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Charleston Mayor Joe Riley: public spaces are key to world-class cities

By Maria Saporta

CHARLESTON, S.C. – The sidewalks along the historic streets of Charleston are lined with people – strolling, shopping, people-watching, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of an intentional city.

Intentional? Yes. One can immediately feel that downtown Charleston is a place that has had leadership with the intention of turning the seaside town into a world-class city.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley

The architect behind creating an intentional world-class city is Joe Riley, who was elected as the city’s mayor in December 1975.

Today, more than 39 years later, Mayor Riley is closing in on his last year in office – after having been recognized nationally and internationally as one of the leading mayors in the country.

Just last July, the New York Times had a feature story with the headline: “Is Joe Riley of Charleston the Most Loved Politician in America?” by journalist Frank Bruni.

On Thursday, January 9, Riley is coming to Atlanta to participate in the “Views from the Top” breakfast program titled: “A Tale of Two Cities: Atlanta and Charleston.” The program, which is being put on by Georgia State University’s Association of Real Estate Alumni, will be held at the Cherokee Town Club.

Views program

Program invite for Views from the Top (click to enlarge)

In addition to Mayor Riley, who will be featured throughout the program, the event will include an interview with Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell.

It also will have a panel with three real estate professionals who have knowledge of both Charleston and Atlanta: David Allman, president of Regent Partners, who is developing a major mixed-use development in the Upper King district; Lance Patterson with the Patterson Real Estate Advisory Group, who is helping provide financing for the renovation of the Cigar Factory in Charleston; and T. Scott Smith, president of South Carolina-based WRS Inc., which has a contract to purchase Underground Atlanta for $25.75 million.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will be serving as moderator of the event.

It was in that spirit that I decided I needed to visit Charleston, a place I had not visited for decades.

charleston kress

Historic Kress building now a bustling H&M store (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Whenever I go to another city, I always put on the same glasses. What can we in Atlanta learn from the lessons and successful experiences that one sees in other places?

Charleston provides many of those lessons – beginning with words that Mayor Riley shared with me before I visited his beautiful town.

“The public realm rules,” Riley said. “I think everything we do in the city now and going forward should reinforce the public realm – from the trees, the sidewalks, the parks to the placement of the buildings.”

Riley went on to say that architects and developers all too often focus on how a building might look on the skyline, but it is most important to focus the attention on how people view a building at street level.

Obviously there are striking differences between Atlanta and Charleston when it comes to size and scale.

charleston market

The front entrance of the row of Market buildings in downtown Charleston

Charleston shows the wisdom of thinking small – of focusing on the detail of how a city looks and feels from an intimate, pedestrian point of view. It is fortunate that so many of its ornate historic buildings remain. It is also fortunate that much of its new development complements its past rather than overshadowing it or destroying it altogether – something Atlanta has done all too often.

Another striking difference that parallels the wisdom of thinking small is the sense that Charleston has not let the automobile totally dictate its urban design. Most of the Atlanta region, especially the areas that have been developed in the last 50 years, have been designed for an auto-centric world. Only now is there growing sensitivity to the need to design and create a city that works for people on a human scale rather than one for cars.

Riviera theatre charleston

Historic Riviera Theatre offers picturesque backdrop for tourists

Mayor Riley calls it the public realm. One can call it public urban spaces designed for people rather than for cars. All of those contribute to elements that make a city feel world-class.

Leadership like Mayor Riley has provided in Charleston would not be possible in Atlanta – which has term limits for its mayors.

Shortly after he was elected in 1975, Riley began promoting the concept of an annual Spoleto performing arts festival, which held its debut in 1977, an event that helped put Charleston on an international cultural map.

Riviera Theatre Charleston

Ornamental tile floor in front of Riviera Theatre

Riley told the New York Times that the event “forced the city to accept the responsibility of putting on something world-class.” As he saw Spoleto, it could become the instrument to raise the city’s civic psychology.

