Before the rise of air conditioning and cars, cities in the south were as urban and walkable as those in the north. For some reason those older southern cities stagnated in the 20th Century, and were passed over by more suburban counterparts, but they still have high quality cores.
I spent the first two days of 2013 in the twin capitals of historic southeast urbanity, Savannah, GA and Charleston, SC. Although they’re both small by 21st Century standards, they were urban behemoths of early America. In the year 1800 Charleston was the 5th largest city in the country, and Savannah the 21st. The equivalent metro areas as of 2010 are Philadelphia and Denver. That’s how important these cities were.
Today they’re odd places. They have walkable historic cores that seem like they should be the center of major metro areas, but outside their cores there are almost no suburbs, because neither had the sort of 20th Century boom that’s defined other southern cities
I found Savannah to be very much like a larger version of Alexandria. It’s a classic river city, with an industrial waterfront downtown, and a grid behind.
Savannah’s famous squares are the urbanist highlight of the city. They’re wonderfully scaled, big enough to offer a variety of public spaces and a reasonable escape, but small enough to be easily accessible from surrounding blocks.
The city is also filled with alley houses, from tiny shacks that must be very cheap, up to luxurious carriage houses. With its public spaces and alleys, it’s easy to see how Savannah was a big inspiration for the new urbanists.
Savannah is also home to a wireless electric streetcar, but unfortunately it’s oriented towards tourists and only runs a couple of days per week.
Charleston is just as urban and walkable as Savannah, but otherwise looks completely different. It’s a southern Boston or lower Manhattan, with narrow medieval streets twisting in every direction. And whereas Savannah’s downtown fronts on the city’s waterfront, downtown Charleston is in the interior of the city, blocks from the industrial shore.
Charleston is clearly a wealthier place, and seems to have a more active economy besides tourism.
While Charleston doesn’t have anything so grand as Savannah’s squares, it does have a great market house. Like a bigger and more flexible version of Eastern Market, Charleston’s market would make a fantastic addition to any city. The front section is more permanent and filled with shops oriented to tourists, but the more interesting back section is simply stalls, ready to be filled by any kind of temporary craft or food vendors available.
Both cities had a lot of cyclists, but not much cycling infrastructure, and both have seemingly unimpressive bus networks.