The exponential growth of Savannah

I recently found a map of the municipal annexations of the City of Savannah. The animation below illustrates the growth of the municipality from 1838 to 1979.

(Note: some annexations in the map were combined to simplify the animation.)

This rate of growth starkly contrasts with Savannah’s first century as a city. During that period, city’s footprint grew in increments of wards.

Over the period shown in the animation above, the city’s population grew 12-fold from just over 11,000 (1840 census) to  over 141,000 (1980 census). In hindsight, I wish I had used GIS for this exercise so I could provide an accurate comparison of the change in land area over the same time period.

Paris Reborn

We fool ourselves into thinking that the problems of the today’s cities are isolated to the present era. In Paris Reborn, Stephane Kirkland examines the wholesale rebuilding of Paris during the French Second Empire (1852-1870) when the political, economic, and social forces aligned to allow Napoleon III to implement an unprecedented vision for urban modernization. This enormous project would have been impossible without Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the prefect of the Seine.

What struck me was how many of the issues facing Paris over a century and a half ago are still relevant in our contemporary debates about urban places.

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A day in Columbus, Georgia

Last week I visited Columbus, Georgia for the first time. Between sessions of the Georgia Planning Association’s (GPA) fall conference I had a chance to explore the downtown.

Public Spaces

I was surprised by the quantity and variety of public spaces in downtown Columbus. Some of these were attractive and well designed. Yet, in spite of this, I witnessed only a few people taking advantage of these spaces.

I would be interested to see these places at their most active times. It appears that the city can host quite a large crowd throughout its downtown and adjacent riverfront.

Walking the streets of Columbus felt like a city wearing over-sized clothes.  (Strangely, this trend was even present in my hotel room which felt vast and lonely.) In this respect it resembles many rust belt cities that have lost industry and population over a span of decades.

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Reclaim your neighborhood’s power

Your home is connected to a vast electrical power system. It’s often impossible to know precisely where your power comes from at any given time. While this system has worked well for decades, there is growing evidence that a clean energy revolution is coming soon.

I believe  communities across North America have a unique opportunity to reclaim control of the generation and distribution of their power sources at the scale of the city block.  There are two ways to accomplish this transition to block-scale power grids:

  1. Retrofit – reconfigure existing urban areas to take advantage of new technologies.
  2. Greenfield – build new neighborhoods hardwired for clean block-scale power.

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Sustainable Recovery Planning

A few days after the threat of Hurricane Irma passed, I was asked for my top three priorities in a situation where a city needed to “rebuild nearly from scratch” for a sustainable place capable of absorbing population growth.

As tropical weather events become both more severe and more frequent due to climate change, this question seems timely to me.

Focus on permanent humans needs and the human scale

In the wake of a disaster is easy to get distracted by fleeting demands for specific situations. There can be dozens of groups with special needs demanding attention. But in order to prepare for sustainability in the long run, I think leaders should focus on the things that are essential and unchanging human needs. These include: clean water, sanitation, access to food, and shelter. It is critical to organize these essential city building blocks in a scale appropriate for humans – all of the basics for an individual should be within a convenient walking distance (approximately within a half mile radius).

A mix of housing types should be provided to accommodate families and individuals. City leaders should consider suspending ordinances which are counterproductive to recovery efforts (such as zoning that artificially limits residential density or prohibits essential services or street design standards that prioritize automotive travel).

Where possible, neighborhoods should be arranged to accommodate incremental growth following a disaster.

Re-organize systems to the smallest feasible scale

Regional power, water, and food systems are inherently fragile and difficult to sustain without massive resource inputs. When possible, these systems should be re-organized down to the smallest feasible scale – this will improve the area’s ability to endure future threats. If your neighborhood can collect all the water it needs, then you don’t need to rely on a vast, hidden network of pipes and faraway water treatment plants. If your block can produce all the energy required using sunlight or other renewable sources, then why should you rely on a monopolistic private utility? City leaders should seize opportunities for local self sufficiency.

Depending on the scale of the disaster, a city may also need to rebuild its local economy. This too should be attempted at the smallest possible scale. When beneficial transactions between residents are possible, they should be allowed by right to help the economy recover. A sustainable city fosters commerce both at the neighborhood scale and the metropolitan scale. City leaders should relax restrictions on temporary markets and proactively locate commercial nodes & corridors.

Finally, the transportation system should be re-configured reflect these changes. The city may need to re-organize its public transit systems and prioritize investments in footpaths and bicycling infrastructure.

Tell a coherent & compelling story

Too often urban planners neglect the cultural power of storytelling as an organizing feature of our cities. I believe people use stories to process pain and trauma. Following a disaster, there are at least two types of stories that should be expressed clearly in the public realm:

  1. Respecting what remains. While it may seem like everything has changed following a catastrophe, the memory of what came before will persist. Public memorials can help current and future generations comprehend what was lost and what remains.
  2. Inspiring a positive vision for the future. People returning to an area devastated by a natural disaster will need motivation. Optimistic and positive visions of the future can help them avoid despair and feel hope for the future.

These stories will help explain why things are different and how the community has changed to become more sustainable. Artists of all disciplines can assist in the recovery of a place this way.

We can build better big box parking lots

A reader in Grand Rapids, Michigan shared the following:

After almost being struck to death several times at our local Meijer parking lot I noticed WHY the Meijer parking lot is like a death trap as opposed to the Celebration Cinema.

