In two weeks, I’ll be in Rotterdam, the second-largest city in the Netherlands, and I’m not going on vacation.
Instead, I’m headed back to school to study for a master’s degree in urban management and development, which basically just means trying to help cities work better.
That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to people who regularly read my work for The Post and Courier.
I picked the Netherlands at least in part because, like Charleston, it’s had concerns with rising sea levels and stronger storms. And somewhat less like Charleston, it’s managed to balance incredibly effective urban living with the challenges of living at and below sea level — for many centuries now.
The Netherlands didn’t get it right all at once. It took a lot of trial and error, including some notable tragedies. Charleston, hopefully, can learn from some of what worked and avoid some of the mistakes.
That doesn’t just go for flooding, and it doesn’t just mean looking at the Netherlands.
Charleston is unique in a lot of ways, but most of its problems aren’t particularly unusual. Sure, there are nuances that only apply here, and a rich blend of cultures and histories, architectures and landscapes that can’t quite be found anywhere else.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from other cities and adapt good ideas in ways that fit in here. We can also study what doesn’t work and make sure to try something different.
Copying verbatim is plagiarism. Turning a good idea into something new is inspiration.
And despite some very hard work from countless people who really want good things for the Charleston area — we really are fortunate in that department — too many of our official plans for the region’s immediate future are a little short on inspiration.
Plans for handling traffic still mostly amount to building new and wider roads rather than adding and improving viable alternatives to driving a car, for instance.
Plans for addressing housing affordability mostly amount to commendable but costly publicly funded investments in building residences rather than, say, loosening overly restrictive zoning that keeps modest growth out of the places that could best absorb it.
Even our plans for addressing flooding — which recently got some welcome assistance from the Dutch — still mostly look like the same kind of networks of pipes and pumps we have built in Charleston for decades, sometimes to disappointing results.
This isn’t to say I have better plans. I don’t, although I do have a lot of ideas and opinions, which is how I’ve managed to keep this job. But I didn’t exactly come up with all of those ideas myself, and that’s the point.
I’m excited to spend at least the next year learning about creative approaches to the problems that growing cities face. I’m excited to learn just how much I don’t know, which I do know is a lot.
And you’re all welcome and encouraged to join me on a similar exploration if you’re interested in that kind of thing. It doesn’t take packing up your life.
The next time something bugs you about your life here in Charleston, do some research to figure out if somebody somewhere has figured out a way to fix that problem. If not, why not? Get in touch with local leaders and elected officials and ask them for some ideas. Talk to neighbors. Keep up with local government.
We can figure pretty much anything out together. I’ve been honored to be a small part of that. And I’ll be honored to stick with it, albeit at least temporarily from a new time zone.
Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.