These days, the city of Charleston seems to be out for a joyride in a comfy, high-performance carriage. The carriage is cruising at a breakneck pace, yummy snacks and cocktails are getting passed around, and everybody wants to hop on. Sometimes, though, the carriage gets stuck in traffic. The price of the ride keeps going up, and the very people who got the carriage moving can no longer afford it. Rain clouds have descended, and things may get very, very wet.
This is, of course, a fairly ridiculous allegory to describe a Charleston that is booming economically, has a great restaurant scene and is attracting all kinds of visitors and new residents. But at the same time, that growth is causing traffic problems and gentrification, and threats from climate change loom large.
First things first, though. Here's the good news. Thanks to the meticulously preserved history and architecture, burgeoning restaurant scene and dreamy waterfront locale, Charleston is enjoying some of the finest times in its near 350-year history. The city's top industry, tourism, has been growing since 2012, with visitors lately tossing more than $20 billion at the city. In 2017 an estimated six million people showed up to see this peninsula that spans just over 100 sq miles. With all the awards the city has been raking in from top publications, the numbers are likely to continue their upward trajectory.
People are also moving to the city in sky-high numbers. US News & World Report recently identified Charleston as the fifth-fastest growing city (in terms of net migration) in the country, and new developments, restaurant openings and job opportunities have been springing up around the peninsula, particularly in the once industrial, now gentrifying area known as NoMo (North Morrison). Some are calling it Silicon Harbor, though, because the area is poised to become Charleston's tech hub, and interesting new businesses like Workshop (an experimental food court where chefs can test out fresh ideas) have already set up shop.
Although most residents can appreciate the brisket enchiladas, they're not thrilled about the increasingly congested city streets or the new hotel and condo projects. Downtown home prices have climbed steeply, making it tougher for locals to afford to buy (less so for transplants from more expensive cities). The people working low-income jobs in the service sector and/or living in neighborhoods adjacent to NoMo are being displaced as rents climb. City planners estimate that within 20 years, Charleston's population will double, and some are worried that the character of the city that initially attracted everyone will begin to slip away.
Now, about that rain cloud. The Lowcountry generally, and Charleston specifically, has a flooding problem. When there's a high storm surge or very high tide (known as a king tide), the sea level rises fast, storm drains are overwhelmed, and suddenly nobody can go anywhere, with the roads closed and low areas underwater. Scientists are predicting that in the next 100 years, the sea level will rise somewhere between a foot and 2.5ft, which has many people in Charleston concerned that it's only a matter of time before the city becomes the next New Orleans or Houston. And maybe worse.
Even beyond worst-case flooding scenarios, climate change is also likely to cause droughts, bigger storms and beach erosion. Habitats of coastal animals are likely to be altered in permanent ways, which could in turn lead to significant economic losses. Blueline tilefish that once swam off South Carolina's shores have moved north, while birds to the north of Charleston, in Cape Romain, have lost their nesting beach. The salt marshes, which are a nursery for sea life and a huge boon to the local fishers and restaurant industry, could disappear. And what might become of Fort Sumter, all alone out there in Charleston Harbor?
These are not new concerns. Charleston had a flooding problem even in the 1800s, and its engineers have long recognized that humans are partly to blame for filling in creek beds that once ran through the city. Time and again, those are the areas where the flooding is the most severe. Although more studies will help the city make smarter choices, it may not be able to engineer its way out of everything.
For now, though, the sun is still out, and that carriage keeps right on cruising.