Savannah City Map – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
Savannah’s notable city plan is distinguished from those of earlier colonial cities by its repeated pattern of connected neighborhoods, multiple plazas, streets, and designed expansion into city-held land (the common). It is unique in the history of city planning in several ways, not the least of which is that plazas allow for more open space in Savannah than in any city plan in history.
Founded in 1733, Savannah sits on a forty-foot-tall bluff overlooking the Savannah River, eighteen miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Laid out by General James Edward Oglethorpe, it was the last colonial capital to be established by Britain in America.
Diversity in a logical framework
The basic plan unit is a quarter, 600 feet on a side in the north-south direction and 540 feet by 600 feet in the east-west direction. Streets and building lots are organized around a central open space or plaza. Each district has a name. The wards were originally organized into town wards with a direct correlation to the garden and farm lands in Oglethorpe’s wider regional plan system.
The streets delimiting the neighborhoods allow an uninterrupted movement of traffic. The interior streets are interrupted by the squares to create a pedestrian scale. The resulting model has eight blocks per neighborhood. The four largest blocks on the north and south sides of the square are called the tithe blocks and are further divided by east-west lanes. Four smaller blocks face the plazas to the east and west. These are called trust blocks. Tything blocks are subdivided into 60 foot wide lots which are sometimes divided into 20 or 30 foot increments, creating a diverse pattern of building sizes and types.
Savannah’s plan reflects the political and organizational considerations of the time. Each ward had tythingmen, who shared guard and other duties. The neighborhoods were linked to a larger regional plan of garden lots and farms. The repetitive, non-hierarchical placement of equal-sized quarters, squares, and lots indicates the colony’s utopian ideals. The regularity of these lots controlled the size and pace of development in the third dimension to create a visually diverse, human-sized city.
Expansion by replication
Equally important is how the city developed between the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the Civil War (1861-1865). Until the middle of the 19th century, the city plan was regularly expanded by the addition of wards in the common until a total of twenty-eight wards had been created. According to urban historian John Reps, “Savannah. . . used the power gained through municipal ownership of the commons to shape growth in the public interest. decisions to do so. . . produced the most unusual city map in America. All but four of these repeated quarters had the characteristic squares.
With the reclamation of Ellis Square in 2010, twenty-two squares remain, each approximately one acre. A park system also runs along the Savannah River at the top of the cliff; Forsyth Park culminates the plan to the south while the intervening streets and avenues have central or lateral tree lawns. The result is an urban forest of unparalleled beauty and utility. Savannah plazas form a public outdoor extension of the restricted living space of narrow urban lots. Many squares are further adorned with monuments commemorating various aspects of the city’s history.
The Savannah Plan influenced other settlement proposals, including Ebenezer, Darien, Brunswick, and Radnor, South Carolina. He continues to be a source of inspiration, as evidenced by the 1993 establishment of Bois-Franc, a 500-acre development in Saint-Laurent, Quebec. To create a flexible street/block pattern that would accommodate a range of residential and recreational densities and uses, Canadian planners adapted Savannah’s street grid to allow for the development of individual yet continuous neighborhoods.
The area of Savannah’s original plan was included in a National Historic Landmark District designation in 1966. This district received additional protection in 1973 when a Historic Review Board was created. Appointed council members ensure that the buildings surrounding the plazas are visually compatible and of an appropriate scale, and thus define the plan.
Synthesis of urban ideals responding to social, military, environmental and philosophical needs, the Savannah plan stands out from American colonial urban plans. The plan continues to adapt favorably to contemporary needs by providing a model for new urban developments.
Savannah’s plan is one of the most studied and analyzed in the history of American urban planning. There are several theories about the influences and sources from which its distinctive disposition was derived. John Reps sees it as a derivation from the colonies established by the British in Northern Ireland in the 17th century, with which Oglethorpe was familiar. Other scholars still support Savannah historian William Harden’s 1885 claim that architect Robert Castell, a friend of Oglethorpe who later died in debtor’s prison in London, England, inspired the founder of Georgia for his plan. In his book Illustrated Ancient Villas (1728), Castell cited the principles of the Roman architect Vitruvius which are directly reflected in the design of Oglethorpe. Other theories attribute significant influences on the design of Savannah to the garden designs of George II’s royal estates or the new plan for London devised after the Great Fire of 1666.
The first drawing of the plan, titled “A View of Savannah as it Stood the 29th of March, 1734” is also the source of scholarly debate. There is widespread disagreement about the artist responsible for this document and much speculation about the accuracy of the drawing.