On growth and change in a high-demand historic city
A Note from Kevin: I've been remiss in adding new content to the blog, which I intend to change in the coming months. While we wait out the effects of Hurricane Irma, I'm going to start by sharing some remarks I made earlier this year at the Massie School, courtesy of the Massie Heritage Society. The topic of the event was, "Development in Savannah: Where do we go from here?"
If I can leave you all with one thought today, it would be that the world as you’ve known it is changing, especially if you are my age or older.
Why is that? What is going on? Here’s my best shot at explaining it.
The trick to planning is that you have to have one foot in the future, in addition to one set firmly in the reality of the present. It’s important to focus on the needs of the next generation or two. Most of our efforts take many years to see real results. Cities can indeed change quickly, but in most cases it really takes a decade or two to see it and feel it.
Like all good historic cites, Savannah has been in a defensive mode since the 1950’s, as we had to be. There are those that would have torn down everything good and valuable about our cities if we hadn’t. But now the tide has turned, and we need to be in proactive mode. This is a GOOD thing. The market now very much wants what Savannah has to offer. But now as citizens, we have to decide what we are for - what we want - which is much harder. It’s easy to have an enemy and be against something; it’s much harder to plan for where you want to be, and make that happen. And, with all manner of life, there are tradeoffs. If you push on one topic, another topic may push back. As HL Mencken famously said, "for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
Savannah is not a historic artifact to be looked at like the remnants of some ancient race of humans. It's actually a more beautiful, better planned version of the way we built cities and towns literally for thousands of years, until we embarked on the great suburban experiment. It's a place where modern people live modern lives. It embodies the true amenities of a City - the street life and the choice in virtually everything. Successful and livable cities embrace change, choice, complexity. Unsuccessful urban communities embrace a suburban mindset that the most important things are large, single-family homes, big yards and ample parking. If downtown tries to compete with the suburban areas (and believe me, it is in fact a competition), downtown must emphasize its own amenities and virtues - not try to mimic suburban ones.
You are all citizen planners. Don't be intimidated by people with initials after their names. Two very influential people that I can think of that didn't have initials are Jane Jacobs and Jason Roberts. Jacobs was a journalist who observed her world, asked a lot of questions, and thought critically. Roberts, through his Better Block initiative, has done something similar with our contemporary context. Jacobs questioned the wisdom of the appointed experts, and Roberts challenges societal and bureaucratic inertia. Planning is art as well as science. Despite the desire to professionalize and rationalize everything in our world, it is not as simple as charts from a code book.
For Savannah and its future, there are four areas that I suggest are worth of focusing on in: 1) a coordinated expansion plan for downtown and its street grid/public spaces; 2) traffic-calming all of our streets, especially all of the north-south streets between East Broad and MLK; 3) developing a transit system that works for the residents in the core of the city, 4) embracing growth and change, especially for residential growth, with a critical eye towards design. We need to enhance what is beloved about Savannah, our DNA, and not make us an outpost of the architecture of Atlanta or Charlotte.
Some of these notions are going to challenge our own long-held mindsets toward development. For example, there’s never a shortage of talk about tourists and tourism, but I also hear a high percentage of those complaints that really are no different than if it was all apartments or offices. Much of that is just the city changing and growing. To be effective, you need to get specific, understand what in particular is an issue, and work on that or else you quickly become a complainer. I’ve been a complainer occasionally - I get it. I may have once referred to suburbs as “soul-sucking.” But people will only listen to complainers for so long before they tire of the negativity. You (and we) have to offer ideas or specific solutions. I actually think in Savannah’s case that the needs of residents and the needs of visitors overlap on almost every important issue - safe, traffic-calmed streets, beauty, lively sidewalk life, cleanliness, affordable places to live or stay, and services in walking distance. The big breakdown in our community is between those who are reveling in the beauty and slower pace of life in Savannah vs. those that wish to speed in and out of the historic part of the city. I’m not suggesting keeping people out - to the contrary, we want people to come. But the idea that we should encourage or allow for that to happen by allowing streets to be speedways is a whole other thing. That is the suburban mindset, imposed on the urban - always a recipe for failure.
I sincerely believe that if we embrace the approaches I mentioned, we’ll prepare our city for a wave of prosperity that can benefit everyone, head off an affordability crisis and dramatically enhance public safety. Heck - we might even cure tooth decay.
One final thought; cities are constantly changing. There is no utopian condition, no perfect state of affairs. They are complex and messy. Just like human life - some change is good, some not so good. So much happening in Savannah right now is good - let’s embrace that. And let’s figure out the key items that need work, in order that it continues to be good for the generations that come after us.