What One Historic Town Can Teach us About the Value of Place

Today we're welcoming our summer intern, Connor Nielsen, who is working with both Strong Towns and our friends at the geoanalytics firm, Urban3, to share data-related stories throughout the next few months. Look for his writing each week, with a focus on the financial productivity of cities and towns across the country.

Charleston is an anomaly among American coastal cities, a beacon of culture that radiates southern charm. A walk along its cobblestone streets brings you face to face with its past and elicits an instinctive sense of place.

It’s no surprise then that Charleston has a rich history of innovative urban design dating back to the 17th century. Its growth was initially constrained by its shallow harbor and location on a narrow peninsula, but these limitations have challenged its residents to be creative in how they allocate space. The video on the right, created by Urban3, visualizes the development of Charleston from Colonial port to tourist haven.

In the video, property tax value per acre is modeled as height; one foot of elevation equals $1,000 of tax value per acre.

As you can see, downtown Charleston has had significantly high property value per acre dating back to the 1800s. Historic Charleston, with distinctive architectural styles peppered along its cozy streets, has preserved its charm through the years. The city has survived fires, wars, hurricanes, and even a devastating earthquake, only to come back stronger.

So why does Charleston’s quaint downtown have such astronomically high property value? Density often leads to higher property values, yes, but it’s not that simple.

Think of the City of Charleston like a company. Its revenues are taxes on property and sales, and its expenses are infrastructure and services for the public good. Cities are valuable because they have a finite resource — land — and they can capitalize on this resource by promoting development that optimizes property tax value per acre of land. Because of its placement on a small peninsula, Charleston’s land is especially valuable.

As the above video shows, growth crept up along the shores near Charleston throughout the 19th century, but its centralized development remained virtually intact. After World War II and the advent of the car, development began to extend inland as the U.S. military increased their presence in the area. In the 1990s, beachfront properties exploded in Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms.

Even today, with exclusive (and lucrative) resorts lining the beach, the Charleston “Company” gets most of its income from its walkable downtown. Charleston also benefits from sales tax revenues when downtown restaurants and shops entice passersby in, as explained in this article. This modest peninsula of 7,000 acres produces a stunning 4% of the State’s entire sales tax generation.

The video shows that the Charleston region has hosted other nodes of high-value development in its recent history. There’s historic Mt. Pleasant across the river from downtown Charleston, which the video shows gaining traction after the Civil War. Mt. Pleasant has a few hundred years less history than its more famous neighbor, but it notably features a similar traditional development pattern.

Then there’s the row of spikes along the beach. The value of beachfront property is apparent, since the land borders an attractive amenity of limited supply. There will only ever be so many building lots within close range of the beach. A similar effect drives the high values in the historic areas, because there will only ever be so many lots that are historic or surrounded by historic buildings. But there are ways for new developments further from the beach to match the value of land with these premiums.

At the end of the animation, you can start to see infill across the river from downtown Charleston with the same potency as its oldest buildings. Here’s a view from the north:

That’s I’On, a new urbanist community built back in the ‘90s. In just twenty years, this infill development achieved a property tax value on the same level as the beachfront! We can’t attribute its value to a nearby natural amenity. Instead, we contend that its value comes from its design.

We cannot build more beachfront, nor can we age existing buildings by hundreds of years. We can, however, borrow existing design choices from the longest lasting, most successful parts of Charleston. If we think of I'On as a control subject within a wider suburban experiment, it becomes clear that the market values older, more traditional development patterns. If we had the ability to fast forward our animation of development into the next hundred years, what could we expect well-designed places like downtown and I'On to look like in comparison to contemporary auto-oriented development? 


When a place of rich architectural heritage like Charleston forgoes good design for auto-oriented development, it is a tremendously wasted opportunity. Charleston already possesses a design language that withstands the test of time, and places like I’On learn from it and expand upon it. Moreover, cities that emulate traditional development like downtown Charleston earn more revenue in a small area while costing far less in infrastructure expenses.

Charleston’s storied past and promising future can teach us a lot about how walkable neighborhoods can help cities become stronger and more financially resilient. Any city can use these insights to benefit its future, even if its past doesn’t involve being sieged by Blackbeard. It is well within our capacity to build strong towns — we just have to choose to do it.

(All images and video courtesy of Urban3)