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Renowned urban planner to lecture on John Nolen, designer of Daffin Park
John Nolen at work

THOUGH IT OFTEN plays second fiddle to Forsyth Park, its older sister to the north, Daffin Park boasts its own venerable pedigree.

The first notable achievement in the career of famed urban planner John Nolen, known as one of the pioneers of landscape architecture, Daffin Park was built in 1907 and signalled the coming southward boom of Savannah expansion.

Named for P.D. Daffin, Park and Tree Commission chairman at the time, the park is not only the city’s most-used athletic venue, but an intrinsic part of everyday life for midtown residents. Once the site of the grandstand for the world-famous Great Savannah Races, Daffin Park also hosted a president, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.

Nolen himself, a Philadelphia native who practiced mostly in Boston, is comparatively little known by the Savannahians who enjoy Daffin Park. But his works — in cities such as Charlotte, San Diego, Venice, Fla. and Madison, Wisc. — are known and revered by urban designers the world over.

One admirer of Nolen is coming to Savannah this Thursday to give a free lecture at 6:30 p.m. at the Bull Street branch of the Live Oak Public Library. Tom Low, director of town planning for Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, will speak on “Civic by Design: Learning Lessons from Pioneer Planner John Nolen.”

The Miami-based architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk has designed over 300 communities around the world. Low, who works in the Charlotte office, has extensive experience working and designing in the southeast U.S. We spoke to him last week.

Everyone knows and loves Oglethorpe’s original town plan centered on the squares. But what else do planners find to admire about Savannah?

Tom Low: I’m filled with admiration whenever I visit any of those incredibly historic cities, like Charleston, Savannah, or New Orleans. We’ve been working on Gulf Coast post-Katrina redevelopment work, managing design and redevelopment of the French Quarter. Coming from a New South boom city, like I do, I come to a place like New Orleans and walk around in awe, because there’s so much to it, so much fabric. It really makes you come alive in terms of appreciation.

Most design debates here tend to center on small things, such as whether to grant variances for neon signs in the historic district, things like that.

Tom Low: I know when you get down to a day-to-day basis there are all these things to worry about at the local level. You’ve always got some constituency chipping away at the wonderfulness. That’s why you always need stewards standing guard. It’s a wonderful civic duty to take on this role, and it’s so important.

I remember a few years ago something was going on in Charleston and someone started a “Committee to Save Charleston.” They were wonderful people, but I had to sort of laugh and say, “Well, it looks pretty fabulous to me!” But those minor things, those special details, really make a difference.

With the communities your firm helps design, how involved do you get with these nitty-gritty items?

Tom Low: Sometimes we take on the role of “town architect” and actually act as a board of review. But I would say one of the keys to our success is in really sharpening our pencils. Some people think planners put big asterisks on their plans, saying “And this is where the town center goes.”

Right now I’m spending the day working on a beautiful new retreat village, a lakefront village outside of Nashville, with a plan inspired by some of the quirky details of Isle of Hope. What we’ve taken notice of here are some wonderful church assemblies that are held, usually up in mountains. There’s one really great one between Nashville and Chattanooga called Monteagle. We really look at details like that when we’re designing for a community.

In the real world it’s all about give and take, and you have to make decisions. Another thing I’ve noticed is you have SCAD there, so there’s a lot of creative talent that may come up with something so cool you grant an exception.

In fact, when we write guidelines and design ordinances, we sometimes specifically write that a variance may be granted based on design merit. In other words, if there’s something so great that everyone wants it, by all means.

Savannah is currently rebuilding one of its original squares, Ellis Square, which was paved over for a parking garage in the ‘50s. Some local landscape architects think the new design, with an oval pond and meandering walkways, is straying too far from the traditional layout of squares here.

Tom Low: Well, you can’t go wrong with emulating that formula clearly – that’s the default. There may be a rationale for doing something different. For example, in some cases people bring in a really hotshot designer, who becomes basically an artiste, and their project becomes a signature piece. For example you might bring in Martha Schwartz, a landscape design guru like that. She did some work in Miami Beach, really hip stuff. So sometimes they pull it off. But I would caution against something if it’s different just to be different.

