Wednesday, April 8

Charleston, a model or a niche?

Charleston, South Carolina
I've just returned from a tour of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, the two southern cities that are clearly models of good urban design in my opinion. The historic downtowns of both cities are full of public squares, mixed-use vitality, a broad range of beautiful architecture from classical to Georgian styles, the use of distinctive native vegetation, and accessible waterfronts. People pour in from all over for the sole purpose of walking around Charleston and Savannah.

On the other hand, all of these good assets do lend a certain degree of artificiality to the cities. Neither Savannah nor Charleston are Disneyworld or Las Vegas, but there are sections and seasons of each when they might feel a little like it. On Savannah's popular riverfront walk, I found three separate places where I could purchase Harley Davidson merchandise, one of which was called a "neighborhood shoppe." Yet, is this a problem with Savannah or a problem with everywhere else in the country? If other cities were as livable as downtown Savannah, maybe more folks would just enjoy walking around their own town.

But a second point is more puzzling to me. There is a fairly high level of wealth concentrated in these areas, particularly the southern portion of downtown Charleston. Is it possible for a wide range of income levels to enjoy a living environment like downtown Charleston or is this only possible when sustained by an upper-class tax base and a constant flow of tourist dollars? In other words, are these towns replicable elsewhere or are they niches in our national economy? I don't know if I have a good answer for these questions.

Savannah, Georgia
When I think through the tremendous amount of resources used by average towns and cities on a regular basis, I wonder whether a Charleston-like downtown really is attainable with a shift in priorities. Public roadways and private automobile ownership and operation are not cheap, yet a walkable life is possible in Charleston. The average suburban house is certainly as large as even the more opulent Charleston homes, and they require more land ownership and lawn care. Our nice dinner wasn't any more expensive than Outback Steakhouse. Creating a Charleston would not be cheap, but would it be any more expensive than American suburbia already is?


CarFree Stupidity said...

I think you might have a point on the tourist dollars. What happens if we start switching to less car ownership, less impact lifestyles? It seems that travel would likely decrease and the money tourism generates in some many cities, a lot of which rely heavily on tourism, would dry up.

In the switch to more local communities and economies, I think there are a lot of opportunities that people can't see at the moment, simply because we are so ingrained with the current way things are setup to work, even those of use who advocate for lower impact lifestyles and more vibrant local communities.

Benjamin Hemric said...

Daniel wrote (numbering mine -- BH):

[1] Is it possible for a wide range of income levels to enjoy a living environment like downtown Charleston or is this only possible when sustained by [2] an upper-class tax base and [3] a constant flow of tourist dollars? [4] In other words, are these towns replicable [on a wide scale] elsewhere or are they niches in our national economy? . . . [5] Creating a Charleston would not be cheap, but would it be any more expensive than American suburbia already is?

Benjamin Hemric writes:

Re [4]: It's funny that you should say this, because (if I am remembering correctly), when Jane Jacobs' "Death and Life . . . " first came out I believe one of the criticisms was that dense, mixed-use, mixed building type, districts were only acceptable to working class / poor ethnics (e.g., working class Italians) who didn't know / couldn't afford better, and that only a very small / insiginificant segment of affluent, bohemian America would want to live in such neighborhoods. (And even today this seems to be an argument of many anti-urbanists.)

Regarding [5] To be brief and to the point, it seems to me that from a Jacobs persective (mostly by implication in "Death and Life" and more explicitly in various books and interviews in later years) such districts are very INEXPENSIVE to create and are only expensive / high rent districts because there is (an essentially government-mandated) scarcity of them -- it is a matter of scarce supply and higher demand. The districts themselves are not expensive at all to build as they develop overtime and pay for themselves along the way as they densify and diversify. (That's why so many of them were once poor / "slum" neighborhoods.)

Regarding [1]: the problem, so it seems to me is two-fold -- and let me use NYC as an illustration. A) Misguided, modern-day community groups (which didn't exist when the North End, for instance, was becoming a dense "slum") with the aid of orthodox urban planners (e.g., can't allow "out-of-scale" buildings), prevent the densification / diversification of potential new Charleston-like districts from happening. B) This increases the demand and price for those districts that already exist -- thereby making them less diverse.

Regarding [2] and [3]: The keys to "unslumming" and urban vitality aren't an upper class tax base (although the ability to attract the upper-class residents / businesses is a defnite plus) nor the attraction of tourist dollars -- but high densities, mixed uses, short blocks, a mix of buildings types, and so on (e.g., correctly sized and organized administrative districts, etc.)

Benjamin Hemric said...

P.S. -- Regarding [1], Sorry, but I see I didn't use NYC as an illustration as I said I would. (The North End is, of course, in Boston.) So in order to use NYC as an illustration, I guess I should have said instead, "Misguided, modern-day community groups (which didn't exist when Greenwich Village, for instance, was becoming a dense "slum" with out-of-scale tenements replacing row-houses, etc.) . . . .

I was trying to avoid an over-reliance on Greenwich Village -- and there are, in fact, other highly desirable one-time slum neighborhoods in NYC and across the U.S. But, in the end, perhaps it's best that I stick to Greenwich Village (and stay clear of less clear cut examples like Brooklyn Heights, SoHo, NoHo, Tribeca, etc.), as I'm more familiar with the anti-urban NIMBYism of modern day NYC community groups (and am not really familiar with the anti-urban NIMBYism that I suspect exists in Boston, Philadelphia, D.C., etc.)

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks for those thoughtful responses Benjamin. I agree with you completely, and it helps me to hear someone confirm what I hope to be the case from a different context.

In my experience with zoning, the words "out of scale" are used almost like a mantra. It's funny that nobody ever complains about under-scaled projects ("We can't put a park here, the character of this neighborhood is single-family houses!"). The out-of-scale argument has a ring of contextual sophistication, but I've become cautious about it.

James L. Ward said...

Interesting comments. I have a few random observations if you will bear with me. As a Charlestonian but no longer living downtown, I think we are all concerned about the demographics as well as the reality that we are creating today. Striking a balance of all income/race/class groups is a constant endeavor, but one that is an important part of building communities. It is at least as important as the building infrastructure we work with in hard preservation issues.

It comes with the realization that governmental policies either directly or indirectly affect all of it. The city management requires constant monitoring and discussions with everyone. That is one strength of the way we tend to do business here - case by case. The design issues you bring up, therefore, need to be seen in connection with the management approaches attached to them.

Certainly in places like Charleston and Savannah, history sells. I would maintain that the strength of those places, however, comes in the manner in which we look forward and value new areas as well as take care of the livability of the old ones. For example, the City of Charleston is undertaking character appraisals of other newer and suburban sections to promote the long term viability of reading preservation issues forward. Thus, to the extent that we manage to partner tourism industries, preservation interests, and livability of existing residents this system represent a worthwhile model. I would ask you to look at the preservation efforts (admittedly some a bit light) in the surrounding communities.

Thanks for your comments. Come back and see us!

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