The editorial staff of Charleston’s daily newspaper, The Post and Courier, awarded a letter I wrote the “Golden Pen” winner for the month of March. http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150503/PC1002/150509821/1025
Hooray! Here’s a link to the full letter: http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150328/PC1002/150329240, as well as a link to the article I responded to: http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150320/PC16/150329880
Letter: Expanding localized governance
Mar 28 2015
The March 21 article about splitting the Charleston Board of Architecture Review (BAR) into two parts pointed out that the boardâ€™s purview had been extended from an initial 180 acres in 1931 to 2,700 acres today.
Defending this mission creep, Mayor Joe Riley drew a comparison to other beautiful cities: â€śThere is not a part of Siena that youâ€™re not worried about. There is not a part of Venice that youâ€™re not worried about.â€ť These comments made me wonder if a blind spot exists with regard to the vastness of Charlestonâ€™s scale.
Sienaâ€™s historic district today is about the same size as Charlestonâ€™s historic district was in 1931 â€” 180 acres. It is divided into 17 contrade (Sienaâ€™s name for boroughs). The historic area of Venice, comprising 1,800 acres, also provides an interesting comparison. Though half the size, Venice has almost double the peninsulaâ€™s population â€” all of it gracefully housed in two to four-story buildings. Venice also manages an annual tourism load of 20 million visitors â€” more than four times that of Charlestonâ€™s. Are there lessons to be gained from the scale of these cities and how they accommodate tourism?
Until 1960, Charlestonâ€™s city limits were confined to the peninsula. This compact urbanism resiliently weathered centuries of storms, plagues, earthquakes and war sieges.
Today it provides the city with its internationally recognized brand. However, the peninsula comprises only 5 percent of Charlestonâ€™s city limits. Since 1960, Charlestonâ€™s land area has expanded twenty-fold to 72,000 acres, most of which is planned for sprawl.
Today, Charlestonâ€™s population density is less than one third that of Detroitâ€™s. Something to worry about?
Andres Duanyâ€™s suggestion to split the BAR represents yet another threat to the bigger-is-better, command-and-control mindset of the 20th century. A mindset that, like the cumbersome BAR, is failing to deliver quality results. If debate is opened to the notion that small can be beautiful, that bifurcating authority carries the potential for more democratic and responsive governance â€” look out.
Residents of each borough may demand the right to establish and monitor their own design guidelines. Or choose a guideline-free territory.
Before you know it, this crazy idea of localized governance might take hold amongst the 75 percent of city residents who live off the peninsula.
Mayor Riley said Andres Duanyâ€™s visit â€śmade everybody think a little bit.â€ť He said the idea for splitting the BAR â€śwas something Iâ€™d never thought of before.â€ť Duany is indeed a genius at provoking constructive tension.
After debating direction for four square miles of the peninsula, perhaps the mayor and candidates aiming to succeed him can engage an introspective discussion on a vision for the cityâ€™s other 100-plus square miles.
VINCENT G. GRAHAM
5 Charles Street, Charleston