An Urban Planner’s View of the Lowcountry

You may have noticed that population growth is transforming the once-sleepy Charleston area into a metropolis, with all its benefits and drawbacks. The population is swelling by 48 people every day, mostly from in-migration. Job and entertainment opportunities are on the upswing, but so is the amount of car traffic, the cost of housing, the threat of flooding as marshes and wetlands are filled in, and the tension between automobile and other modes of transportation.

Many observers and community leaders believe the Lowcountry is at an inflection point. It can either plan for a future of denser growth with better infrastructure and much more robust mass transportation or sprawl into suburban gridlock like Atlanta, Los Angeles and other modern U.S. cities where daily life can be a hassle.

Dr. Kevin Keenan has a front row seat on the developments and a slightly different perspective than most others. An Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Urban Studies program at College of Charleston, he understands that the solution to potential problems from explosive growth are political.

“Planning is a political process,” he said. “Planners can propose useful interventions but then politicians are ultimately accountable for them and our democratic system responds to what the majority wants. In the aggregate, we’re not there yet as a culture that understands the sacrifices and benefits necessary to have an overall better-managed system.”

Keenan believes planners are addressing the right issues and making the right recommendations, but they require time, money and political will. Judging by the public discourse, particularly complaints about traffic congestion and high housing costs, the general population is not convinced that community leaders are making the right decisions.

Keenan says regional planning is critical because the decisions of each municipality in the area affects all others. He says development has to be encouraged by government closer to the urban core and discouraged farther away. “We need more development in the area of the former Navy Yard rather than way out like Volvo’s new location,” he said. Volvo is building a sprawling new manufacturing complex in Ridgeville, about 40 miles from downtown Charleston.

Urban planners know that getting people out of their automobiles and into mass transportation is a key to successful metro development, and that requires residential and commercial centers. “If you don’t have density, you can’t support transit,” he said.

Climate change is also top-of-mind for planners, particularly in coastal cities like Charleston, which has already experienced record flooding in the last three years. Building codes will have to be updated and waterfront land will have to be reclaimed by government before it’s reclaimed by the ocean. “It’s a very big deal because the cost and severity of loss keeps elevating,” Keenan said.

The Lowcountry Graduate Center helped to fund the creation and launch of the College of Charleston’s graduate certificate program in urban and regional planning, aimed at professionals seeking an overview of the theories and practices used to identify, analyze and solve urban and regional planning problems.  Courses are now all offered on the College of Charleston’s main campus downtown.

Students take courses in policy, law, and even computer mapping. “Students in program will be well positioned when they graduate to think about urban planning from the government side or go into private sector or nonprofit,” Keenan said. “If they take the right sequence of courses they can get a very powerful education.”