And that’s the strength of Forsyth Park.  It’s engrained into its neighborhood and gaining strength from the embrace.  During our stay, we saw exercise classes, a wedding photo session, and youth soccer.  And there was a continual stream of people walking or jogging about the park.  Forsyth Park is an essential part of Savannah, without which the city would be less.

Which takes us to Charleston.  I visited two parks during our time in that city, Marion Square near the heart of downtown and Waterfront Park along the Cooper River estuary.

In its location anchored in the urban grid, Marion Square is similar to Forsyth Park.  But its history and ownership yielded a very different result.  It originally served as the parade ground for the Charleston Arsenal and then filled the same role when The Citadel occupied the arsenal building.  To this day, it remains the property of the Washington Light Infantry and the Sumter Guard.  Although it is leased to the City of Charleston to serve as a public park, much of the site retains the appearance of a parade ground, a broad and empty expanse of green lawn.

I understand that there are community events, such as farmers markets, that use the space well.  But between those events, Marion Square seems to sit largely fallow.

During my mid-morning visit, the park was virtually unused.  There was a knot of youths hanging out in one corner, a couple of older men lounging, and a young woman on the diagonal walk, perhaps heading to classes at the nearby College of Charleston.  Whereas Forsyth Park appeared to be loved, Marion Square was the recipient of only mild disinterested affection.

Waterfront Park has a similar shortfall, although for apparently different reasons.  The park is marvelously designed and constructed.  A long pier extends through the coastal grasses and into the estuary, giving my wife and me our closest looks at Fort Sumter.  Along the pier are well-conceived swings, in which couples can idly sway back and forth while enjoying the cooling breezes.

Along the length of shoreline, there are well-constructed walking trails, delightful fountains, and benches positioned to take advantage of both sun and shade.

To my happy surprise, the park backed directly up to condominiums, framing the park with a better backdrop than a busy street and giving the residents an attractive, if public, backyard.

But despite all everything that was done well at Waterfront Park, it is largely unloved.  When my wife and I visited in the midday, the swings and pier were in nearly full use, but the remainder of the park was mostly empty.  When I revisited in the early morning hours, it was even quieter.  Perhaps the only other people there were a pair of homeless who were awakening from their slumbers on the benches.

When I look for a reason as to why Waterfront Park fails to attract more use, I can only point to its location at the edge of a city, rather than surrounded by a city.

Thinking back to all three parks, Forsyth, Marion, and Waterfront, only Forsyth is seems full actualized, the result of a location in the heart of a city and of the many years during which the city learned how to make good use of it.

To bring these lessons back to the North Bay is disappointing, at least in the short-term.  I have a friend who often asks about building a North Bay equivalent of New York City’s Central Park.  After observing Savannah and Charleston, the answer is obvious, but unhelpful.  One would need to go back a hundred years and set aside a half-dozen or more city blocks before the city flowed around and embraced the site.

Absent a time machine, that isn’t useful information.  But even if we set ourselves to the more possible task of building strong urban parks for the 22nd century, we are almost equally stymied.  What makes Forsyth Park work is the way it was embraced over time by the continuation of a land-use grid.  But we don’t build our towns in grids anymore.  With the land development rules, we effectively require developers to construct stand-alone, barely connected neighborhoods, not a land-use pattern that would ever embrace an existing park.

So if your goal is to build a Central Park in a North Bay city, you must do three things.  Change the development pattern so we return to the logical grids of the 19th century, set aside several blocks to serve as the park, and pull up a chair to wait for a century.  Good luck.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

No comments:

Post a Comment