When a street is designed to maximize the speed of motor vehicles, the results are as predictable as they are ugly. Yet we may not comprehend how desolate the built environment becomes when it is given over exclusively to cars. Cars and trucks become a distraction, drawing our attention away from the ways that they degrade the spaces, public and private, at the edge of the roadway. But when we strip away the cars, we can see how much damage they have done.
The photos above were taken on a rainy Sunday morning in January 2008. I took my camera to Savannah’s DeRenne Avenue to see what it looked like, without the cars. In the public imagination, DeRenne is perpetually clogged with traffic. But, as these photos show, there are times when the street’s six (and sometimes seven) lanes are entirely vacant.
It’s difficult to imagine a streetscape more forlorn. The awfulness of DeRenne Avenue is amplified by the fact that it is a “gateway” to the city and its proximity to residential neighborhoods. In it’s current state, it’s understandable that motorists would want to speed through it as quickly as possible. Of course, the quest to shorten commutes to the western suburbs is the very thing that produced the current sorry state of affairs.
But we, as a community, can and should do better. We could have a street that is safe for all users — including pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders and motorists — instead of one that endangers them. We could have an attractive boulevard lined with prosperous businesses, instead of a street that’s blighted by vacant and poorly maintained commercial structures. We could have a civic amenity of which we can be proud, instead of a dreary urban limbo that people try to escape as soon as possible. We could have a DeRenne that unites Savannah instead of one that divides it in two.
A vision of what DeRenne could be will be on display at a week-long design charrette from Nov. 2-6 at a former NAPA auto parts store at 131 W. DeRenne Ave. More information is available on the Project DeRenne Web site.