Last Tuesday afternoon I took a bus tour of three of Savannah's historic neighborhoods, courtesy of the City of Savannah.
Billed as a "walking audit" given by Dan Burden, (a "walkable communities" consultant) 17 people boarded a Leisure Services bus just south of DeRenne Avenue and for the next two hours, drove through Paradise Park, Windsor Forest and Kensington Park, with stops in each area.
For many in Savannah, the idea that these mid-20th century suburbs might be historic is a preposterous suggestion. Yet, as we cruised along, I saw dozens of mid century modern single family homes, perhaps over a hundred or more, in each neighborhood. For historic preservationists, a 50-year-old home or district can be considered eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, although it must also either have architectural significance or local or national historic importance. There's a strong argument that all three districts and many of the homes in them meet the required architectural/urban design standard.
The three subdivisions were built as the suburbs, separate from the city. Now they are "three of the most popular neighborhoods, built and annexed at the same times," said Alan Boulton, head of the Paradise Park neighborhood group. "The city hasn't had to build anything here, only maintain what was built in the 1950's" by the developers.
These three areas are among the best-preserved local examples of mid-century auto-oriented suburban development-built as the mid-century American Dream for Savannah's lower-middle to upper-middle class families. They owned one car per household, sometimes two. You can tell by the sizes of the driveways and the widths of the carports.
So what does all this have to do with walkability? Not much. To mangle a line from Nancy Sinatra, "these streets weren't made for walking."
None of the three neighborhoods was built with sidewalks, and all have long stretches of winding roads, drives, and parkways (according to the names on the street signs, rarely was anything called a street.) There are very few intersections, and almost no "blocks" compared to midtown or downtown Savannah.
When these three subdivisions were built, each was a remote destination-Home Sweet Suburban Home, after a day at work or school. Think Dick Van Dyke coming home to Laura and tripping into the sunken living room of his mid-century house. Nearly 50 years after their construction, two of these former suburbs are now considered midtown Savannah, and all are surrounded by destinations that draw people from across the region-Oglethorpe Mall, the hospital district, and Armstrong Atlantic State University. All of these regional centers were built after the development of their nearby neighborhoods.
The Tuesday bus tour, despite being billed as a "walkability audit," was really about traffic calming tools to put neighborhoods on "road diets"-engineering tools to slow down and redirect vehicle traffic. Neighborhood leaders on the tour mentioned high traffic volumes from cut-through traffic in Paradise Park and Kensington Park, speeding on Windsor Road and Althea Parkway.
Burden's most often recommended traffic calming tool was the roundabout, or traffic circle. "Can everyone join me in the middle of the street?" he asked at our first tour stop in Paradise Park. Tour participants hesitantly formed a human roundabout in the intersection, and then observed while two or three drivers drove around the group at slow rates of speed. Who knows if they would have avoided running over us had they known we were mostly media representatives and government employees.
Rarely on the tour did the neighbors' concerns seem to be about the inability to walk in the neighborhood, although it was sometimes mentioned as a seeming afterthought. And according to Pam Miller of Kensington Park, homeowners surveyed on one neighborhood street were 80% opposed to having sidewalks installed.
Besides, as a fellow tour participant pointed out, there aren't too many places to walk to in any of these areas, probably another remnant of their origins as remote, Utopian residential enclaves. Even the schools in the neighborhood, no doubt once walked to by 1960's era neighborhood children, now mostly draw from other parts of the city and are some of the biggest traffic problems cited by residents.
It would be nice for today's neighborhood kids to be able to walk or bicycle to their friends' houses in safety. But it appears that the idyllic, historic auto-oriented neighborhood designs of last century have come back to haunt the current residents of these subdivisions. What was convenient for those remote, single-car-per-home families to drive around their neighborhoods is just as convenient now for everyone else.
Mangled it may be, but the Nancy Sinatra song prediction seems to be coming true: "One of these days these streets are gonna walk all over you."