Jane Jacobs, the greatest planner of our lifetimes, believed that cities were organisms, not machines. Like all organisms, elements of the whole are always dying while other elements are being created. As long as there is more springing to life than dying, organisms and cities go on living. Unlike biological entities cities don’t have to die, and few do.
The reason is because they can evolve and innovate and regenerate within one lifespan. Rome has been doing so for over 2500 years and shows no signs of slowing down. Although Savannah has only been growing for 285 years, it was a rationally planned city from its inception, so it had a great head start. Nonetheless, as humanity and technology change, the functions and buildings in some areas become obsolete and fall into decline. If these necrotic areas are left untreated, they can eventually threaten the health of the entire body of the city.
This is why regenerative planning is so vitally important to cities. Our challenge is to figure out how to “heal” these parts of our city without doing damage to the other healthy surrounding tissue.
Currently we are very fortunate to have multiple opportunities to help Savannah regenerate. Thinking back, this is exactly what Bob Gunn and Eric Meyerhoff did over 40 years ago with their plans for River Street. At that time there was no street, just a muddy bank lined with rotten wharves for wooden ships long gone. Now people assume that River Street has always been a place for people to wander and enjoy. Today our firm is working on other areas of the city that were once given to giant industrial buildings powered by coal and steam.
Planning of this kind is very challenging, because regeneration begins in neglected areas, sometimes where good buildings and public places have been demolished, leaving little context or infrastructure with which to work. Functionally, the purposes for these spaces have ceased to exist, and we must plan for a new future in their stead. Often, nostalgia for these areas remain, and a planner’s instincts for preservation rather than progress can make the task even more difficult.
River Street East is one of these regenerative projects. The previous industrial site of a giant centuries-old foundry, and most recently a surface parking lot, River Street East will soon become a neighborhood of hospitality surrounding a public plaza and river walk extension—a bookend to another regenerative project at the opposite end of River Street. The once contaminated industrial soil will blossom into delightful common ground.
Similarly, the Cultural Arts Center by Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects is designed to be a place for creative pollination, to replace another parking lot built decades ago over the remains of a great mansion.
Next up: Mixed-use apartment buildings rising from the sites of obsolete industries, to be the catalysts for a revitalized Indian Street and the beginning of our Canal District. These will be places for creative people to live, work and play in our city’s heartland again.
Each of these projects face withering criticism from those who prefer a dying past to a growing future. We understand their concerns and pledge to ensure that, like River Street, what comes next will be places that seem like they have always been. Savannah deserves no less. Without this careful kind of regenerative planning, our city will not be able to compete against other aspirational cities, and become just a museum curiosity. We choose to plan for success instead.