There is no utopian condition for cities
Kevin's Note: As with the previous post, these were remarks I made publicly earlier in the year. In this case, this was a longer version of what I spoke about with the Savannah Downtown Neighborhood Association.
It's a great time to be in Savannah. I know for some it may not seem like that, but it truly is. Our problems are good problems. I would much rather be in a place that is attracting people and investment, than a place that people are fleeing, even though both have their own issues.
A lot of what is shifting these days is indicative of broader changes happening everywhere. The issues that cities are dealing with now are very different than 20, 40 or 50 years ago
So much of what we are seeing and reacting to today is coming back to the normal state of affairs for city change and growth. It's just that we have all lived our whole lives through an abnormal condition, where central cities were depressed and people moved to the edges, in developments built all at once. And in order for our cities to survive, we felt the need to spend untold millions on fast roads, highways and ample parking. That's increasingly not the case anymore.
Now, people are flocking back to cities, especially the really good ones. Those cities that can deliver the total experience that the market wants will thrive. Those that do it in a half-hearted way, or think they've done "good enough" will struggle as others learn and adapt.
The same is true of the world of tourism, which I know is always a flashpoint in Savannah. The stark reality is that cities like Savannah have become tourist magnets because they provide something that people really want, but can't get at home. And that is - someplace to enjoy walking slowly, socializing, being entertained and doing it all in a beautiful environment. As long as we continue to build the same-old, same-old subdivisions on the edges of our cities, people will continue to seek out our great historic cities for tourism. Many of us that aren't from here, came here for those reasons. Savannah for 200 years was built around the needs of people on foot primarily, while since then all of our cities have been built for the needs of people driving long distances very quickly.
With that all said, I think it's important to talk more directly about visitors and residents. It's been my observation (in many more places than just Savannah) that on so many of our planning issues there's complete alliance with the needs of visitors and residents. Everyone wants safe streets, cleanliness, beauty, entertainment, unique and local shops & services and reliable transportation options. I think it’s healthy to focus on these areas of agreement. These are fellow human beings in our city, opening their wallets and dumping cash on the sidewalks (to put it bluntly). Instead of painting all of that with a broad, existential brush, let's focus on specific issues that don't align with residents and work on those. We should always be careful of the consequences of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Two broad points that I think need to be reiterated are that we need to "legalize" Savannah and need to not create unintended incentives for some uses over others. It surprises many people when I say this, but it's a fact that our current ordinances, codes and more make it impossible to build the Savannah that we all love. I find that to be crazy, personally, since this is not just a beloved set of neighborhoods but ones that create enormous economic value. Secondly, our ordinances should not overweight one use over another. Make the rules clear, easy to understand and see, and then let the market sort it out. In our case, we have some rules that make it far easier to develop hotels than apartments, and our report earlier this year simply meant to highlight and offer corrections for that flaw.
I tend to not fall into the camp that there is a perfect mix for downtown or for cities in general, and that if only we had the right rules and enforcement it will all be nirvana. Cities are living things, and are always changing. There is no utopian condition. As soon as we solve one problem, another presents itself. The idea I’d like to suggest is to be comfortable with change. Change is part of the virtue of living in a city. Cities are dynamic and interesting; it’s what makes them enjoyable. If you aren’t comfortable with Savannah changing and growing, then I believe that you are going to be less and less happy with time.
Great cities have a virtuous circle. More people brings more customers for businesses, which means there’s more options for you as a resident. More options makes living here more desirable, and also when they are close by it makes walking or biking more viable. As those become more viable, and more people are out on the street, more businesses will want to open. That diversity and that street life are the core amenities of living in an urban neighborhood, as opposed to a suburban one. In the suburbs, parking will always be easier. It will always be quieter, and the yards will always be larger. I often have yard envy when I visit friends in more suburban situations.
But we also have things that they don't have, and that's what brings value. We have much more freedom of movement in urban areas, since you can safely walk, bicycle, take public transportation or even drive. We have more options and choice for how and where to entertain ourselves. We have more options for our homes. The same block might contain large homes, small homes, or apartments of all sizes. Those things never happen in the suburban condition, and it's what we have to value, enhance and promote. Forget about the darn parking already.
I wrote an article a while back that got picked up by Slate magazine, which said that society at large doesn’t care about car crashes. I absolutely believe it to be true, as the evidence is all around us. It's not meant to be a sinister attack, but I did hope to shake up some perceptions. The problem is that ignoring the carnage on our streets and roads is a rational response given the way most people live today in the US. We’ve built that world, and it’s perfectly understandable that the average person is going to think making it harder to drive fast is a little nuts. Of the 100+ square miles in the City of Savannah, only about 6-8 square miles is arguably the walkable part.
To change attitudes, we have to make the case and persuade people. We have to talk about and highlight the human toll, which far exceeds anything that we worry about with violent crime. When it comes to downtown Savannah, my thoughts are that we need to start to push the heavier traffic flow to the perimeter (as much of it already is) and make good plans to capture people on the edges with garages and shuttles. The streets between East Broad and MLK, Victory Drive north to the river, should all be very slow-speed streets that value walking first and foremost. In a certain sense, we should treat downtown like an airport. You can park on the edges inexpensively and shuttle in, you can drive in closely and pay progressively more BUT driving in entails driving *slowly.* No one has the right to speed through urban neighborhoods anymore than they do a suburban subdivision.
Finally, we rightfully talk a lot about zoning in Savannah. Despite a decade of efforts, we are still saddled with a dysfunctional and very outdated zoning code and set of ordinances. But, I'll just say this: ultimately we do need a real, coordinated vision and master plan for all of greater downtown. Fixing zoning is good, but you really can't do zoning well without a plan