Charleston's Choice: A Case Study for Civic Conservation

Charleston is home to one of architecture's unique contributions: the Charleston single-house. What is less known is that Charleston is also home to one of urbanism's unique contributions: side-yard urbanism. Although this type of urbanism works well with single-houses, it is not dependent on them, and it is used throughout Charleston even where there are no single-houses. It is characterized by clearly defined public streets and squares, deep lots, and the locating of the buildings, which are kept narrow to catch the breeze, on the side of the lot, creating spaces between buildings referred to in Gullah as the “gap.” It exists in no other place, even places equally hot and humid. It is as much a unique product of this melange of African and European cultures that is Lowcountry culture as is the way we speak and the food we eat. It is an ingenious solution to achieving an urban level density yet livable in this hot and humid climate. It allows for an architecture that is characterized by screens, loggias, courtyards, gardens, and of course porches: Charleston is a city of porches - not just our houses have porches but also our shops have porches, our churches have porches, our libraries have porches, our schools and our hospitals have porches, or at least used to -- it is no wonder that President Obama singled out Charleston in his inaugural speech by referring to our porches! Charleston's urbanism allows for a diversity of housing types and income levels, and a diversity of business types. It is a miracle of urban form, yet it exists only in Charleston

 
 

As both benyas and comyas know, Charleston’s unique brand of architecture and urbanism is so much in demand that locals of many generations can no longer afford to live here - the market now is international. And small, local businesses are forced to compete with out-of-town national brands, willing to have a loss-leader in hip Charleston, in an ever-decreasing supply of small retail shops. Right now, thousands of housing units are being built in Charleston, yet none are following the model set by Charleston’s unique and in-demand urbanism. They are either of the Anywhere, USA suburban sprawl type, or they are of the massive Texas-style lined parking garage type. Hundreds of thousands of square feet of large-scale retail space is being built,  none of it in the fine grained, human scaled pattern that characterizes Charleston.

 Instead of bringing in more people to compete for what little of Charleston style urbanism there is, we should be taking advantage of this unique type of architecture and urbanism by building more of it. We should be making Charleston more affordable by increasing the supply of Charleston. We should welcome people who love Charleston and who want to move here, and we should welcome the developers who want to take risks to build buildings to house them. But for the protection of her brand and for her older neighborhoods, Charleston should say has a right to say, we have a unique brand of architecture and urbanism - please follow the successful patterns that have been followed here now for over three centuries. This is how we live, you are welcome to participate all you want. If you love Charleston, help us to make more of Charleston. And we should be building more of the fine-grained Charleston not just because that’s how the city developed in the past, but because it is the superior thing to do, and because it will generate the greatest value.

 

Visit civicconservation.org/casestudy for the full case study.