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Charleston's Whimsy: A Hipster's Guide

What can we learn from a repurposed shipping container on a downtown Charleston sidewalk? Charleston South Carolina is the quintessential southern town, known for it's historic architecture, it's foodie scene and its southern charm. But beyond the brick streets and the perfectly preserved shops are inventive and whimsical designs for the 21st century like this alternative to standard sidewalk scaffolding. How does a historic city stay relevant and even hip? Change the small stuff to make a big difference.

In Miami, we think big! We have tons of failed megaprojects--monolithic buildings and complexes that were the panacea for Miami's renaissance. We may not have the sheer number of historic buildings like Charleston, but we can learn from some of their simple and creative design solutions.

Shipping Container as Sidewalk Extension:

The typical approach to construction next to sidewalk is an elaborate system of scaffolding to protect people walking from being hit by falling construction debris. They are usually ugly and pretty utilitarian. Enter the ubiquitous shipping container. You've seen them converted into galleries, retail spaces and temporary housing. Here, several are connected together to create a covered tunnel. The vibe is modern and industrial and it fits in perfectly against Charleston's historic backdrop. As an added bonus, the kids enjoyed it too.


A Secret Garden:

Leave it to the littlest one to find the biggest gem. I think this is just terrific. No longer is the ubiquitous sidewalk grate the gateway to a mysterious underground world--it's an opening to a secret garden of ferns and green plants. I'd like to think that this happened accidentally, but it's more likely that the shop owners created this little oasis to add some green to an otherwise gray sidewalk. There's not much room for trees on the typically narrow sidewalks. Here's an inventive solution to finding space for more plants.


A Surprising Urban Oasis:

Behind a church on King Street is this beautiful path which my husband tells me has been here for a long time. Despite it's age, what's appealing to me are the variety of plant textures and types which feel as if you're walking through a story book. It seemed unreal.

The path is a kind of pedestrian alley between the Unitarian Church and a row of single family houses. And some of the houses treat this path as their front door. They even have their mailboxes and entry gates facing the path. It's a little surprise tucked away for anyone to discover.


Green in Unexpected Places:

A wall of green potted plants with a planter box is another creative approach to adding green. The vibrant tile also helps to spiff up this restaurant entry, but I really love how the owner actually created space for his plants. No patch of ground to plant green trees, no problem! Go vertical!



And when space doesn't allow even a wall plant, this owner used whimsical metal sculptures of plants instead. They are even "planted" in the soil below the window of this small restaurant.

And this metal fencing closes off a restaurant courtyard to the main sidewalk. Look closely. The gate pattern is actually Charleston's street grid. The same pattern is painted on the ceiling inside the restaurant! So cool. Here the gate adorns the street and creates an intimate space on the other side.


Second Story Garden:

Pry your eyes away from this beautiful copper framed storefront and look at the second floor roof top garden. Notice how this private space adorns the street with bursts of bushy green plants. The sidewalk level is fairly stark with only two palms on either side of the storefront, but the second floor plantings create balance an fill the space.


Messages of Love:

This I just love. A simple message of tolerance and acceptance which, at first glance, looks like a regular building sign. Instead of selling the space to advertise the business, the building owner chose this statement "people matter".


A Good Place to Jump:

Finally, the true test of a place's appeal is if the kids enjoy it. This simple window ledge doubles as a launch pad for these two jumpers. This one's an oldie, but goody.

Lesson Learned:

Every place can be adapted and tweaked with small improvements, to fit the changing needs of the community. Just look at Charleston for inspiration!

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