Can This City Be Greened? Charleston, South Carolina

Can a derelict community be transformed into a sustainable utopia? A visionary development company believes it can.

| January/February 2005

  • These rusty rails are one portion of a rails-to-trails strategy within Noisette, which will include lanes for running, walking, and riding bikes and will be illuminated for safety and beauty at night.
  • The Noisette development plan proposes to use ecologically sensitive native and ornamental landscaping in open, vegetated swales for stormwater conveyance.

  • North Charleston, which was cut off from the Cooper River because of industrial and military development, now has the opportunity to reconnect via Riverfront Park—a venue for picnics, boating, and fishing.
  • The City Center district, which includes taller, mixed-use buildings for restaurants and shops, will be served by mass transit. Here, buildings will recycle water and waste materials and meet stringent performance standards.
    Illustrations courtesy Burt Hill Kosar Rittlemann Associates
  • An abandoned rail line in the proposed Noisette Preserve offers a potential connection to the new trail system.

Charleston, South Carolina, is a colonial city steeped in tradition. Its narrow, winding cobblestone streets have been well worn by centuries of traffic; nearly every building in the historic district boasts a ghost or two. Charleston’s charm lies in its densely packed, architecturally significant houses; its made-for-pedestrian byways; its accessible harbor. Yuppies pay six figures for newer waterfront condos, and if you have to ask about the price of an eighteenth-century townhouse—well, chances are you can’t afford it.

Just seven miles to the north—and a world away—in North Charleston, bland, inefficient tract houses surrounding the former Charleston Naval Base can be had for less than $100,000. Here lies evidence of the mid-twentieth-century building boom at its worst: blocks upon blocks of single-story houses along wide, forbidding streets. There are few professional services, and access to the Cooper River—which drew lots of folks here in the first place—has been choked off by industry and a petroleum tank farm.

This patch of fifty-eight square miles is a tale of booms and busts—and evidence of the glory days remains. Liberty Hill, established in 1871 by freed slaves, is a walkable community of narrow streets and historic homes, many with front porches. Small churches dot the neighborhood. Unfortunately though, much of this infrastructure is crumbling; the area is badly in need of historic preservation.

In the late nineteenth century, the city of Charleston bought a chunk of land along the Cooper River to build a grand public park designed by the famed Olmsted Brothers. However, in 1901, when the U.S. Navy came calling, the park was sacrificed to build the base. Much of North Charleston sprang up around this epicenter; the base employed tens of thousands at the height of World War II, but in 1993 the entire Charleston Naval Base was closed. Gov. Carroll Campbell called it a “nuclear” hit.

The New American City

The base’s closing compounded the problems of a community already beset by challenges, including higher-than-average unemployment and lower-than-average education and income. Home ownership was low; crime was high. Heavy industry and petroleum processing choked the air. Natural resources were trashed; watersheds had been cleared and paved. Stormwater runoff caused flooding and degraded water quality, and most upland systems were overrun with non-native weeds and grasses.

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