Charleston Historic District

Completed Project
World Monuments Watch
Charleston, South Carolina, United States

2012 World Monuments Watch

Charleston was founded in 1670 by English colonists, and ten years later it was relocated to its current location at the intersection of the Ashley and Cooper rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. Residential, commercial, administrative, and ecclesiastical buildings dot the historic city in an array of styles including Georgian, Regency, Federal, Gothic Revival, neoclassical and Italianate. Charleston has evolved over the centuries, but its center retains the distinct character of a city formed in an earlier time. As the first city in the country to enact a local historic district ordinance—in 1931—Charleston was an early pioneer of urban preservation in the United States.

Charleston’s Historic District lies on a peninsula in Charleston Harbor, which now accommodates cruise ships of a substantial size. As the number of tourists grows, the waves made by the boats increasingly impact the city’s urban and social fabric. These concerns in Charleston echo challenges faced in many historic port cities with cruise ship tourism. Tourists bring economic benefits, but they also create increased traffic that requires careful planning to ensure that the historic urban center is protected. Balancing quality of life needs, new economic opportunities, and the preservation of heritage in the city is a constant and complex dialogue. The rapid, unregulated growth in cruise ship arrivals at Charleston compels the development of a sustainable plan that will allow both tourism and an authentic built heritage to thrive. Such a plan could serve as a model for many other historic port cities and towns worldwide that confront similar issues. Charleston’s Historic District was included on the 2012 World Monuments Watch to highlight concerns over increased cruise tourism and its effects on heritage management.

An international symposium puts a spotlight on the risks presented by cruise ships

Following the Watch, several studies on the subject of cruise tourism were carried out in 2012, including a report commissioned by the Historic Charleston Foundation, research on the health risks associated with cruise ships, and a review of laws related to the large vessels. In September 2012, Watch Day was celebrated in Charleston with a harbor walk that highlighted the waterfront’s maritime history sites. In February 2013 we partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Preservation Society of Charleston to host a Charleston-based international symposium on cruise tourism in historic port communities. The symposium addressed the challenges of developing policies that attract visitors, benefit local communities, and ensure an effective balance of economic, environmental, social, and heritage concerns. A publication with material from the proceedings was published shortly after the event.

Further positive news for Charleston came in September 2013, when a federal judge tossed out a permit that had previously allowed the construction of a new cruise terminal in the city’s harbor. Several months later, the organization Charleston Communities for Cruise Control forged promising new connections by creating an international coalition with Venice’s No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships) and the Key West Committee for Responsible Tourism. However, the cultural heritage of the city is still threatened by cruise ships and other dangers. In May 2014 the Union of Concerned Scientists predicted increased flooding in Charleston as a result of global warming and named the city a “National Landmark at Risk.” Two years later the Sunshine, a new cruise ship, made Charleston its home port and docked in the harbor for the first time.

Charleston’s protection is of national importance, not only because of its diverse architectural heritage but also because of its critical role in the development of historic preservation policy in the United States. The effects of cruise ship tourism evident in the city are felt at historic ports around the world, and our symposium and publication can help inform these communities how the cruise industry can be better balanced with heritage management.

Last updated: February 2017.

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