The Savannah Plan Past and Present

I recently finished The Oglethorpe Plan: Enlightenment Design in Savannah and Beyond by Thomas D. Wilson, AICP, current planning consultant in South Carolina and former director of planning in Savannah. My paperback copy is easily an ounce or two heavier thanks to the constant highlighting and noting throughout the text. Considered well-researched by many in the space of city planning, Wilson’s book provided a much broader view of James Edward Oglethorpe’s plan for the colony of Georgia in the early 18th century than he’s conventionally credited.

Oglethorpe is a celebrated icon in the city of Savannah and throughout Georgia for his military, political, and city planning accomplishments. Yet as the book attempts to clarify, his vision for the New World was far more complex than the oak-lined streets and magnificent squares which make Savannah, Georgia one of the most unique urban fabrics in the United States, if not the world.

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Southern Provinces of the United States depict the vast Georgia colony (now present day Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia). Also note West Florida along the Gulf Coast, and combined colony of present-day Virginia/West Virginia.

The Savannah Plan

While I plan to spend a few posts discussing the colony’s political and humanistic efforts for agricultural equality, trade, and military defense, I’d like this essay to focus specifically on what’s referred to by Wilson as The Savannah Plan, including its remaining presence in surrounding Georgian cities.

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Peter Gordon’s famous depiction of Savannah, a city in the colony of Georgia, circa 1734. This sketch depicts the bountiful Georgia pine trees cleared by the colonists, as well as Yamacraw Bluff, the prominent geological feature of Savannah placing it dozens of feet above the river at high tide.

Wilson breaks down Oglethorpe’s vision into ever-specific elements, with the Oglethorpe Plan serving as an overall, comprehensive vision for the vast land surrounded by English-controlled South Carolina, Spanish-controlled Florida, and French-controlled Mississippi lands. Often misapplied to the quaint streets, parks, and wards of Savannah, the Oglethorpe Plan is far more broad than that.

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Oglethorpe’s ward design is present in the Savannah government logo to this day. Negative white space is reserved for right-of-ways such as roads and lanes.

Hence, Wilson considers those downtown elements more aptly, the Savannah Plan. In Peter Gordon’s sketch, one can see four wards replicated south from the Savannah River. Each ward consists of a central square for gatherings, flanked by four trust lots on either side, reserved for commercial and civic buildings. Finally there are four quadrants known as tithing lots (10 houses each), reserved for a single family of early colonists. In subsequent years, the ward design present in downtown Savannah was loosely duplicated in other places, but for the most part constrained to this city.

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A similar city plan exists in Adelaide, South Australia consisting of five distinct wards much like Savannah’s. Taking it a step further, Adelaide kept the agrarian lots enveloping the wards, and continued building the city beyond.

The Savannah Plan Beyond The Hostess City

In an attempt to learn more about the Savannah Plan’s application in nearby settlements, I headed down south to Darien and Brunswick, Georgia. Both cities boast approximately 20,000 citizens within their metropolitan reach, far less than Savannah’s urban region nearing 400,000. I began my trip south early one morning along America’s easternmost north-south interstate, I-95. This route hugs the seaboard from the Maine-Canadian border to Miami.

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I hopped off I-95 to enjoy US Hwy 17, also known as the Coastal Highway, running through McIntosh County, Georgia.

Wilson discussed the application of Oglethorpe’s plan in various cities around Georgia and the world, but much of this square replication was abandoned, including Savannah in the 1850s, just a decade before the Civil War. Looking at a map of the town is much like the rings of a tree or an ice core sample, you can witness the changing of eras right before your eyes. I live in Savannah’s East Victorian neighborhood, the urban landscape immediately south of the Savannah Historic District, where his original ward design remains.

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Spanish moss drapes a tree outside an old church on Franklin St. in downtown Darien, Georgia.

Darien, Georgia

Darien, Georgia, the second-oldest planned city, contains the colony’s first English fort, Ft. King George, constructed in 1721. The structure, although rebuilt, stands three-stories tall above the marshes east of downtown. Later in its history, Darien was home to a booming lumber industry, thanks to 12-foot diameter cypress trees logged upstream on the Altamaha River. Because of over-logging and decreased demand, the industry withered away in the 1920’s and left a small river town in its place.

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I spent a couple of hours wandering from church grounds to the old jail–now a cool art museum, searching for signs of familiarity. From my observation, I was surprised to discover two squares, seemingly wider than the prescribed Newtonian-based model Oglethorpe devised, remain.

