Charleston offers insight into urbanism

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I had the pleasure of visiting Charleston for a little more than a week at the beginning of August. To the disgust of others, I had never been to this historic city or its magnificent beaches. This problem was happily rectified.

I spent much of the week on the picture-perfect beaches at Folly, which is to Charleston what Tybee Island is to Savannah – a nearby plop of coast within easy driving distance of the city. In the mornings, the days were beautiful and bright. The evening shower came in around 4 p.m. for an hour or so, at which point we sat on the porch of the condo and relaxed, drinking margaritas or other such delights, watching dolphins play in the water. I tell you, it was horrible. You wouldn’t like it.

Out of fun (or perhaps schadenfreude), we went around the Battery and looked at the colorful old houses. This was a fancy part of town, but how expensive could it be to buy a house there? It turns out space is a premium in old Charleston in a way North Fulton could only dream of – tiny strips of land fetch several million dollars. They really put Milton’s home prices in perspective. I saw one that was little more than a small house and a driveway, right on the harbor in the Old Town – nearly $20 million. Once I win two lotteries, that house will be mine, you wait and see.

It’s simple to see why the cities of North Fulton are so eager to create dense town centers. Look at Charleston. The old town is everything “new urbanism” stands for – apartments and townhomes above stores, everything within walking distance, very high density. And it works! Some of the areas were so packed with people shopping, eating or strolling around that the streets had nearly as many people as the sidewalks. Roswell’s Canton Street and Milton’s Crabapple are the closest things North Fulton has to anything like that, and they work because not only are they a destination for people to shop and have fun, but, most importantly, they have lots of people living within walking distance.

That is what North Fulton is missing, and what town planners are desperately trying to develop, despite pleas from some residents about the dangers of density.

The nay-sayers do have something of a point. New urbanism works best with high density – in cities, not the suburbs. That’s why it’s called “urban.” Part of what makes Crabapple so charming is its low density. For those who live within easy walking distance of the shops, it’s perfect. Even for those within a short drive, it’s fine. For everyone else, it may as well be a strip mall across town – if you have to drive half an hour to get there, you may as well go downtown.

But Crabapple’s charm lies with the fact it isn’t dense and it isn’t downtown. It’s a small, rural community. City planners have to keep watchful eyes on how the area develops, what projects they allow in and just how much density Milton wants in the area.