The City of Squares… Or, Bring Back the Grid

When James Oglethorpe sketched out a design in 1733 for the settlement of Savannah, Ga., he didn’t have “smart growth” in mind. It was some 150 years before the invention of the horseless carriage, and the biggest “green” revolution occurring in his era was the spread of the plantation form of agriculture. Indeed, in laying out the city in the form of identical, easy-to-replicate wards, or squares, he did so with military considerations in mind.

At the center of each ward was a smaller square, which Oglethorpe left as open space to function as a military exercise ground. The four corners of each ward contained a “tything,” 10 lots for housing. And on the east and west flanks of each square, he allotted larger parcels designated for public structures such as churches, banks or government buildings.

The original plan called for six contiguous wards. As the city expanded, it replicated the squares repeatedly, eventually creating 24 of them, then re-developing three of them so that 21 remain. The military training grounds were converted into parks, usually focused on a statue to some great American, or a monument to a momentous battle. Wealthy ante-bellum merchants built magnificent mansions facing some of the parks. Most of the historical buildings remain today, although an occasional ’60s-era atrocity did manage to creep in. In the early 21st century, historical Savannah is an urban gem — one of the truly great places of America.

As I explore in “The City of Squares” this week, the city exemplifies all the traits of smart growth: grid streets, small lot sizes, mixed uses, walkability and abundant green space. As a bonus, historic Savannah has adapted to the automobile remarkably well.

So, what does any of this have to do with Virginia? Do we need to visit Savannah to embrace the virtues of grid streets and compact development? Well, that wouldn’ t hurt, if you’re looking to be inspired. But here’s what’s really cool about Oglethorpe’s replicatable squares: (a) They contain within themselves a balance of houses, jobs, stores and amenities, and (b) they provide a schema for extending the urban grid pattern incrementally as the city expands, while preserving that balance.

Each ward is like an independent cell, containing within itself a balance of elements required for a quality life: 40 residential units (unless lots are combined to create larger dwellings), a central green space within a block or two walking distance from every dwelling, and space to accommodate shops, professional offices and small office buildings. Oglethorpian wards are not totally self-sufficient, of course. Residents cannot possibly meet all of their needs within the square, but they can meet some of them. This is the kind of balance of land uses at the “cluster” level that Ed Risse calls for.

Like the cells of a living organism, Savannah’s wards work together. While the wards are interlaced internally with streets and lanes, providing multiple routes between any two points, the perimeter streets align to create thoroughfares, as can be seen in the aerial photo to the left. (Click on the image for a more detailed picture.) These handsome, tree-lined boulevards enhance the surrounding areas and comfortably accommodate pedestrians.

Compare that to conventional “suburban” development in which a majority of roadway lane miles are contained in dead-end cul de sacs — private streets, for all intents, with minimal traffic — that provide no public connectivity whatsoever. All traffic funnels into connector roads and arterials that are easily bottlenecked.

Thus arises the supreme irony: Because all streets contribute to mobility and access, historic Savannah supports a relatively high population density with a minimum of traffic congestion.

These dynamics are are well understood and fully appreciated in the literature of the smart-growth and New Urbanism movements. What I haven’t heard discussed is how Oglethorpian squares provide a mechanism for extending the grid pattern outward from the core as the city grows. These squares fit together with Lego-like precision, all streets aligning perfectly for maximum connectivity. Plug and play, baby!

The squares are small enough — 40 residential lots at most, no more than a modest subdivision — that they allow for incremental, organic growth. Furthermore, the internal structure of the squares are incredibly flexible. While Oglethorpe designed his squares with 40 single-family dwellings, lots can be combined for larger houses, or merged to create apartments or townhouses. Developers of the squares have the means to be highly responsive to the demands of the marketplace.

Bring back the grid. It worked in Savannah, maybe it can work in Virginia, too!

