Where Walking is a Luxury

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston, South Carolina, is a favorite destination for vacationers and snowbirds, who enjoy strolling through its charming neighborhoods. Sidewalks in the central part of the city (known locally as the “peninsula”) bustle with people from morning until midnight, and the local economy benefits enormously from out-of-towners enjoying themselves in restaurants, shops, and hotels, as well as in the historic streets and public spaces.

The city evokes a pleasurable mood of the past before cars overran our communities. But it may also foreshadow the future, if “walkability” becomes a prized amenity that is out of reach for many families across the country.

“The comfortable, walkable neighborhoods on the peninsula are so expensive,” notes John Tibbetts, a science writer. “A house like mine would cost $900,000.” Indeed, a recent report on realtor.com shows that Charleston is gentrifying faster than any other U.S. city.

Tibbetts and his wife, also a science writer, don’t mind living on James Island, which is officially part of the city but features a suburban layout of cul-de-sacs without sidewalks. It’s a quick commute into downtown, and their 1990s-era home is modeled on classic Low Country architecture. Tibbetts often takes a walk in the streets, a one-mile loop winding through stands of tall trees and past the harbor with the historic city center in the distance.

“The main disadvantage is that I can’t walk after dark when it’s less hot—that’s too unsafe with the traffic,” Tibbetts explains. “I wouldn’t think of leaving the neighborhood without a car—the cars go so fast on arterial streets. So I drive everywhere, even to a park three minutes away to play tennis.”

He adds, “I stay in more than I would living somewhere else.”

And Tibbetts wonders if the high cost of walkable neighborhoods will discourage his son, who recently graduated from college, from moving back to Charleston.

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Jay Walljasper

Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, is a Minneapolis-based writer, speaker, and community consultant.