Vernon Square, and Columbus Square to the north, are centered in a very similar right-of-way ward design consistent with Savannah’s. The squares mostly abandon the use of civic spaces on the east and west trust lots, and contain a majority of residential buildings among tithing lots and all surrounding parcels.

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The central feature of Vernon Square is a fountain dedicated to a local person.

Unlike Savannah’s squares, the winding pathways are not necessarily crowed brick (like Brunswick), instead opting for modern cement slabs. They don’t waffle across the central park and around a monument like most of Savannah squares.

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Established three years after the landing of Oglethorpe and a couple hundred colonists, Darien remains a small coastal city without Savannah’s regional influence.

Without surrounding civic or retail buildings, there remains a much more neighborhood/suburban feel than a downtown area. The large radius intersections and lack of raised curbing feel more consistent with a modern American park than Savannah’s famed ward design.

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The intersection of Madison and Franklin adjacent to Columbus Square, the northern of two squares remaining in Darien’s urban space.

Overall, I was greatly surprised to find the same level of accuracy when it comes to the right-of-way layout. The east-west, and north-south roads are identical in concept, not scale, to those laid out in the Historic Landmark District. That said, Savannah’s entire district is far more dense and vibrant both architecturally and economically, than Darien’s landscape.

Brunswick, Georgia

Seventeen miles south of Darien lies southeast Georgia’s second-largest coastal city Brunswick. Long-inhabited by Native Americans, Spaniards laid claim to the area between the Altamaha and St. Mary’s River in the mid-1500’s. It wasn’t until Oglethorpe’s arrival in 1733 and the subsequent building of Ft. Frederica that English influence was felt. This was mostly done to provide a southern buffer between English colonies and Spanish Florida.

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The Brunswick Manor located on Halifax Square.

In the following years, the battle of Bloody Marsh was one of a few conflicts that eventually led to the modern borders of Georgia’s coastline: south of the Savannah River, and north of the St. Mary’s (now the Florida-Georgia line).

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A map of Brunswick’s squares, still visible today although less intact than Savannah’s.

Thanks to a 2012 citizen-led effort, the historic preservation and beautification of Brunswick’s fourteen squares (a little more than half of Savannah’s peak total) began to happen. They have installed interpretive panels throughout the parks to commemorate each location’s unique history. Anchored by the well-maintained Hanover Square, Brunswick’s city design is the closest Savannah cousin in the United States.

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Hanover Square stands proudly as Brunswick’s best-preserved square consistent with Oglethorpe’s Savannah Plan. Today it’s surrounded by primary residences and a church.

Remarkably wider than most of Savannah’s squares, Hanover is well-manicured and landscaped consistently with modern Savannah spaces. The masonry walkways are replicas of 19th century construction methods and stretch east-west and north-south, straddling all sides of the central plaza.

Surrounded mostly by residences, and far south of the downtown commercial business district, Hanover is  equally residential as Darien’s squares, but with far stronger authenticity relative to the modern Savannah Historic District. I was greatly impressed to witness a space as on-par with my town.

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Brick pavers anchored on both sides by lines of concrete exhibit traditional crowned construction for drainage.

That said, all but Hanover Square have been bisected (sometimes both directions) by boulevards, lanes, and streets, leaving much of the walkability and pedestrian-centered charm to be desired. Some of the squares located in high-density areas are split by a small main street and resemble a secret garden, more than a place to pass through during your exploration of Brunswick. Nevertheless, it strengthened the green space around those buildings and incorporated various architectural elements, like spires of the former bank building, making it a charming ode to days gone by.

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Wright Square, a former cemetery, is one of the bisected squares of Brunswick, yet maintains its own unique place among the history of its urban environment.

If the city had forgone it’s bisecting of these places, it would feel much closer to Savannah. If I had to guess, historic political councils allowed special building on squares and eventually gave the thumbs-up to create roads we see today. Unfortunately this has led to reduced tree canopies, increased setbacks for sidewalks and buildings, and a complete disinterest for foot traffic.

Much of that walking requires things being ‘on the way’ to somewhere else, and Brunswick doesn’t have the density to support that, except for its immediate commercially zoned district. Speaking of the downtown, if you are ever in Brunswick, I must recommend a detour from the square viewing to Indigo Coastal Shanty. It was a delightful beach-influenced lunch spot with plenty of craft beer.

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I got the chicken tikka masala gyro wrap and it was magical.

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