Last month marked the birth of Gen. James Oglethorpe (Dec. 22, 1696 – June 30, 1785), a British general, member of Parliament, philanthropist, and founder of the original colony of Georgia.
Among Oglethorpe’s accomplishments was the founding of the city of Savannah, GA. in 1733, and the development of what has become known as “The Oglethorpe Plan.”
Oglethorpe’s plan for settlement of the new colony of Georgia had been in the works since 1730, three years before the founding of Savannah. The plan sought to achieve several goals through interrelated policy and design elements. These included the spacing and layout of towns and eventually their surrounding counties, equitable allocation of land, and growth limits to preserve a sustainable agrarian economy.
The Savannah city plan is distinguished from those of previous colonial towns by the repeated pattern of connected neighborhoods, open-space squares, streets, and designed expansion into lands held by the city. The genesis of many of the Oglethorpe Plan’s design details can be found in Roman colonial town planning and Renaissance concepts of the ideal city. The original plan resembled the layout of contemporary military camps, which were familiar to Oglethorpe, and sought to mitigate the congested conditions that fueled the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Savannah was laid out in 1733 around open squares, each surrounded by four residential tything blocks and four civic trust blocks. The layout of a square and eight surrounding blocks was known as a ward. The ward, approximately 600 feet by 600 feet, is the basic plan unit of the Oglethorpe Plan with the square, approximately 200 feet by 200 feet, centered at each ward. Street and building lots are organized around the central square. A tything consisting of ten house lots, with each lot measuring 60 feet by 90 feet, occupied each of the four corners of a ward.
Each tything was assigned a square mile tract outside of town for farming and each family farmed a 45-acre plot within that tract. Families were also assigned 5-acre kitchen gardens near town. On the east and west flank of the square were four larger trustee lots, reserved for public structures such as churches, banks or government buildings. The streets bounding the wards allow uninterrupted movement of through traffic, while the internal streets are interrupted by the squares to create a pedestrian scale.
Savannah’s plan reflects political and organizational considerations of the day. Each ward had tything men, who shared guard and other duties. The repetitive, non-hierarchal placement of wards, squares, and equal-sized lots points to the utopian ideals of the colony. The city plan also proved to be very adaptable and allowed the city to grow and develop. Oglethorpe originally laid out six wards. By 1851 there were 24 squares in the city, following the pattern established by the original 1733 plan.
As a synthesis of planning ideals that respond to social, military, environmental, and philosophical needs, Savannah stands out among American colonial town plans. The model produced a city internationally known for the beauty of its neighborhood square. Savannah is the oldest city plan in the United States to use a repetitive modular grid with mixed residential blocks and multi-purpose public areas, a concept that is emulated by urban planners today.
The city plan of Savannah was recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1977.