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    I agree that the downtown, touristy parts of Savannah are dripping in Southern charm and the 18th century city plan looks good today, but consider the city beyond all those pretty squares with live oaks draped with Spanish moss.
    Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson notes that Savannah’s poverty rate is from 22 to 27 percent and some districts report a poverty rate of 40 percent. In 1999, Savannah’s homicide rate was six times that of New York City.
    Old South aside, these aren’t stats I’d want to brag about.

    Peter Galuszka

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    We built the current cul-de-sac style subdivision for a reason: more than one, actually.

    Frequently the cellular cul-de-sac subdivision provides more lots than the same area would with a grid system.

    Also, if you looked in the history, I’ll bet you would find that much of Savannah is built on fill, like Boston’s Back Bay. That is prohibited now, and if you look closely at many cul-de-sac subdivision, you will find that they are defined by natural features, such as streambeds, that would have been obliteratted or buried under a grid system.

    Otherwise Old Savannah is enjoyable. How much of the rest of it was built that way?


  3. Groveton Avatar


    I agree with your artistic / architectural view of Savannah. Howeever, its residents have a per capita income that is well below one half of the per capita income in Georgia overall. At least, that is what I think this says:

    Savannah is number 180 in Georgia.

    So, why doesn’t all this “urban jewel” stuff translate into more money for the residents?

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Peter and Groveton raise similar points: Historic Savannah maybe great, but it hasn’t cured poverty. I wouldn’t disagree. But, then, I never credited Ogilthorp’s urban design with the power to miraculously cure raise incomes and reduce crime across the entire metropolitan area!

    So, Peter, you are correct, I would not want to brag about Savannah’s high crime rate. But I would suggest that the crime rate is unrelated to the design of historic Savannah, so I’m not sure how it’s relevant to the issues I raised.

    Likewise, Groveton, I think it’s a stretch to link historic Savannah to the region’s high rate of poverty and low income. The first place I’d look for an explanation of low incomes is to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and perhaps to the unwillingness or inability of local governments to invest in education and otherwise adapt to the exigencies of the Knowledge Economy.

    You ask why the “urban jewel stuff doesn’t translate into more money for residents.” Come now. Be serious. Let’s assume that the district contains 1,000 or so residences and a population of maybe 2,000 or 3,000 people. Double of triple those numbers if you want. It’s a tiny percentage of an MSA with a population of 300,000. What impact could *any* district that size have an an entire MSA?

    Insofar as historic Savannah attracts tourists, however, it *has* contributed to local wealth creation. Insofar as the district has created a place with sufficient allure to attract educated and affluent outsiders who would not consider living there otherwise, I it *has* augmented the region’s human capital base.

    Finally, I would suggest, if Savannah ever does become a magnet for the creative class, it will be because of the existence of places like historic Savannah and institutions like the Savannah College of Art and Design, not the erection of characterless, steel-and-glass Nerdistans off the Interstate!

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, You raise a legitimate question that I lack the expertise to answer. But you may be correct in stating that it would be difficult to build a city around a grid system in today’s regulatory environment that protects steep slopes, wetlands and other environmentally sensitive habitat from development.

    Clearly, Ogilthorpian grids could be be applied everywhere. But there may be ways to design around the environmental obstacles you pose. I’m just to ignorant to know what they are. If they haven’t been invented yet, then maybe finding solutions represents a new frontier of creativity in urban design!

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Just trying to pop your balloon, Bacon!

    Savannah harbor’s become a major competitor of Hampton Roads. While I like downtown S’v’nah, I prefer the more open, watery setting of Charleston.

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    This comment comes from Richard Thornton who, for technical reasons, could not post it himself. –Editor.

    Excellent article on Savannah! Obviously, having been educated in architecture and city planning in Georgia, I was exposed to a great deal of academic analysis of this lovely city. Everything you wrote was very accurate and quite astute. From someone who still visits Savannah fairly often, the only thing I would have emphasized more was the importance of the giant Live Oak trees and understory of shrubbery to the overall quality of life in Savannah. If Oglethorpe had followed the European or Latin American town planning model of creating autocratic plazas among the housing blocks, it just would not have been the same place today. Especially during the summer months, the great Live Oaks make life bearable in Savannah.

