Monday, December 3, 2012

Savannah versus Charleston: Streets

To me, a prime benefit of travel is gaining a better understanding of one’s own home.   Therefore, I was pleased to travel with my wife to Savannah and Charleston in the waning days of this past summer.  Both offer urbanist lessons that can be applied to the North Bay.

During our wanderings in Savannah and Charleston, we were frequently asked about our itinerary.  When we reported that we were spending time in both cities, the questioner would express approval with the plan, acknowledging that both were fine destinations.  He or she would then lean in and whisper conspiratorially, “But our city is better.”

With the implied competition so often restated, it seems logical to organize my observations as comparative reports, evaluating the streets, parks, etc. of both cities.  Today will be streets.  I’ll write perhaps one Savannah versus Charleston comparison a week, which should take me into the New Year.

So, about the streets in Savannah and Charleston.  Denizens of both cities describe their places as “master planned cities”.   In Charleston, they mean that someone had made a sketch before the road grading started, which is an admittedly good idea.  But in Savannah, they mean something more.

In Savannah, they mean that city founder James Oglethorpe had a philosophical basis for his street grid and applied it rigorously.  His intention was to create “townships” within the city.  All of his neighborhoods were to be two long blocks wide in the east-west direction and six short blocks wide in the north-south direction.  And each township would be anchored by a public square in its center.

The layout was so well adapted to 18th century Savannah that the city continued to use the pattern even after the death of Oglethorpe.  It was the early 19th century before the township pattern was abandoned.  At the time, over thirty squares existed.  Twenty-two remain today.  And they create a marvelous pedestrian environment.

With the way the squares are located in the townships, they block two streets, the central north-south and east-west streets.   Motorists on those streets must detour around the outside of the squares.  But the sidewalks for the interrupted streets continue straight through the squares, providing a rare example where pedestrians have a more direct route than cars.

Even better, the walking paths in most squares are paved in brick and are overhung with Spanish moss drooping from mature oak trees.  Furthermore, most squares have public monuments in their center.  Some even have graves.  Casimir Pulaski, the Polish general who fought and died in the Revolutionary War is buried in one.  Tomo Chi-Chi, the Indian chief who welcomed Oglethorpe ashore in 1732 and helped him establish Savannah, is interred in another.

Walking down a street that passes through a series of squares is one of the best urban pedestrian experiences to be found in the U.S.  Bull Street was my favorite.   I found three opportunities to make the mile walk along Bull Street between Forsyth Park and the waterfront and found it glorious every time.

(As a sidenote, I used Google Maps to check the length of the walk.  Google Maps suggests that pedestrians move over to a street that doesn’t pass through the squares.  Google Maps has no soul.)

One morning, I was on an early morning walk along Abercorn Street, another street that passes through a series of squares, when a fire alarm was sounded.  I sat on a bench in the square, along with a couple of men who seemed to have spend the night in the square, and watched as each fire truck made  a series of turns to pass around the square.  No offense to the Savannah Fire Department, but it was remarkable to see emergency vehicles defer to an 18th street grid.

I later learned that the fire alarm was from the hotel where my wife and I were staying.  While I was sitting in the square reveling in the route of the fire trucks, she was standing in a parking lot in her robe.  Oops.  Luckily, it was a false alarm.

Despite my deep affection for the squares, there are three concerns I’ll note about the street grid.  First, with the squares giving preference to pedestrians over cars, the car-centric development of the 20th century was concentrated on the other streets, making them markedly less friendly.

Second, relatively few tourists wander up to the squares.  Most seem to prefer the tourist orientation along the riverfront.  I worry for urbanism when lovely urban elements like the squares of Savannah are overlooked by tourists.

Third, the one square that tourists might visit, Ellis Square next to City Market, has been redeveloped into a contemporary square that one could find in almost every U.S. city.  Grass and a fountain in which kids can play.  No mature oaks.  No monuments.  No Spanish moss.  And not much brick.  It was a fine opportunity to show tourists what makes Savannah special and it was missed.

 Those quibbles notwithstanding, the squares of Savannah are a marvelous resource which I recommend highly.

The Charleston downtown grid works on a different basis, but also has its charms.  It’s a more haphazard layout, but randomness can be a good thing in a street grid.

Zoning codes in many cities have begun incorporating the concept of “vista points”.  The idea is that the end of a street, or even a bend, will provide a vista point that blocks a view that would otherwise extend to the horizon.  Hopefully, the view is of something attractive, such as a park or a noteworthy building.  But the key is the sense of closing the vista and providing a sense of enclosure.

We’re genetically wired to feel vague discomfort in vast expanses.  A destination that we can see, even if it’s not our final destination, gives our trips a focus and draws us onward.  We like the sense of our trips being “enclosed”.  The word “paradise” is derived from the Persian word “pairi-daeza” which means enclosure.  Vista points provide that enclosure.

To my eye, the Sonoma City Hall is the best vista point in the North Bay.  But the McNear Building in Petaluma is in the running.

A street grid that developed by happenstance can provide even better vista points than zoning codes.  And happenstance describes the way that Charleston evolved.  Incremental filling of Charleston Harbor and several street grids that were begun independently and now meet in odd angles creates many potential vista points.

The primary north-south streets through much of the town are King and Meeting Streets.  Both bend in the heart of downtown, closing the vistas nicely.  But my favorite vista point occurred on Church Street, a small street in the tony residential area at the tip of the peninsula, south of Broad Street.  At one time, Church Street was the edge of the peninsula, so it still reflects the angles of the old shoreline.

I visited Church Street while on a guided walking tour.  The tour guide described the days when Church Street was still a part of the harbor and specifically pointed out a house that had been owned by a tanner who received deliveries by sea.  She noted the mooring rings that still remain in front of the house.

But as she was talking, I was stopped by the vista point created by a bend in the street a short distance further south.  The closing of the vista by the bend made the street as comfortable as I could imagine.  It created a street view that I would love to come home every evening.  Would that modern-day planners and builders could regularly create anything half as striking.
So, between Savannah and Charleston, we have two different approaches to street grids and two different results.  But both with some stunningly good results.

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

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