Lessons from Charleston

At the Penn Institute for Urban Research’s third Urban Leadership Forum, held on April 26 in Huntsman Hall, co-director Eugenie Birch talked about sustainability, a theme around which much of the Institute’s work this year has centered. A “Growing Greener Cities” symposium earlier this year tackled the topic, and the Forum’s keynote speaker, Charleston, South Carolina Mayor Joseph Riley has spent his career promoting that quality in the elegant Southern city he governs.

Riley, a native of Charleston who was first elected mayor in 1975, has been at the helm of the city for an unprecedented eight terms. During his tenure, crime has gone down in Charleston, while the size and population of the city have continued to grow.

The historic downtown district has seen a remarkable revitalization and citizens can now enjoy a beautiful waterfront park and an annual performing arts extravaganza—the Spoleto Festival—that is unrivaled in the U.S.

In his lunchtime talk to an audience of planners, architects and preservationists, Riley described his approach to making Charleston one of the most livable cities in the nation. For 32 years he has been guided, he said, by a set of simple yet unwavering principles.

Show some respect

“When we allow junk to happen,” said Riley, “we’ll have it for 30 to 70 years.” Faced with ugly affordable housing that had been built in the ’50s and ’60s, Riley held an architectural competition to challenge architects to design something beautiful. “There’s never any excuse to get something built that doesn’t add to the beauty of a city.”

He also worked hard to keep the bulldozers out and restore rather than raze, whenever possible. “It’s about memories,” he said. “Citizens badly need memories. We want the texture and patina and energy and vision of the people before us.”

Enlisting help from Habitat for Humanity, Riley restored a neighborhood of dilapidated African-American post Civil War cottages. “Never say ‘We don’t have to worry how we do it because it’s just affordable housing.’ If people can see it, it will influence their lives.”

If you build it

The real challenge of sustainability in a city is the downtown, said Riley. As people have moved away from smaller cities, the density and energy of the public realm has disappeared, too. “People have always come to their cities with a sense of civic ownership and engagement. We can’t let American citizens be sentenced to the private realm. This needs to be a culture where we increase the things we share.”

For a mayor, that means putting money into buildings. In Charleston, Riley faced the challenge of filling a large vacant lot in the middle of downtown that had the potential to link Market Street and King Street. “It had to be a pivot,” said Riley, who weathered years of controversy, lawsuits, “all of that” before settling on “the right thing”—a hotel and retail complex that now anchors this highly visible corner and adds vibrancy to the downtown area. “Details are so important in city building,” insisted the mayor, who takes note of those details on his daily morning run through Charleston’s streets.

Empower the pedestrian

Too frequently, said Riley, we worry more about whether the beer truck will have space on the street to double park for 10 minutes than whether the average citizen can have a pleasant experience walking down the street. “How does the citizen feel on the sidewalk is the question we should be asking,” he said. “So often in American cities we forget who has the first rights to those sidewalks—it’s the pedestrians.”

In Charleston, as in Philadelphia, the waterfront area had long held untapped potential, with burned-out piers that had languished for years. Determined to give the water’s edge to the public, Riley patiently worked to develop it piece by piece into a waterfront park designed for peace and repose. To ensure the serenity of the park, Riley has guaranteed that no events will take place there. It belongs to the joggers, the dog walkers, the Charleston resident who wants to take a stroll or read a book or simply take a break.

The beauty test

People desperately need beauty, and the inspiration of beauty, said Riley as he wrapped up his talk. The challenge, he said, is to make places so beautiful and revered they’ll withstand the test of time. “A city is like a precious family heirloom. We must pass it on more beautiful than we found it.”

Originally published May 10, 2007.

Originally published on May 10, 2007