    The exact same comment could be applied to any planning you do in Virginia. Appropriate vegetation and street scaping make the city livable.

    General Oglethorpe was not only a brilliant city planner, but also a highly enlightened leader. He wisely banned human slavery in Georgia, encouraged agricultural experimentation, and sincerely welcomed non-English ethnic migration such as by the Salzburgers, French Huguenots and Jews from throughout Europe. The nation’s second oldest synagogue is in Savannah. From the very beginning Savannah Jews enjoyed full citizenship and often held leadership positions.

    Oglethorpe was also extremely well liked by the Creek Indians. Most people don’t know that a thriving Creek village existed side by side with Savannah until the chaos American Revolution forced the Creeks to move inland to avoid chosing sides between friends. Oglethorpe’s guiding principal in relations with the Creeks was that the two peoples should mutally benefit from their friendship and military alliance. Intermarriage was encouraged to secure multi-generational bonds between the two peoples.

    I have personal ties to Savannah. My Caucasian ancestors were some the earliest settlers. I have at least 25 direct ancestors buried in the Old Colonial cemetary. My ggggg-grandfather, Archibald Bulloch, was the first president of the Council of Safety during the Revolution. My ancestral Creek town was upstream from Savannah on the Savannah River. They were converted to Christianity prior to the Revolution by John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church. My Uncle Earle was a spitting image of the famous Chief Tomochichi, who was such a staunch ally of Oglethorpe. I strongly suspect that Tomochichi was originally from our ethnic branch of the Creeks.

    Have a great day and keep up the good work. I love reading your online magazine.

  8. Groveton Avatar

    Slavery and Jim Crow laws?

    Didn’t those apply to everywhere in Georgia? Why did Atlanta prosper (at the MSA level) while Savannah did not?

    “…and perhaps to the unwillingness or inability of local governments to invest in education and otherwise adapt to the exigencies of the Knowledge Economy.”.

    I think you are getting warmer.

    Any chance that a hallmark of local governments which fail to invest in the future is a quaint adherence to the past?

    “Finally, I would suggest, if Savannah ever does become a magnet for the creative class, it will be because of the existence of places like historic Savannah and institutions like the Savannah College of Art and Design, not the erection of characterless, steel-and-glass Nerdistans off the Interstate!”.

    Great point. It could only be enhanced by being true. How long has Savannah had to attract the creative class? 400 years? And how many steel-and-glass Nerdistans off the interstate line Rt 101 in Silicon Valley? Thousands?

    There is something fundamentally wrong with this argument about the so-called Creative Class. They just don’t behave the way you and some others say they behave. Quaint ain’t enough.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    Hum, I wonder if the time in which this plan was developed saw two income arners with husban and wife professionals each having very diffrent jobs – jobs not provided within the “cells”/cubes?

    Homes with both parents having very different careers that require commuting because what one or more of the residents living within the “cells” have highly specialized jobs?

    -Reid Greenmun

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    Crime and poverty aside, you can find the rectangular grid system that you priase in Savannah very prevalent in the Midwest. This is the land use pattern (obviously of the same basic day as Savannah’s)that allows easy, traffic flow throughs, regular-sized lots and walkability. Luckily for most of the Midwest, the Northwest Ordinance promoted free religion and prive property and forbade slavery giving them a step up on places like Georgia and Virginia.

    The grid pattern is evident in cities from Chicago to Columbus, to Evansville, etc. I’m not a Midwesterner, but I have lived in Illinois and Ohio and note how such a pattern has prevailed as the most sensible. Parts of northeastern Ohio, once part of Connecticut, still look like New England.

