A Livable Upper Peninsula

Venture north along the east side of the Charleston upper peninsula, and you will see the charm and history of the port city taper into an disjointed patchwork of abandoned industrial sites, public housing, and a sprinkling of trendy restaurants. The area is the obvious next frontier for growth in Charleston, and City Hall wants to make sure development occurs in a thoughtful way. Enter the Upper Peninsula Initiative.

An Outlet for Growth

When you speak with Charleston’s chief city planner Tim Keane, it becomes apparent that he is acutely aware of the need for a sustainable development plan to accommodate Charleston’s rapid population growth. Best estimates are that by 2030, population on the Charleston peninsula will be 60,000 – that’s a 70% increase from the current 35,000 in just 15 years. With limited options for infill homesites in the rest of the peninsula, city planners want to ensure that the upper peninsula progresses in a thoughtful manner that takes into account affordable housing, sustainable development, and environmental impact. “If we grow in the right way, when we get to 60,000 people on the peninsula, it will be a positive thing,” Keane remarked at a small business luncheon in May.

Priorities for composition of the upper peninsula include several factors to ensure the area is enhanced as a place where people can live, work, and play. Higher density buildings to reduce sprawl, inclusion of existing neighborhoods to preserve local culture, and integration of alternative transportation to employ diversified mobility – all these elements are complimentary to a sustainable community. While urban development occurs organically over time through private enterprise, the city and community have expressed the importance of having a comprehensive strategy to ensure it occurs in a way that benefits everyone.

Sustainable Planning

One Cool Blow

To create a blueprint for growth in the upper peninsula, City of Charleston has partnered with The Sustainability Institute to pilot a planning program called EcoDistricts. An innovative framework for creating sustainable cities, EcoDistricts encourages participation from residents, businesses, nonprofits and government, in a neighborhood-up approach to city planning. The joint effort is known as The Upper Peninsula Initiative, with The Sustainability Institute serving as the backbone to assemble partners and experts, conduct neighborhood assessments, form goals and projections, and measure impacts.

Using the EcoDistricts planning framework, The Upper Peninsula Initiative will focus on 8 distinct strategies, each one contributing to the objective of making the district an attractive place to live and work. “This is a much more creative approach that allows you to engage experts in various areas but also produce a lot of community engagement and feedback,” observes Bryan Cordell, executive director of The Sustainability Institute. “The result of all of that will be a much more creative and thoughtful approach to how city planning is being done in general.” The strategy areas will move at different speeds as experts and the community are engaged in refining the goals during their collaborations:

    1. Equitable Development
    2. Urban Form & Pattern
    3. Energy
    4. Transportation & Mobility
    5. Civic Places
    6. Water & EcoSystem Function
    7. Locally Sourced Materials
    8. Urban Agriculture

Of particular note is the progress that has been made around the Urban Form & Pattern strategy area, where discussions are under way regarding what buildings in the upper peninsula should look like, including height, density, and square footage, as well as how much housing there should be per the amount of people working in the area. Policy decisions are being debated at City Hall to encourage development, including incentive programs to encourage developers to incorporate sustainability aspects in the district.

EcoConscious Design

1600 Meeting Green RoofUrban sustainability is a concept that encompasses not just the design of a single building, but also the design of an entire community and how that building fits into it. The EcoDistricts planning framework emphasizes integration of smart infrastructure, green buildings, and community engagement to encourage a vibrant community that grows according the needs of the people who live and work within it. The sense of community derived from an organic development is maintained when the people who live and work there have a say in shaping that community.

EV Charging at Half Mile NorthIncorporation of green space will be critical, as will the scheme of how buildings connect to each other through transit. I expect to see much discussion around the walkability and bikeability of the upper peninsula, as well as bus system access points and, one day, perhaps even a light rail station. Recently there was even an installation of an electric vehicle charging station in the Half Mile North tech district project, a 7.2-kilowatt hookup that can fully charge two vehicles at a time in three to four hours.

Buildings themselves are an important consideration to the usage of energy and resources. The warming of cities known as the heat island effect can be mitigated through various means – many of which we hope to see employed in the Upper Peninsula Initiative. I predict that many, if not all, buildings will be constructed to some green standard, and solar panels may become a common sight in the district. There are already green roofs in place that drastically reduce cooling costs within a building, and also greatly reduce stormwater runoff.


EcoDistrict Bike TourThe Upper Peninsula Initiative is a unique opportunity for Charleston to experiment with a creative approach – as Bryan Cordell remarked to me, “this is a new way of doing city planning.” If we do this right – by incorporating sustainability, resiliency, affordability, and mobility – we can encourage smart development that preserves the local character of the upper peninsula. Charleston, a city known for its charm and dedication to preserving its historical past, will be known also for embracing the future.

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