His aggravation led him to make these two diagrams:

“Death Lot” – excessive drive-thru lanes, non-existent crosswalks and haphazard placement of a bus stop make this lot dangerous for everybody.


“Good Lot” – by dividing the surface with a tree lined foot path this adjacent parking lot feels safer.

[Aside: one of my first jobs was to retrieve carts from a parking lot very similar to the one in the top diagram. In the 19 years since I held that position, the parking lot has not changed very much.]

This inspired me to reconsider the future of the suburban parking lot. In my view, there are some good reasons for questioning our long term needs for these super-sized parking lots. In my view, parking lots of this magnitude deserve to be called into question for the following reasons:

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The good, the bad & the ugly

Over the last few weeks I’ve accumulated several pictures highlighting the best and worst of urban design while walking or biking around my neighborhood in Savannah.

The Good

The Bad

The Ugly

A power grid for your block

What if we could build a power grid that worked at the scale of a single city block? With recent advances in solar energy, battery technology, energy efficient design, and smart metering, it may be possible.

Imagine a city where every block generates all the power that it needs from clean, renewable sources. With rapid advances in energy storage (aka batteries), it may soon be feasible for small groups of buildings to generate all the energy they require for normal operation.

Currently, the scale of the electricity grid is continental. In North America, NERC has responsibility for the oversight of this massive system. While these areas look homogeneous, they can be though of as many interwoven systems.

Source: NERC

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Disruptive technologies have the potential to render this model obsolete in places within a relatively short span.

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It’s not an accident

Preface: there are not two sides to hate, bigotry, or white supremacy. There can be no space for these attitudes. Countless morally sound arguments opposing these odious issues have been presented by nearly every spiritual, ethical, and political authority on the planet.

In this post, I want to focus on a specific intersection of our urban places, hateful attitudes and traffic violence.

A community parade in Savannah, Georgia uses a public street.

Recent events in Charlottesville and Barcelona have shattered the illusion that cars and people on foot can coexist peacefully. Groups that embrace hate from ISIS to white supremacists have weaponized the automobile against civil society.

This is not new. Here is a short and incomplete list of incidents where autos have been turned into instruments of terrorists.

  • Nice, France  July – 86 dead
  • Stockholm, Sweden – April – 4 dead
  • London, UK – March – 5 dead
  • Jerusalem, Israel – January – 4 dead
  • Berlin, Germany  – December 2016 – 12 dead
  • Columbus, Ohio – November 2016 – 11 wounded

Why has this happened?

There is no single reason why cars and trucks are being used as weapons in global terrorist campaigns. But there are some explanations for why terrorists are choosing autos to maim and kill pedestrians.

  • The prioritization of speed over safety. For decades, our transportation infrastructure has been designed to prioritize the speed and convenience of automotive trips over the safety of the traveler. This has led to design decisions that place pedestrians in vulnerable spots. Terrorists have realized this vulnerability can be exploited using conventional vehicles.
  • The notion of ‘shared responsibility’ for traffic safety. Even within the organizations tasked with ensuring safety in our transportation systems, there is this notion that everybody – from the elderly to the adolescent – is responsible for their own safety. This is inconsistent with reality. Drivers of cars and trucks have a much higher responsibility as their choices can cause injury and death for others, while the same cannot be said of pedestrians and bicyclists. Terrorists exploit this asymmetry that remains unacknowledged by many civil servants.
  • The lack of public space in neighborhoods and cities. When there are no parks, plazas, or other spaces for people to assemble, they turn to the streets. Unsurprisingly, this leads to conflict between drivers (who get frustrated by delays) and the protesters (who use the street as a place to assemble). Terrorists leverage this frustration in their sympathizers and use it to encourage vehicular violence against anonymous people.

What city leaders do about it?

Thankfully, quite a lot can be done to keep people safe in cities. Many of these tactics actually make cities more humane and pleasant for everybody by enhancing the public realm. However, these strategies may not be favored by all so-called traffic engineers who see their mandate as the reduction in delay for drivers. If your priority is the protection of people in the public domain, you should consider re-configuring streets and gathering places to ensure the safety of pedestrians. Here are some methods:

  • Reduce vehicle speed. Over three centuries ago, Newton published his famous laws of motion – these laws still apply today to calculate the force of a moving car. To reduce the kinetic force of a car (aka its destructive potential), either the mass or the speed must be reduced. City planners can’t do much about vehicle mass besides truck restrictions – but speed can be controlled through street design geometry. Urban places can be modified to reduce vehicle speed in myriad ways:
  • Provide physical barriers. Have you ever noticed those giant red concrete spheres at the entrance to Target? What about those short columns in front of government buildings? These are bollards – their primary purpose is to prevent vehicles from entering spaces where they don’t belong. These barriers absorb the impact of a speeding vehicle and prevent harm to people. Other objects can be used as a physical barrier between crowded spaces and traffic:
    • cars parked along the curb
    • heavy-duty benches
    • street lights
    • planters and mature trees
    • protected bicycle lanes
    • bus stop shelters

Perhaps in the near future there will be a protocol for Vehicle-to-Pedestrian (V2P) communication that will alert people when a dangerous vehicle is approaching. With the growth of autonomous vehicle technologies, there may be other intelligent options on the horizon to protect pedestrians from motorists. But there is no point in waiting for these technologies to mature – the tools to protect pedestrians are freely available to any city willing to apply them.

The measures described protect everybody on the street. Our First Amendment may protect immoral and deeply offensive speech. Our cities can provide physical protection to everybody in the public realm.