Savannah: The Joys and Challenges of a Historic City

Kevin Klinkenberg is a member of Strong Towns and helped to organize an upcoming Strong Towns event in Savannah, GA. Visit our event page to learn more. We asked Kevin to share a bit about his city in advance of the event.

If you're involved with urban planning in any fashion, and you don’t know about Savannah, Georgia, well, you’ve got a big hole in your education. While not the oldest planned city in America (as local walking tour guides often claim) it is arguably the most famous, and in this author’s opinion, the best.

James Oglethorpe certainly could have had no idea when he founded Savannah and the Georgia colony in 1733 that he would leave such a lasting mark on the world of planning, and yet nearly 300 years later it’s the primary remnant of his noble experiment. Within a few decades, all of his social reforms were jettisoned, but the physical ideal remained. Even long after he departed for retirement in England, successive generations artfully added wards and squares to his original plan. Ultimately the Savannah plan contained 24 squares, all uniquely sized and designed, but all integral to the fabric of this beautiful community.

Like nearly all American cities, though, Savannah also saw a long period of decline and attempts at renewal. The automobile age took its toll, with freeway off-ramps, widened streets, demolitions for parking and all of the usual stories. The city’s main street, Broughton Street, became a virtual ghost town by the 1980’s. Some crazy people even proposed running streets right through the squares, in order to modernize the city.

But Savannah also has had a stunning rebirth. To walk here today is to be in disbelief that so much abandonment ever happened. The National Historic Landmark District is a beacon to visitors from around the globe, and its success has spurred revitalization outward to the city’s adjacent historic neighborhoods. While most cities are, by now, familiar with the story of downtown rebirth, most cities also never had the ingredients lying in wait that Savannah has.

And yet, so much is still yet to be done. In my five plus years living in Savannah, I’ve been continually amazed at the beauty and charm that this city exudes. There’s no better city in America, in my opinion, to truly understand what it means to create walkability. But Savannah, like so many places, is also a tale of two cities. The Landmark district thrives, but within a short walk you find desperation and despair. In aggregate, this is still a poor city, with much work to do to build up its economy and its people. We also struggle, like every metropolitan region, with continued suburban sprawl into neighboring counties.

Working in redevelopment, I’m faced every day with the physical reality of what has happened over decades of time, and what can be done to make repairs. Like most cities, we have big plans, even some grand plans that build upon downtown’s success, and set the table for progress. These plans fit in the “very important, but take many years” category. At the same time, there’s tremendous work to be done in grass-roots redevelopment. While the big plans inch along, community groups and citizens look for ways to do the simple, small things that make a city better: plant street trees, install a bike lane, fix the sidewalks and curbs, make way for small businesses of all kinds.

I’m not an either-or kind of guy. What I try to communicate with people is that Savannah must take on both endeavors, and value them equally. We must work to erase the mistakes of the urban renewal era, even if it will take many years and cost a lot of money. We must plan with excitement and optimism for how the city can expand. But we must also place a high value on what individuals or small groups of people can do lot-by-lot, building-by-building in their neighborhood. After all, that is how cities are built – one building, one lot at a time, but with an eye towards what we can be 20 or 30 years down the road.

Mr. Oglethorpe would expect nothing less of us, nearly 300 years after he set foot in the Lowcountry.

(All photos taken by the author)

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About the Author

For over twenty years Kevin Klinkenberg has worked as an urban designer and architect, completing everything from master plans to form-based codes. He’s worked for developers, cities, not-for-profits and public agencies to create environments that are sustainable and sociable. Kevin’s been blogging about these issues for years, and wrote a book called Why I Walk published in 2014. Today, Kevin lives in Savannah, GA, and is the Executive Director of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority. Its mission is to renew, revitalize and develop greater downtown Savannah.