It’s easy to see there’s something remarkably different about the urban landscape in this charming southern town.
Oglethorpe’s Big Idea and the History of Savannah, Georgia
If you ask any visitor, “What’s so special about Savannah?,” you’ll likely hear one thing over and over again: the squares! Within minutes of exploring Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District, it’s easy to see there’s something remarkably different about the urban landscape in this charming southern town. Every few blocks, locals and visitors alike stumble upon beautifully landscaped green spaces, complete with monuments honoring Georgia’s early history, benches tucked behind blooming azalea bushes and the shade of towering live oaks. It often leaves me wondering: why can’t every city’s downtown be this exceptional?
As with many historical cities, it starts at the beginning.
Every few blocks, you stumble upon beautifully landscaped green spaces, complete with monuments honoring Georgia’s early history.
You can’t talk about the Savannah, Georgia’s history without talking about General James Edward Oglethorpe. Back in 1733, General Oglethorpe sailed up the Savannah River looking for a suitable spot for a rag-tag group of settlers waiting back in Charleston. He covered about 15 miles before landing at Yamacraw Bluff, a steep cliff rising from Savannah’s present-day River Street. This new land would soon become the 13th American Colony and later give birth to one of the most beautiful, walkable, and pleasant urban fabrics in the world.
The Oglethorpe Plan
Much like the manicured garden seen from this aerial photo, the city of Savannah looks like a quilt of repeating squares, technically called wards. It was all part of the plan… ©Savannah Aerials
From above, the city of Savannah looks like a quilt of repeating squares, or as they are technically called, wards. Each ward is spaced a few blocks apart and shaped like a grid, anchored by a green space. Hence, the square is the green space in the center, while the entire block of surrounding properties makes up the ward. The central open square originally served as an assembly area for the ward’s inhabitants. The four properties immediately east and west of the green space, two on each side were known as trust lots and reserved for civic and commercial uses.
Many of these properties remain, serving as churches, theaters, courthouses, and museums. When you look for Savannah trip ideas, these historic properties will be on your list. The Chatham County Courthouse, Christ Church Episcopal, and Savannah Theater remain true to this design. However, many of these lots broke from the original design over time as wealthy families constructed large houses on the land.
The remaining ward land north and south of the square was sectioned into four tything blocks. Each block consisted of ten lots (hence “tything”) for residential purposes. They replicated this pattern many times, every few blocks, emanating from Johnson Square, the first and largest square of Savannah.
In the early days, these wards provided a sense of identity throughout the city. Since then, the squares have grown from open patches of dirt to beautifully manicured green spaces by the City of Savannah, seamlessly guiding you from one historic building to the next.
As a Savannah local, living within such a remarkably approachable and beautiful area is truly a blessing. I often walk my dog to the nearest square, where I see friendly faces, hear the sounds of local musicians, or smell coffee wafting from a local roastery. Savannah’s squares are as beautiful to look at as they are to simply be in. Sitting and watching the world go by is a treat of the Historic Landmark District. So few cities exemplify such a pedestrian-friendly, human experience within a bustling downtown district.
What is the Best Neighborhood Square in Savannah?
Savannah has done an excellent, albeit not perfect, job of preserving Oglethorpe’s incredible city design. ©Savannah Aerials
Over the years, each square has taken on a personality of its own. Within Chippewa square stands a nine-foot bronze statue of Oglethorpe, resembling a Captain Morgan-like figure. At the north end of the same square sat the bench where Forrest Gump spent hours recounting this life story. Ironically, the squares are rarely named for the statues within them. Oglethorpe has his own named square, but it sits a few blocks northeast of his statue in Chippewa.
During the annual St. Patty’s Day parade, there is no place better than Oglethorpe Square to experience all the festivities. Pulaski Square is my favorite place to set out a blanket and read a book, as it’s often away from tourist foot traffic. Within Troup Square, one finds an impressive greek-inspired Armillary Sphere used by ancient astronomers to show the equinoxes and solstices.
Despite the charm of these squares, I’ve learned there are plenty of oddities as well. When the weather is good, the locally famous leashed tortoise, Robert, can be seen walking through Lafayette Square, just outside the famous Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Crawford Square has a basketball court where people shoot hoops well into the evening.
Savannah’s Ellis Square, nearest the City Market, is one of the busiest all year long. Today, kids play in the water features during hot Georgia summer days, and a statue of Savannahian songwriter Johnny Mercer adorns the west end. However, this wasn’t always the case. After the expiration of a 50-year land lease, the site’s existing parking garage was demolished in the early 2000s, later giving way to the redevelopment and restoration of Ellis Square in 2010. In a move heralded by historic preservationists and urbanists everywhere, Savannah demonstrated it is possible to return their city to its beautiful past.
The Forgotten Squares
Forsyth Park may be the most photographed and iconic, but each square has its own charm and oddities.
I really love these two forgotten squares because it demonstrates to visitors and locals alike what could have happened to all of Savannah’s beauty. Without the acts of city leaders and preservationists along the way, Savannah wouldn’t have the incredible beauty and urban fabric it does today. It would be another American city whose design is lost to history. Elbert and Liberty Square remind us of the lessons history can teach.
Since the birth of the automobile, urban centers across the United States have widened roads, ripped up cobblestones, and developed freeways through some of America’s most beautiful and historic neighborhoods. Savannah, on the other hand, has done an excellent, albeit not perfect, job of preserving the incredible city design originally implemented by General James Edward Oglethorpe and his fellow English settlers.
What’s Savannah Like?
Within steps from any downtown restaurant or hotel are dozens of unique and inviting squares.
As you stroll through this remarkable square mile of American history, it’s easy to fall in love with Savannah’s historic district. Within steps from any downtown restaurant or hotel are dozens of unique and inviting squares simply waiting for you to sit, enjoy, and watch the world go by. In my opinion, no city in the world holds a candle to such a unique and effective urban design.
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