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Behre: Back to the future? Charleston's new wall might not be a wall at all

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When English colonists sailed into Charleston’s harbor 350 years ago, the peninsula was surrounded by oyster beds and salt marsh. A group of designers is now suggesting something very much like that might be the best bet for the city’s next few centuries.

“We believe a nature-based, context-sensitive design could be a real catalyst for making Charleston a more resilient and livable city in the future,” says Keith Bowers, President of Biohabitats Inc. “If we do this thoughtfully, Charleston could be a model for cities in similar situations.”

Bowers recently enlisted about a dozen like-minded planners, landscape architects, architects and engineers with experience in shoreline protection to use some of their unexpected free time (thank you, coronavirus) to launch an ambitious study of the peninsula.

Actually, “study” might not be the right word. The authors describe it as a “thought experiment.” It involved a memorable bike trip and a lot of work and culminated in a website (imaginethewall.org ) detailing the thinking.

The starting point was the Army Corps of Engineers’ new Charleston Peninsula Coastal Flood Risk Management Study. Unveiled in April, it recommends a $1.75 billion, 8-mile perimeter wall around the peninsula, as well as a storm surge barrier off the peninsula’s tip.

Imagine the Wall aims to broaden the conversation about what could provide that protection — and what other important benefits could be created along the way.

Some of its ideas are familiar, such as creating very different protections (or walls) along different stretches of the peninsula. That seems like a no-brainer since the total height needed varies significantly, as do the streets, buildings and public places that exist near the water’s edge. And the important notion that the wall should serve other functions, such as recreation, is a value the city has adopted from the Dutch.

But Imagine is different as far as proposed solutions. Perhaps it would be better named, Reimagine the Wall.

For instance:

Creating a breakwater off The Battery as a living archipelago. Yes, it would have the jetty-like lines of large stones most envision, but they would be surrounded and softened by oyster reefs, intertidal habitat and new salt marsh. Bowers notes that what once was known as “Oyster Point” could be again.

Elevating sections of Lockwood and Morrison drives to act as the wall (the newly elevated roads wouldn’t have to be 12 feet over mean sea level, perhaps only 9 if they had median planters 3 feet high). This idea has the added advantage of keeping more roads open during a flood.

Using horizontal levees (protective mounds that are so flat they don’t read as a wall or traditional levee). These features are envisioned along Brittlebank Park and lands north of that along the Ashley River as well as near Magnolia Cemetery on the Cooper. Such features also would let marshes migrate to higher ground as sea levels rise.

Turning a section of upper East Bay Street into a greenway as wide as 80 feet with planted terraces and a multi-use trail that snakes along a new drainage canal.

Protecting the stretch from Waterfront Park to the S.C. Aquarium with raised walkways, seating walls, planter boxes and other public gathering spaces.

The effort, led by Biohabitats, was aided by like-minded partners, including DesignWorks, a Charleston-based landscape architecture firm, One Architecture & Urbanism of New York and Amsterdam, and Applied Technology & Management Inc., which, like Biohabitats, has one of its many offices in Mount Pleasant.

The Imagine the Wall submission is one of about 500 public comments that were provided to the Army Corps by its June 19 deadline. And while it might be among the most ambitious, it’s not necessarily the only comment of its kind.

The Coastal Conservation League’s response also expressed concern about the possibility the city might pursue anything like a conventional wall.

“We agree protecting Charleston from flooding is urgent,” said Laura Cantral, its executive director. “But the scope of the problem, the scale of the work needed to address it, and the likely cost mean we’ll only have one chance to get it right. We need to use that one chance wisely, and invest in flooding solutions that look at the full range of threats and deliver the best possible outcome for the city.”

Between now and when the Army Corps reopens comments early next year, other new visualizations will emerge, some certain to be conflicting but others likely complementary.

Now is the time to think big.

Get a weekly recap of South Carolina opinion and analysis from The Post and Courier in your inbox on Monday evenings.


Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at rbehre@postandcourier.com

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