We have such a signature project here with the Jepson Center, designed by Moshe Safdie.

Tom Low: Oh, yeah, Safdie’s a “starchitect.” And that’s great, if you get the right “starchitect.” That way you know there’s a high probability that what they do is going to be exciting and energizing.

When we regulate urbanism, we’re simple but rigorous about coding the private realm so that it behaves when it comes to the public realm. How a building behaves to the street and square is exceptionally important, compared to say, the back door. When it comes to public spaces we don’t regulate, though. Civic spaces should be more expressive of the society they represent. What are the values of the society? That’s the big question.

Many traditionally urban residents in Savannah are being priced out of downtown and moving to the suburbs, which traditionally was occupied by a different demographic. It seems to be causing some unrest.

Tom Low: One of the principles of “New Urbanism” has to do with creating mixed use and mixed income authentic communities. The largest segment, frankly, that we’re hoping to affect is the middle class, because that’s traditionally America’s backbone.

You can’t have real societies unless you have less expensive and more expensive areas, and more and less affluent people. The more you can do to have that full range of housing choices and mixed use, the better and more functional neighborhoods will be. And the more fine-grained the better.

For example, in your historic district, in addition to the trust lots you have row houses. Those are interesting buildings, because they’re very flexible. Apartments can be available within that space.

The important thing is you can’t have a monoculture. If you have an entire subdivision with single pricepoint houses, it’s not a real neighborhood. Those places are in their own ways slums. Isolating people by income is a type of segregation that we really don’t need.

There’s still the issue of specifically low-income housing and how to guarantee it.

Tom Low: In some ways, that’s actually easy. On the Gulf Coast we’ve come up with an innovative idea we call the Katrina Cottage, which offers an alternative to FEMA trailers.

In our planning charrette work we found out that FEMA trailers cost $70-110,000 apiece. So we came up with a small seed house design that’s the same square footage as a FEMA trailer, but with tall ceilings, lots of windows, front porches, overhangs. A dignified structure, one that can be built for $35-40,000.

It became such a hit that Lowe’s came up with a “Katrina kit.” That’s a really innovative way of providing affordable housing. You can add on over time. As you make more money you can add a master bedroom.

Sometimes the flip side of this is how do you get the very wealthy to move back into mixed income neighborhoods? Those are the patrons that make things happen. They’re usually the ones that become advocates for neighbors, because the truth is that without them middle class and low income folks are sunk. They won’t have the same clout or representation.

One thing that Savannah’s maybe not so familiar with is what often happens in cities like Charlotte, Atlanta or Jacksonville, and that’s the whole idea of starter housing. You’ll get these realtors who say, “This is a great neighborhood for you to start your lives, but when you make it you can move into a gated enclave” (laughs).

Gallup surveys tell us that up to a third of the population is interested in living in a walkable, mixed-use small town. But 99.95 percent of the development industry is only developing conventional suburban sprawl. They’re missing a third of the market!

Our point is there’s plenty of suburbia already out there for folks. What’s missing is building new versions of what people love about places like Savannah. As places like Savannah grow, why not embrace the concept of traditional neighborhoods as opposed to suburban sprawl?

How will you approach your lecture here?

Tom Low: I’ll be framing it in terms of one of my heroes, the early 20th century planner John Nolen. He was probably the most famous planner of his era. He went around sort of promoting civil ideals, and designing in ways that best provided those.

We’re always trying to use the tried and tested principles that folks like Nolen were proponents of. When he came and worked on Daffin Park, he left his imprint on the ideals of the people living and working there. That’s a version of the green movement today.

We’re sort of taking the best of that era. These are valuable lessons that can be and actually are being applied today. It’s been difficult to do, because these were things that the industry considered avant-garde. But we sort of hit a tipping point about 5 or 6 years ago when more people began thinking this was a viable way to look at the world. It’s nice to see that.

Tom Low speaks this Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Bull Street branch of Live Oak Public Library.