    Interesting values show thorugh. The Midwest valued education more than the South where commerce, authority and power were worshipped. Thus, in the Midwest, the center of a small town is likely to be a library. In the South, it is almost always a symbol of authority such as a courthouse with a war memorial at the center of it — Confederate, Revolutionary, whatever.
    Don’t get me wrong, I do agree that Savannah’s a beautiful place although I prefer Charleston’s natural, more watery setting. But Savannah isn’t the only place where the land use patterns you describe thrive.

    Peter Galuszka

  11. Groveton Avatar

    The grid makes lots of sense. Given the alternatives, it’s hard to imagine using anything but a grid if you were designing a city today.

    The bigger idea seems to be the modular expansion of the city. When you need more space for more people, you add another “neighborhood module”. It is a pre-configured space that a city planner can use to expand the city in a methodical manner. The big question is how one controls the empty adjacent space necessary to “reserve” space for the next module. I guess a local government could zone land only for use in the “standard module”. I also wonder about the cost of goods sold in the mini-town square. Big box retailers have a well deserve reputation for driving down costs. I (roughly) understand the arguments against big box retailers (not paying for all costs, lowering wages). However, if there is a shop on the mini-town square where you can walk to shop and a big box retailer 10 miles away selling the same product cheaper – do people really shop at the town square? Or do they drive to the big box retailer?

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    In the Midwest, did the grid street systems devolve from the habit of dividing land by section and quarter section?


  13. charlie Avatar

    The grid system in the midwest was for dividing up townships — not for planning cities. Most midwestern cities took up Philadelphia (not Savannah) as a model — New York didn’t move to a grid system until much later.

    Grid system works very well for Alexandria as well. But EXTENDING the grid system is not so easy, which is why nobody does it. Also, I don’t see how you take an existing suburb and turn it into a grid if it wasn’t already there.

    A more useful discussion would be on how most cities are built out along communter rail / streetcar lines, and how easy it would be to move those cities back to that model.

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    “The grid makes lots of sense.”


    Why don’t you see it in Nature? Consider the Circulatory system as an analog for a city, where the heart gives way to arteries and so on down to the capillaries and the dendritic pattern is repeated in reverse on the venous side. Or a tree, which has a dendritic structure.

    Dendritic forms have fewer intersections and less interference, to cover a larger area. I think one reason we migrated to a dendritic form in the suburbs was because it was less expensive and used less, pavement.


  15. Groveton Avatar


    Have you ever looked into a fly’s eyes?

  16. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock


    The module system works well until the folks in the first 10 modules get up in arms about adding an 11th and begin to demand that the folks moving into the 11th pay all kinds of extra taxes for infrstructure that the folks in the first 10 did not and begin calling for bigger houses and larger lots (in the name of “protecting property values”) than what is in the first 10. Finally the businesspersons who want to develop the the 11th module say the heck with it and go — or “sprawl” 🙂 — out into an outlying rural area without so many NIMBY neighbors.

  17. Anonymous Avatar

    Not a good example. When you look in a fly’s eye aren’t you really looking at a cross section of what amounts to light capillaries?

    OK, so you got a lot of receptors.
    Those receptors are passive, in the sense they don’t have to relay information to each other, as one city block does to another. There is no communication from one “eye” to the next. Looking at the cross section of “eyes” you can’t see the activity, because you are looking at the end of a fiber optic cable, sort of.

    Anyway, how do you suppose the nerves behind the receptors are organized? Isn’t it probably some dendritic thing so that one coherent image or many individual ones can be processed?

    Is an ant colony a grid? Meerkats?
    Naked Mole Rats?


  18. Anonymous Avatar

    (in the name of “protecting property values”).

    Yep, it is a claim for new property rights, based on denying other rights.


  19. Anonymous Avatar

    I guess when I look at a grid, what I see is a plan to maximize the opportunites for collisions.


  20. Anonymous Avatar

    I’m no expert but I believe that the grid was as you describe. IN fact, I believe that non-other than Thomas Jefferson played a role in such divisions of land when he was president.
    All you history hawks out there jump in if I’m wrong.

