The Secrets of Charleston, S.C.

Shrimp, Grits, and Careful Zoning

Charleston, S.C.

Score: 77

Category: Best-Rated Destinations

Charleston has long been considered the quintessential southern city, all shrimp-and-grits, refined manners, and linen suits. Decimated during the Civil War, when the city was considered the "cradle of secession," Charleston slowly recovered. Most of its Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian houses and civic buildings have survived and still dominate the strikingly beautiful cityscape.

This, of course, is no accident: The Preservation Society of Charleston was founded in 1920, the first such activist group in the country. In 1931 it persuaded the city to pass a zoning ordinance that established the Board of Architectural Review and designated the city's historic district (also a national first and since expanded). Then in the 1970s, Mayor Joseph Riley undertook an urban planning effort that further revitalized the city—while protecting its historic resources through such means as carefully controlling the design and scale of new buildings.

When tourists started making their way to Charleston, it was the rich array of historic architecture, charming oak-tree-lined-streets, imposing waterfront, regional folkways, and nearby Civil War landmarks (including the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Drayton Hall) that made them want to return. "People retain a real sense of the past here, architecturally and historically," says Vanessa Turner Maybank, the city's director of tourism. "I think there's also a comfortable side of Charleston that other cities don't have."

In 1984, in an effort to ensure that the booming tourism industry would not dominate or detract from local culture or living environment, Charleston enacted its first tourism management ordinance—and later, in 1994, a tourism management plan. These were meant both to protect residents' quality of life and to offer travelers a pleasurable and informative stay. One outcome of this effort was construction of the Visitor Reception and Transportation Center, which orients tourists and coordinates their activities while reducing unnecessary traffic and pollution in neighborhoods. The city also created a tourism commission to implement the management ordinance through, for example, licensing tour guides and properly routing traffic.

Thus far, that effort has been a success: Survey panelists lauded Charleston as "a real open-air museum" and "a perfect blending of past and future." Another panelist noted that "Charleston is a city of firsts, both for historic preservation and forward thinking on tourism. Its built heritage is second to none in the country and perhaps the world." Indeed, Charleston's progressive policies about preservation and tourism—and the bond between the two—have been well noted by rest of the country. Maybank says that "many people from other cities' boards of architecture or preservation societies visit Charleston today because their communities have patterned themselves after Charleston. There are places all over this country that are using our zoning ordinances and tourism board as models."


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