“You need to commit a city to excellence,” Riley told the New York Times, “and the arts expose you to that.”

After 39 years in office, it is a time for Mayor Riley to reflect on what makes a great city really great.

An article in Charleston Magazine – “Mayor Joe: One Year To Go” (November, 2014), took stock in Riley’s tenure and previewed all the plans he still wants to accomplish before leaving office in early 2016.

charleston market

Historic Charleston Market

“If there’s a unifying theme, a narrative thread, that runs through Joe Riley’s 40-year reign, it’s his belief that cities are the heart of a just democracy,” wrote journalist Stephanie Hunt in Charleston Magazine. “That because the urban experience brings people of all walks of life together, a vibrant public realm creates the essence and soul of community, of citizenship. More simply, he believes in place making. He avows beauty, access, excellence. Mediocrity: not so much.”

Later in the article, Riley said virtually the same thing in his own words recalling when he was newly-elected as mayor visiting England and Germany.

“I was young in this j I was looking for, but in those cities I saw the value of the public realm, the parks and boulevards, places where people shared things together.”

To find out more information about the Views from the Top program – “A Tale of Two Cities: Atlanta and Charleston,” please visit this link: Views from the Top.

charleston downtown

Active street life in Charleston’s historic downtown

charleston downtown

A charming building on one of Charleston’s side streets

charleston downtown

Charleston’s downtown offers beauty in small spaces – on a human scale

downtown Charleston

Charleston kept many of its historic buildings, which adds to its charms

charleston library

Charleston Library Society adds beauty to the streets

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. Carl Holt January 3, 2015 8:11 pm

    Charleston is not an international city.Report

  2. Jared Davis January 3, 2015 9:33 pm

    Well it says intentional, so there’s that.Report

  3. Britton Edwards January 4, 2015 12:04 am

    I love Charleston & we have a lot of family there. It feels like a well planned place. Not sure how Atlanta can do what they have doneReport

  4. Joe Seconder January 4, 2015 12:37 pm

    Last time I was there, just over a year ago, I definitely noticed a lack of safe bicycle infrastructure in the city.Report

  5. JWK January 6, 2015 10:06 am

    Charleston is most definitely an international city. Well to do, international travelers have made it a destination as they recognize its beauty and history. Kiawah Island is recognized as the best resort destination in the US helping drive even more tourist dollars into the region.Report

  6. dfeltman January 6, 2015 10:23 am

    JWK Sea Island in Georgia is far superior to Kiawah.Report

  7. jamstanjr January 6, 2015 10:36 am

    The article says intentional city intentionally. This means well planned long term vision that makes it a great place to visit AND and great place to live. For that, Charleston is truly a special place, but what is right for Charleston is not necessarily what is right for Atlanta and other cities. Each city has to find their own unique path. Congrats to Charleston for doing so.Report

  8. Equitable January 7, 2015 11:30 pm

    Well, Charleston is lovely isn’t it? And it’s so nice to walk around – the shopping’s great, the buildings are so interesting! And the restaurants are phenomenal – I mean the flavors they’re working! But you know what? This Charleston that y’all are waxing poetic about (not North Charleston certainly) has virtually NO BLACK PEOPLE in it. It’s a freeze-dried shell of a city built from the worst degradations of slavery and now all these white people in here think it’s just adorable. I’m sorry, but I’ll take Atlanta’s sloppy mess of a moderately integrated vaguely equitable city ANY DAY OF THE WEEK over that sorry hoopskirt fantasy. A City is NOT just its buildings. A City is first and foremost it’s PEOPLE – diverse, dynamic, musical, and being resolved in real time. Atlanta is built on a dream of integration and allowing all people an opportunity to shine. Without this, we have nothing to sell. You can find good walkscores anywhere.Report

  9. The Last Democrat in Georgia January 8, 2015 2:40 pm

    Excellent article and excellent points, Ms. Saporta.Report


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