Charleston, S.C.: Charm, History and High Cuisine

A new focus on sustainable practices makes this traditionally lovely city even more appealing to environmentally conscious urban dwellers.
By David Wann
October/November 2012
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Built in 1751, St. Michael's is the oldest church in Charleston, S.C.
Photo Courtesy The Charleston Area Convention
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Charleston, South Carolina. Often found on Top 10 travel destination and livability lists, Charleston has a charming way of life that didn’t happen accidentally or overnight, and it continues to evolve. Charleston has always had a sense of pride. In 1783, the city adopted the motto “She guards her customs, buildings and laws,” and that ethic still prevails.

Newly developed public places such as the Waterfront Park and Cooper River Bridge have made Charleston even more appealing. At Waterfront Park, one can sit under live oak trees and catch the coastal breeze, or walk on a long pier and view Fort Sumter — where the Civil War began — as well as dolphins and sailboats in the harbor.

Charleston enjoys 1,500 acres devoted to 120 parks, and its ecologically rich shoreline, estuary and salt marsh provide a rich opportunity for watching wildlife. Theater, music and ballet lovers return year after year for the world-renowned Spoleto Festival USA performing arts festival. Charleston is a food lover’s delight, with traditional dishes such as she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, steamed oysters, and peach pie.

Many associate Charleston with its history and culture, but the city is also noticeably turning a deeper shade of green. Boeing’s jet facility in North Charleston is entirely powered by solar and biomass. A 10-acre roof covered with thin-film solar laminates supplies 20 percent of the building’s energy, while biomass from nearby KapStone paper plant is burned to supply the rest.

Citizens and city planners made sure the new Cooper River Bridge came with a 10-foot-wide pedestrian/biking lane. In the building sector, Charleston planners try to balance the need to preserve the cultural value of 3,000 or so historical buildings with the need to reduce energy demand. Charleston has more restored and repurposed buildings than most other cities. So far, the local Sustainability Institute’s energy-efficiency efforts have saved more than $2 million in existing buildings — some of them historic. The Circular Congregational Church, rebuilt in 1892, has intrinsic value that goes beyond money. A recent, history-sensitive addition not only has preserved the historical aesthetic but also features a “living” roof, geothermal heating and cooling, and rainwater collection for landscape use.

A recent feasibility study by Clemson University’s Institute of Applied Ecology envisions the transformation of a taller downtown Charleston building into a “vertical farm” powered largely by solar and biogas energy.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), South Carolina has enormous wind energy potential, especially in offshore areas. Clemson’s new, $98 million wind-generator testing facility in North Charleston may be a first step toward tapping into that renewable resource. DOE estimates South Carolina could supply up to 5,000 megawatts of wind power, which is enough to power 1.5 million average U.S. homes.


Stats: Charleston, South Carolina

Population: 115,483

Climate: Subtropical, humid; 51 inches avg. annual precip.; January avg. high: 59 degrees; July avg. high: 89 degrees

Median Household Income: $65,113

Median Home Price: $212,000


Check out the other towns featured in our 2012 installment of 8 Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of.


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