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  • Writer's pictureGM Shay

Shelter In Place

Shelter and Place have always been the primary concerns of architects, long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vitruvius summed it all up in three words: “Firmness, Commodity and Delight.”

Firmness is now called sustainability—the ability to endure against the forces of nature. Commodity described the ability to meet the functional and practical needs of the intended purpose. Delight meant the inspiration of meaning above and beyond that purpose. So “shelter” requires both firmness and commodity while “place” implies something uniquely delightful in its location.

More recently, most of us have come to understand “shelter in place” as a fundamental part of social distancing in order to limit the spread of a viral pandemic. We are living apart from each other and working remotely so we can work at all. Now, more than ever before, we require shelter from the forces of nature while we long for the places we now must avoid. “No place like home” chanted Dorothy, weary from her journey to Oz.

As urban planners, we hope that this difficult time leads us all to a better understanding of how much “place” matters—and how important it is to making cities resilient and desirable enough to survive. Sheltering people close together requires more delightful design and a mixture of residential and smaller scale safe places nearby.

Recently, the City of Savannah’s elected officials voted unanimously to achieve some ambitious new goals that would add to both shelter and place. The first is a commitment to more affordable housing choices within the urban core of our city. The second is a commitment to total renewable energy for both City government, and indeed the entire city by 2035. The former goal will allow exploration of higher density and better mixed use development. The latter will require massive measures to conserve energy and generate power as close as possible to where it is needed (probably through solar energy).

As one of the City’s Alderman, Nick Palumbo said in a town hall meeting: if a new industry offered to come and locate in Savannah, and bring with it thousands of new jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in local revenues, what wouldn’t we be willing to do to make sure they came here?

I have to wonder whether spending $150 to $200 Million to build a gigantic new Civic Arena, for people to gather close together by the thousands, makes as much sense in the aftermath of COVID-19? Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend that money on incenting more affordable urban housing that can generate most of its own energy?

Not possible??

As a thought experiment we came up with a model for urban redevelopment by taking a couple “Tything Blocks” from Savannah’s original renowned City Plan (that are now a City-owned surface parking area) and designed a mixed-use development that incorporates affordable apartments, market-rate residences and retail, open roof gardens above limited parking, and lots of solar panels.

This proposed design respects the Oglethorpe Plan with its 60’ lots, compatible height and mass, and follows the current Historic District Zoning Ordinance standards.

Oh, and something else also very important—just like the “Tything Blocks” Oglethorpe planned—they would generate significant revenues back to the City for public purposes!

“Never let a crisis go to waste” said former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

If we keep our sights on keeping our city “of Savannah” while meeting the new Mayor and City Council priorities, we will have more shelter and a delightful place.

If we keep letting our city’s development be “of Atlanta”—giant sized generic buildings without soul—we will have wasted our greatest legacy instead.

Which will we choose?


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