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Food Oasis

Not long ago, my friend Tom Wilson and I drove up to Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon so we could make a presentation about the Oglethorpe Plan, and how it was an underutilized model for urban redevelopment today. The presentation was to a session of the national conference of the American Planning Association, and followed on the heels of an article we wrote together that was published in the March issue of the Journal of the APA on the same subject. Tom’s expertise on this subject is well known from his book about Oglethorpe and the original plan for Georgia. He and I became friends while he was the Director of Planning at our Metropolitan Planning Commission a decade ago, and I enjoy the way he thinks about the world today.

While driving on the way up, we talked at great length about how Oglethorpe’s Plan was a premonition of today’s urban agriculture movement, and the desire to make compact cities a favored choice again for modern life. In 1733, having town houses, and gardens for growing food for a family in nearby private garden plots seemed revolutionary, especially for a community that was to be without privilege. The plan succeeded, at least in creating an urban garden city, and the wards centered with squares still attract millions of visitors.

When we got to Atlanta we decided to stop short of the center city, to avoid the higher priced hotels, and pulled in to a Day’s Inn in a small city of motels near the airport. After checking in, and dropping off our things, we decided to look for some food. A quick check with the front desk attendant revealed a McDonald’s nearby, but neither of us wanted fast food, so we got in Tom’s car to check out other options. In what seemed like an episode from The Twilight Zone, we ended up driving around for an hour, finding only abandoned fast food and empty franchise restaurants. Not even a grocery store, though there were strip centers everywhere. We had discovered a food desert. Eventually we found a tiny little African market, with some lamb stewed in curry and topped with peanut sauce served from a steam table by a smiling woman whose English was as bad as my Italian. Tom had lived in Africa once during a stint in the Peace Corps, so he made friends, and we ate. The food was good, and the market full of Africans and Caribbean folk that bantered among themselves and looked at us with curiosity. When we got back to the motel, the attendant asked if we could go to the McDonald’s to get some food for an elderly man who was a shut-in in Room 109. Tom was nice enough to bring him a burger and some fries. So here we were, less than 25 miles from the center of a great American metropolis, and the food choices were almost nil. What has happened to that Plan for Georgia?

Back in Savannah, my firm recently had the great pleasure of helping top chef Hugh Acheson to open his latest restaurant, The Florence. It is an anchor in a large scale urban mixed use development called One West Victory, which is mainly student apartments. This development replaced an extremely blighted old industrial complex, saving some of the buildings that originally housed the Savannah Ice Company. Hugh is a guru for the real farm to table and slow food movement in America, so his vision makes even more sense located in the same area as Oglethorpe’s originally planned family food garden plots from 1733. This area has really fallen on hard times over the last 50 years, and Hugh is a hero for choosing it for The Florence. The food is excellent, and it will draw people from all over the world to visit this once blighted area, and hopefully spark a revival for other sustainable development.

In a way, it is the opposite of a food desert. It is an urban oasis in an area that desperately needed some investment, and more food choices for surrounding residents. In fact, it may be a really important model for how to transform other urban food deserts in the future.

Somehow, I think General Oglethorpe is smiling.


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