Thursday, July 14, 2011

Road Trip: Savannah's 20-minute neighborhoods

As part of a whirlwind getaway last week, I visited Savannah, Georgia, one of the preeminent walkable cities in the U.S.  Even with Savannah's legendary oppressive heat, experiencing this place is a pure delight for anyone who appreciates great pedestrian-friendly urbanism.

This small city of approximately 136,000 was established in 1733 and laid out by General James Oglethorpe. His unique plan included 24 squares inserted at regular intervals into a uniform street grid. 21 of these squares still exist today and are one of the primary reasons why Savannah is such an inviting and special place. Savannah also boasts the nation's largest National Register Historic District which encompasses its entire downtown and its adjacent neighborhoods.

Despite its's small size, Savannah is a city of over 100 distinct neighborhoods, many of which would qualify as 20-minute neighborhoods. I was there visiting a good friend and fellow urbanist who lives near Forsyth Park, a vibrant urban oasis that seemed continuously filled with joggers, dog walkers, and stroller pushers.

We spent Friday evening and much of the day Saturday walking the city, where I was able to experience many of the wonderful squares - each with its own special charm and distinct character, the great human-scale architecture and walkable streetscapes, great local food and drink, and the general ongoing revitalization of Savannah's downtown core and neighborhoods.

A major factor in the revitalization of downtown Savannah is The Savannah College of Art and Design, or SCAD for short. SCAD is a relatively new school, having been in existence only since 1978, and is entirely embedded into the urban fabric through the reuse of mostly historic buildings for classrooms, dorms, and administrative offices.

I also observed Savannah's emerging bicycle culture where bicycles are increasingly being used by all ages and socio-economic groups as a basic form of transportation. Savannah is mostly flat and easy to get around by bicycle. The city has started putting in bike lanes, and there were obvious opportunities to do much more to make the streets bicycle-friendly.

The compactness of the city also puts most of it within reach of a short bus ride, some of which are attractive open-air rubber tired trolleys. Savannah's transit system, called CAT, includes a free trolley bus route that circulates through the urban core. Like Baltimore, Savannah's buses now have bike racks on them.

One of the most important aspects of creating 20-minute neighborhoods, is proximity to a full service grocery store or supermarket. There is a relatively new 44,000 square foot Kroger grocer in my friend's neighborhood, less than a 5-minute walk from his home. The free bus route also runs directly past the market.

There are also several smaller specialty grocers within a 5 and 10 minute walk of his home, as well as coffee shops,  restaurants, retail stores, health centers, parks, places of worship, and more. In fact, the Walkscore of his home address is 91 out of 100, classified as "Walker's Paradise."


  1. Great piece, Stu. One quick correction - there are now 22 of the 24 squares in use, since Ellis Square was recaptured last year by moving the urban renewal-era, above-ground parking structure underground.

  2. Ah, yes, thanks for that Kevin. Now if the other 2 remaining lost squares could just be recaptured!


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