    Peter Galuszka

  21. Anonymous Avatar

    My thinking was only that where you have large square divisions of land small square divisions would be a logical follow-on. That does not mean it makes sense in any fundamental way or that it is the best way of managing traffic. Unless, maybe, you have traffic that is equally likely to be going in any direction, as in a true downtown situation.

    Otherwise, if you have a situation where people are mostly converging and then diverging, a dendritic plan might be better.

    The real question is WHY they are converging and diverging, and is it really cost effective. Maybe, for business reasons, housing reasons, school reasons, safety reasons, health reasons, it is actually cost effecive to move 800,000 people twice a day, into and out of a small area. I find it hard to imagine, but it might be. Whatever all the reasons are, we might be able to achieve the same goals with a lot less travel.

    All we have to d is agee on the goals, and decide who pays for the changes.



  22. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    I post this comment, which arrived by email from Chris Bonney, of Virginia Beach, with his permission:

    I enjoyed your piece on Savannah. We were just down there a month ago scouting locations for our daughter’s wedding, which will be held there next spring. (Our only previous visit had been about 15 years ago in the course of, as in your case, our once and only official family trip to Disney World.)

    My daughter, a blogger ( and writer who lives in New York, was invited down to Savannah a year or so ago to speak at SCAD and fell in love with the town. Her friend Rob Walker, who writes the Consumed column for the New York Times Magazine, moved to Savannah last year and reports that there is a very interesting and growing creative class migration to Savannah. SCAD’s understandably at the center of a lot of this.

    The thing that struck me, though, on our recent visit, and which I think explains why Savannah’s thus far avoided becoming as tarted up as Charleston, is that the commercial downtown area of Savannah hasn’t changed much since the 60s. River Street is teeming with hotels. The convention center’s across the river. The port’s a bit downstream. I don’t even know where the big nuclear facility is, but it’s definitely not downtown. And Lear’s manufacturing facilities are out near the airport.

    My point is that aside from SCAD and the tourism industry, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of capital C commerce going on downtown. Aside from the hotels along River Street and the retail business spawned by SCAD, it doesn’t look like there’s been a new building of any size constructed since, say, the 1960s. The only difference I could notice between the time we were there in 1992 and this past May is that the commercial “downtown” had come back alive with boutiques and other generally small retailers. There were probably a bunch more bars than in 1992. But I didn’t see signs of any major corporate presence downtown.

    I suspect that Savannah will continue to get gussied up like Charleston, and that tourism and history will continue to be major factors. But for now I’m enjoying that Savannah still looks a little messy around the edges.

  23. Anonymous Avatar

    When I was in Charleston 2 years ago, it appeared to be on hard times: many vacant buildings and shops near downtown, and it got worse as you went uptown toward the train station.


  24. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    there are hundreds, if not thousands of grid-streeted towns and cities in the US.

    Many are in quite modest economic circumstances. A grid street settlement pattern does not beget economic prosperity.

    Part of the problem that we have is that many of us only see the US from the interstates or from 30K feet up.

    It would take days, perhaps weeks to force oneself to NOT get back on the interstate but instead to travel through these towns.

    and I know this sounds ODD, but this is how we do our vacations – 6-week affairs where we purposely set out to see non-Interstate America.

    Yes.. we use the interstates but then we get off – and we take the roads that connect many of these towns – that are not interstates.

    My point is.. that these hundreds/thousdands of towns were not the result of known-down, drag-out battles to stop SPRAWL.

    Most of these places came to be before we ever knew what the word SPRAWL, much less “dysfunctional settlement patterns” was part of the lexicon.

    And, here’s the thing.

    Many of these towns have plenty of room to expand as grid-streeted towns if they wished..

    But invariably, they do not.

    People build single family houses on subdivided tracts …often within sight of the towns.

    This is done all throughout Canada also.

