9 Lessons in the Beautification of Livable Cities from Charleston's Former Mayor

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“If people can see it, then it has to be beautiful,” says Joseph Riley.

Charleston, South Carolina’s answer to gentrification has been truly investing in affordable housing; that’s the short version of former Mayor Joseph Riley’s message to open the 24th annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Detroit.

The old, American city predates the elevator and the automobile, and Riley was its mayor since 1975 until earlier this year.

If you didn’t have the chance to catch his CNU 24 address in June, it was posted to YouTube earlier this month and is well worth a watch.

When Riley first took office, affordable housing in Charleston was obligatory and ugly.

“It ignored all the accumulated lessons of Western civilization about cities and scale and human feeling,” he says. “Build these brick monoliths, crowd a bunch of poor people in there and get mad when they don’t work.”

Riley’s philosophy: “If people can see it, then it has to be beautiful.”

It’s a fundamental principle of social justice and one that guided the mayor’s 40-year tenure. Here are a few other lessons in beautification from Riley’s 50-minute speech:

1) The biggest challenge in rebuilding an American city is its main street. And in Charleston, that meant King Street.

In the 1970s, the street’s shopping center was where everything happened, so ensuring lively retail lived on was important.

“It’s because it’s the public realm,” Riley says. “And in a city it’s a place—when it’s lively, when it’s bustling, the eye contact and elbow contact—that enhances your sense of citizenship; you feel as if you own it.”

Reviving King Street’s principal cross-street Market Street was also a priority.

“It had started from a difficult image because it was once said about market street, ‘It was the only place in America that for 25 cents you could get a bowl of chili, a tattoo or a communicable disease,’” Riley said.

A critical mass of storefronts was needed, encouraging walkability and movement from King to Market Street, which brings us to our next lesson.

2) Density is key. The 1970s national model for cities was sparse, not dense, because officials were concerned with the urban capacity to handle large numbers of people.

That left Charleston with a lot of vacant lots to deal with, sometimes by relocating beautified housing to empty street corners to serve as affordable housing.

“We all know human beings do not walk past a vacant lot in an urban setting,” Riley says. “It’s unnatural, and they’re not going to do it.”

3) Design cities empathetically, not pragmatically. Riley recalls driving past an abandoned gas station with a billboard that read: “If you like Charleston, you will love Savannah.”

“That was embarrassing as hell,” he said.

Beautiful cities are points of pride, but sometimes planners miss the forest for the trees. For instance, Riley remembers infighting over the expansion of a particular sidewalk where storefronts had gone in.

To increase the sidewalk meant shrinking the road, a problem if a beer truck parked illegally and another truck was trying to get by.

“So often, as we’re working on an American City, the first thing we think is, ‘Lord have mercy, don’t make it hard for the beer trucks to park,’ Riley said. “When the question is this: How does a mother feel holding her child’s hand walking down that sidewalk? Is it their space? Is it a nice space?”

The sidewalk was ultimately extended with the agreement parking would be properly enforced.

4) “You don’t have to build buildings ugly,” Riley says.

Parking is a challenge for the American city, but parking garages don’t have to look like parking garages. Riley was adamant on that point with architects building just such a garage 200 feet from the historic Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon.

“So polite, they said, ‘You do not know about architecture. Form follows function, and a building’s got to look like what it is,’” Riley said. “And I said, ‘No, I read that, but we’re not going to do that in this particular location in Charleston.’”

Riley won out. From the exterior, the completed garage looks like a building with closed shutters.

5) Understand the role a park will play in your city. There will always be opponents arguing you’re taking taxable property off the books, but that doesn’t mean more public space is a bad idea.

6) “When you build something for the public, you build it on the best land,” Riley said. He still doesn’t doubt his decision to build a minor league ballpark right on the water.

7) The public gets it. One time, Riley was shopping at a liquor store for an office party when the gun-toting owners asked to speak to him about something.

They wanted to thank him for a new, tree-lined median that took them out of their way on their drives home.

“These guys wearing pistols, selling liquor, what did they want to talk to me about?” Riley asks. “They wanted to talk about beauty. So we underestimate the need and the passion for the citizenry that they will support these kind of things every time.”

8) Leave things more beautiful than you found them. This is Riley’s public policy imperative.

Back when Charleston was flush with cash, bluestone lined its paths and walkways. The city decided to use bluestone for its waterfront park, but Riley quickly realized something was amiss when it was laid down.

Bluestone used to be hand chiseled but now is cut with a fine saw, changing the way it fits together. A worker was sent out to reshape the stones’ edges.

“This is a city worker on his hands and knees attending to what is admittedly a tiny detail in the city, but that’s how we have to feel about our cities because they are our civilization,” Riley says.

9) Build your city for the people who that’s all they have. This is Riley’s moral imperative.

He tells the story of Clarence Hopkins, a poor, epileptic resident who before his passing would spend his mornings on the waterfront park dock watching the sun rise and the ships come in. He’d never travel outside of Charleston in his lifetime, so that would be his crowning view.

The park took 13 years to renovate, and by that time Hopkins was wheelchair bound from a debilitating stroke. But the mayor made sure Hopkins was present for its inauguration.

“When he was healthy, in his city, coming down on his bicycle, he could begin his day in a public place and clothe himself with peace and beauty every morning,” Riley says. “If we work hard to build great places and great towns and cities for the Clarence Hopkins among us, then we’ll build great cities for everyone.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington D.C.

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