Charleston leaders will make final changes to the city’s comprehensive plan in the coming weeks. Quite a bit has changed in Charleston since the plan was last revised in 2011 — the tourism economy has exploded, development is changing how our city looks and feels, and the impact of climate change and sea-level rise grows more apparent every day.
Normally, 10-year updates to the comprehensive plan are all-encompassing, general guidelines for how we can bend known forces for change in a direction that enhances quality of life for the most people possible. But this year’s plan records critical observations on the urgent situation posed by a changing climate that’s making life harder for many, exacerbating existing inequality, all while the cost of living goes up.
The plan is under consideration by city council as we speak, and a few changes are expected before it’s approved. But here are four ways Charleston’s 2021 City Plan is different and stands to affect residents in and outside the city limits.
1. Resilience and equity is at the center.
Local governments are now required to examine resiliency as part of the comprehensive planning process, thanks to a bipartisan 2020 bill led by Charleston-area senators. City officials rightfully connected equity to that assessment — adding another layer of consideration for all city-level actions. From housing affordability to protecting cultural resources, the City Plan’s extensive focus on resilience and equity could mean quality of life improvements for some over the next 10 years that would have otherwise gone ignored.
2. Environmental justice is a key consideration.
Environmental justice is connected to equity, and the climate crisis is inextricably connected to the future of our city. It’s critically important to attempt to mitigate the impact of changes for some rather than to push off those worries to communities already hurt by discrimination and gentrification.
3. It prioritizes building at higher elevations.
Continued building over the last generation has hastened flooding and stormwater issues for low-lying communities, particularly as development advances in the suburbs. It’s a lesson we learned far too late, as we’ve seen in the multi-million dollar scramble to rework West Ashley’s Church Creek basin. Knowing the city can’t and shouldn’t try to pause progress, the new City Plan instead prioritizes dense development in areas of higher elevation, allowing low-lying areas to help with stormwater retention.
4. Heavily impacted areas are off the peninsula.
Charlestonians on the Cainhoy peninsula near Daniel Island, along with Johns Islanders, have lived on the front line of in-migration, with both areas nearly doubling in population since 2010. West Ashley continues to feel significant growth. But landlocked and expensive, the peninsula has seen a fraction of growth experienced elsewhere. City plans call for more focus on outlying areas to handle growth.
The 160-page Charleston City Plan provides an admirable blueprint for the next 10 years in Charleston. Now it’s up to city leaders to make sure the pieces are in place to make it happen.
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