    And companies like Walmart and major supermarkets invariably build close to these towns but not in a grid-streeted configuration.

    and just to give an example –

    here are the stores for Iowa:

    There are more than 40 – many in towns that most of us have never hear of – but I can assure you – that while they are not the economic powerhouse of NoVa, that they do have enough of an economy to warrant a Walmart.

    (and just an aside – NONE of them are boycotted).

    Virtually ALL of those towns are grid-streeted towns with the WalMart located on the outskirts.

    Now, what this tells me is that it is NOT …SPRAWL that is causing all these IOWA towns to not expand their towns to more grid-streets.

    In fact, I have a hard time thinking of many places where grid street development occurs – except for what I call faux – villages in some mixed-use venues.

    I know that I do not understand it all …. but I see contradictions that cannot be easily reconciled and those contradictions make it harder for me to buy a concept unless I can understand why the contradictions exist.

    I would think that if grid-streeted developed was desirable, logical, even lucrative that we’d not have this idea that it would be portrayed as the antidote to sprawl.

    so .. I ask questions… and point out seemingly contradictions hoping for more enlightenment..from discussion…

  25. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Larry, I would never suggest that grid streets are “the” antidote to sprawl. And I don’t believe they have some miraculous power to confer economic development, as others implied that I think.

    Grid streets are simply one strategem among many for improving mobility and access.

    There’s a lot of very careless thinking occurring in this thread. It goes like this: Inner cities and small Midwest towns have grid streets. Inner cities and small Midwest towns are economic laggards. Therefore, grid streets are responsible for them being economic laggards.

    Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy!

  26. Anonymous Avatar

    I wasn’t suggesting that, but as Larry said:

    “Many of these towns have plenty of room to expand as grid-streeted towns if they wished..

    But invariably, they do not.”

    Maybe there is a reason. Maybe Dendrites are not inherently “bad”.

    It’s easy to say that Grid streets are simply one strategem among many for improving mobility and access, but how do we KNOW?

    It would be a kick in the pants if we discovered that the reason they improve mobility and access is that they provide more streets or more street density. Or if we discovered they imrove mobility and access only under certain conditions.


  27. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    One of the things you’ll see in many of the smaller “off interstate” towns is larger type supermarkets – closed down – after a Walmart super center opened.

    My point – is that – long before Walmart came to town – and wanted it’s own non-grid “footprint” it was preceded by others.

    In fact, most downtowns were essentially abandoned commercially long before WalMart became a force.

    I think it should be instructive for all of us – to understand – why downtown stores in most US grid-street towns – left – to located in malls.

    The malls themselves are not creatures of sprawl – per se.

    Many places that created malls – that essentially gutted much of the commercial downtown – signaled a change – that I think had little to do with the forces behind sprawl.

    In fact, we now have many older malls actually being torn down and NOT replaced by grid streeted redevelopment – in part – because they would be kind of weird – in that to redevelop them in grid-streets would end up with them being “islands” of grid-street development rather than integrated with the existing grid streets.

    My point here .. per my usual.. is to point out the seeming contradictions – which I acknowledge may be due to my own ignorance… but certainly if this is my perspective.. it’s probably not isolated…

    If grid-streets are considered the optimal settlement pattern – then why do we not see proposals to …say break up the bigger parcels into grid-street re-development?

    … or perhaps we do.. and I’m not aware of it…

  28. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “Grid streets are simply one strategem among many for improving mobility and access.”

    okay… this exposes more of my ignorance.

    what would those other strategies be?

    Are they usually mentioned in the context of New Urbanism.

    My little brain.. thinks New Urbanism and sees multi-story buildings abutting grid streets.

  29. Anonymous Avatar

    “I think it should be instructive for all of us – to understand – why downtown stores in most US grid-street towns – left – to located in malls.”

    Not enough parking. Not enough variety.

    Unfortunately, the mass production supported by malls has ALSO resulted in less variety, but at least we have more of it.


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