Will Charleston Get it Right?

Set against wharfs once lined with deep-water sailing vessels, historic Charleston has long been among North America’s most picturesque cities. It is a built environment of striking aesthetic coherence and refinement that boasts a blend of tropical vernacular American architectural forms and those of Georgian England, profusely green with elegant gardening. Though subject to intermittent hurricanes, an occasional earthquake, as well as the damage wrought by the Civil War and the economic decline that followed, Charleston somehow persevered—frayed and overgrown, handsome yet dilapidated. That was the case, at least, until the latter half of the twentieth century, when the city came under assault in the name of urban renewal. In the lexicon of modern urban planning, renewal has often been synonymous with fracturing and uglification, particularly in the wake of World War II, when cities across America were cleaved by broad multi-lane highways and massive urban housing projects that leveled whole historic neighborhoods. Projects that fed racial schisms and shattered the character of traditional townscapes with unsightly out-of-scale structures. As did the onslaught of oversized office buildings of ubiquitous architectural banality, while suburban highway shopping strips drained the vitality of downtown commercial areas.

Yet in Charleston, a highway didn’t quite cross its center, housing projects were smaller, and areas fractured by modern buildings were relatively contained. In comparison to so much of urban America, the continuity of Charleston’s singular milieu seemed less damaged. Somehow, the city refused to surrender its Antebellum soul, escaping the vortex of urban decay that plagued so many cities by embracing environmental historic conservation long before other places recognized the need. Today, Charleston is on the forefront of a positive urban planning consciousness that is spreading across the United States—an authentic process of renewal that is regenerating its civic wholeness and offering a model of how we might build and govern cities well into the future

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