Historic Savannah's Cultural Landscape

By Special Contributor posted 05-16-2014 16:18

This is part of a series exploring the Field Studies at 2014 PastForward, Savannah, Ga., Nov. 11-14. We’ll look at the organizations behind the Field Studies, as well as the Field Study itself and what participants should expect. Registration for PastForward and the Field Studies will open July 1. For more information on PastForward and other Field Studies, visit www.pastforwardconference.og

By Heather Gordon

We can all appreciate a walk in nature or the shade of a tree under which we picnic. But we can also enjoy the benefits of trees beyond just in rural areas. Trees transform cities, streets, and neighborhoods. With their extensive benefits, trees advantageously serve any community. Trees are an especially valuable resource in Savannah, where the city’s urban forest plays a key role in this community’s cultural landscape.

In 1733, pine groves, majestic live oaks, and the wattle-and-daub homes of Native Americans stood along the Savannah River. Amid this land, James Oglethorpe chose to settle the colony of Georgia. Oglethorpe arrived in Savannah with a plan to establish a community well protected in its defenses and well serving for its residents. Besides public services, transportation, and defense, Oglethorpe also planned for public spaces, trees, and nature. Today, much of his original plan, noted for it parks and green spaces, is still very much evident.

Savannah has experienced downturns and revitalization cyclically over the past 300 years. In the mid-20th century when Savannah began to restore and protect its historic structures, commemorate its history with house museums, and share the stories of this distinguished city’s role in our nation’s history, its cultural landscape also grew in significance. It was not enough to just keep old buildings from being demolished. The city had to provide for the complete environment, making streetscape and landscape architecturally and period appropriate. As society’s needs evolved, so did the role of public space. The squares that are so distinctive in Savannah, originally fulfilled public services, such as providing the community well or grazing space for livestock, now serve as well-preserved green space.

Today, the trees and landscaping are an essential part of Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District. Along the river front, visitors can walk among historic mercantile buildings that have been rehabilitated to serve as thriving local businesses, watch ships entering the ports, and appreciate the local history while relaxing under the shade of a park tree.

Savannah Tree Foundation

It wasn’t always that way, however. Thirty years ago, three concerned women realized that without action, Savannah’s tree canopy might be lost to development. These women rallied the community to understand the importance of the urban forest and to establish protections such as protective ordinances and conservation easements for trees as natural and historic resources. They founded the Savannah Tree Foundation which has continued to be instrumental in preserving, protecting, and planting trees throughout Savannah and the surrounding county. The foundation also maintains the historic Candler Oak located in downtown Savannah which is the only tree in the country to have its own conservation easement.

Protecting Savannah’s Trees

Protection of Savannah’s trees is an ongoing effort. Planning for the future of the urban forest is an essential preservation and development responsibility. Savannah is home to many 400-year-old live oaks, and as the urban forest grows, it must continue to live in harmony with the surrounding environment whether historic or modern. Many of the trees in Savannah are mature canopy trees, and as they age, more and more will be lost to natural causes. With new buildings, enhanced public services, and increased traffic, trees are losing their growing space. Without proper protections for buildings and for trees, the face of downtown Savannah could change drastically.

As with all preservation, action taken today must be mindful of reality in one hundred years. Savannah’s cultural landscape tells a myriad of stories that can enhance our understanding of society. For this legacy to continue we must preserve and understand trees and the environment as historic resources.

Learn More at “Savannah’s Urban Forest” Field Study

Participants at PastForward, the 2014 National Preservation Conference, have the opportunity to learn more about historic Savannah’s urban canopy at the Field Study - Savannah’s Urban Forest: Cultural Landscape and Revitalization. This walking tour will explore the National Historic Landmark District with an eye to how buildings and landscape interact. Tour leaders will discuss how Savannah’s landscape was affected by and promoted downtown revitalization efforts. They will explain the history of Savannah’s trees beginning with Oglethorpe’s design in 1733, how that design affects the historic landscape and preservation efforts today, and how the city manages these features to provide for the future.

Participants interested in historical landscape and landscape planning will find this tour especially interesting They will learn more about the importance of preserving space for landscape now as an essential element for planning for the future.

Heather Gordon values Savannah’s cultural landscape as the place she calls home and where she serves as a nonprofit consultant and public historian. She is working with the Savannah Tree Foundation to host the Savannah’s Urban Forest field study at the 2014 National Preservation Conference.

PastForward Field Studies take attendees into the community to visit preservation success stories, confront on-the-ground challenges, and explore the region’s unique historic legacy while interacting with local residents and business owners.

For more information on 2014 PastForward, the National Preservation Conference, including details on programming, registration and other Field Studies, visit

The 2014 National Preservation Conference, PastForward, is brought to you by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in collaboration with SCAD: The Savannah College of Art and Design and in partnership with the Historic Savannah Foundation.

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