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Among our clients are two cities that frame a discussion of where sustainability flourishes and where it struggles to take hold. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve embellished the differences between these two cultures: Savannah, Georgia and Augusta, Georgia.

…one tends to be complacent while the other has a fire in its belly, out to prove itself all the time. And that difference is a critical difference, relevant to businesses as well as communities.

A colleague of ours who works with us on economic development issues uses this politically-incorrect analogy to describe the two places. Savannah, he argues, is like the beautiful girl in high school who is so attractive that she never feels she has to work hard to attract attention. Augusta, meanwhile, is the more plain-Jane type who by contrast has to work it all the time. It’s a colorful analogy for sure. I prefer to say that one tends to be complacent while the other has a fire in its belly, out to prove itself all the time. And that difference is a critical difference, relevant to businesses as well as communities. It speaks to the degree a culture is open to change and continuous improvement—one of the critical conditions for sustainability to take hold (for more on this, see my blog The Four Necessary Conditions).

Savannah, in part because of its strong emphasis on historic preservation, has never suffered from the mass suburban migration that left many cities in America blighted and neglected. As a result, it has succeeded in layering its earlier manufacturing and port-based economy with a booming tourist trade. Also owing to its historic fabric, a major college of the arts (SCAD) decided to locate here decades ago, bringing in a boatload of cultural creatives (almost 10,000 at last count). It’s a cool place to hang out.

Augusta, on the other hand, was less mindful of its urban core. And, with the natural beauty in outlying areas, the city witnessed a mass exodus from the 1970s on that left its urban core bereft. It’s an exodus the city is only now beginning to turn around. But my bet is on Augusta.

Savannah’s very success with manufacturing, port-business, and tourism means that its economic engine is coming from relatively low-paying jobs. Its beautiful historic downtown and Victorian districts are priced well beyond the reach of most residents and so are being “ghost-populated” by second-home owners from out of state. The huge presence of creative capital provided by SCAD is not being leveraged, and, each year, graduating seniors seek jobs elsewhere in the country despite wanting to remain in town.

And, despite the fact that Savannah is chock-full of world-class professional talent—designers, knowledge-based businesses, environmental scientists, etc. – most are exporting their talents to clients in other places. Why? Because in large part, despite the potential to evolve into a world-class city, a city that has all the elements to be a model of sustainability for the 21st-century, city leadership has taken the stance that “if it ain’t broke, why fix it.” In the process, opportunities to weave affordable housing, economic development focused on future market conditions, multi-modal access to basic goods and services, and the like are being squandered.

Not so with Augusta. It has devoted years to master plans that integrate the various districts comprising the city’s urban core into a holistic live/work/play vision for the future. It has created long-term bond financing devoted to repopulating its center with affordable, green housing—a program that recently garnered a national planning excellence award from APA and HUD. It is working on a multi-modal corridor connecting the outlying southern part of the city to its center. It has numerous public-private partnerships in play, one of which is a fascinating collaboration between Georgia Regents University and the City to revitalize two grand old mills (King and Sibley) into a work/live campus with an expansive job development play focused on hydroelectric and solar power.

In short, Augusta is hungry to embrace the 21st-century, while Savannah is happy to glorify its past. Granted, each place is far more complex than I’ve described here. But the distinctions should give us all pause about how to plan for the future health and vibrancy of place.