American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2007 Professional Awards
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Site Plan: Charleston Waterfront Park in context of the city. The city grid extends into the park making physical and visual connections to the Cooper River. (Photo: Sasaki Associates)

The previous brownfield condition of burned wharf buildings, surface parking and urban decay undermined the relationship of the city and the Cooper River. The site was a blight on the social and economic future of the city (1979). (Photo: Sasaki Associates)

Looking south, the civic park is in the foreground and the informal community park is in the distance to the south. (Photo: Alex MacLean, Landslides)

Any given day, the park brings residents and visitors together at the edge of the river. Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley considers the park, "this generation's gift to the future." (Photo: Craig Kuhner)

The live oak-shaded promenade of hand-made local brick. The gardens at the right provide smaller, more intimate spaces to gather. (Photo: Craig Kuhner)

The 1200 foot-long crushed stone promenade connects tourist activities to the north with the resident area to the south. (Photo: Craig Kuhner.)

The view north. In his keynote speech at the Urban Land Institute's International Waterfront Conference in Singapore, October 3, 2005, ULI President Richard M. Rosan cites Charleston Waterfront Park as one of the most successful waterfront parks in the world. (Photo: Alex MacLean, Landslides)

The more informal residential park to the south terminates at a garden walk onto Adger's Wharf, a restored 17th century wood pier. (Photo: Alex MacLean, Landslides)

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Charleston Waterfront Park, Charleston, South Carolina
Sasaki Associates, Inc., Watertown, Massachusetts
client: City of Charleston

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"Simple, elegant, urbane; it really works socially, is timeless, and is built to last.  It jumpstarted the reclamation of downtown as we know it today and turned the city back to the water—just one instance of the exemplary public realm created over many years by Mayor Joe Riley. Mayor Riley made this project a reality; he used a public landscape to turn this city around and reclaim its waterfront. The details are so beautifully thought out: it has the scale of a great urban promenade, the materials are appropriate, even the handmade brick provide both power and beauty; this park is a brilliant and durable addition to Charleston that just continues to get better and better."

— 2007 Professional Awards Jury Comments

Project Statement

Charleston Waterfront Park established an important precedent for preserving the water’s edge for public use by all through partnership between local leadership and a landscape architect, who gives form to civic aspirations. The innovative design integrates significant sustainable and urban design ideas with the landscape architecture. The park remains a catalyst for investment in the city, creating far more value than private development. The park is a beloved symbol of the city’s transformation.

Project Narrative

As is the case in many cities, Charleston’s waterfront, the Cooper River, suffered from an industrial history of use followed by abandonment. Charleston’s older port facilities became obsolete and the upland activities migrated away. The marshland that existed before industry intervened was ruined. The original surrounding environment of adjacent neighborhoods, which had grown up around the early port economy, are among the most historic in the city. By the early 1980’s these areas were languishing, however, and the waterfront itself had been given over to surface parking.

The original intent was to establish the waterfront as a public space and to stimulate economic growth to turn around the declining neighborhood and launch a larger city regeneration. Before any work could begin on the waterfront, sites for new parking structures were identified and built to accommodate necessary parking displaced from the waterfront. Conceiving of the site as both a neighborhood park and a public park, Mayor Riley lead the design team on a day long tour of Charleston so that the team could understand the flavor of the neighborhood and city at large. The local materials, design, culture, and way of life influenced every decision.

“The park constitutes a major civic contribution, that its popularity with all segments of the city has exceeded expectations and that, altogether, ‘it is an extraordinary piece of work’.”
- The Waterfront Center Awards Jury, 1992

The graceful parkland along Charleston’s Cooper River visible today belies the fundamental design challenges of this important transformation. The site lies on former marshland with unstable soils; hurricanes batter this side of the peninsula; the elevation of the site was considerably below the flood level; derelict piles and contaminated soils created polluted and unattractive waters; surface parking was the dominant use; blocks of Condor Street would have to be removed to truly reconnect the people to the waterfront; and surrounding neighborhoods and the downtown were in heavy decline.

Because new paving and other site structures would settle on the unstable marsh soils, the design team crafted a strategy to preload the soils and wick out water. This multi-year process required patience but ensured that the available funding was sufficient to carry out the park improvements. High winds and tides needed to be considered in the design and layout of all park elements from the bulkhead to the furnishings. Project construction and materials were designed to last hundreds of years.

Reconnecting the city and people to the waterfront required connecting the human systems of the city and the natural systems of the waterfront. This greatly changed the original surrounding environment of the neighborhood. The city grid extends into the park making physical and visual connections to the Cooper River. This framework creates site lines for landmarks and active areas at the termini of primary streets. Shaded by tree canopy, quiet garden rooms of varied design connect to the city edge became extensions of the urban form.

The shaded urban park opens up to the gracious lawn overlooking the river and the formality of the city grid gives way to a more organic organization of space based on the water’s edge. The large public lawn frames the center fountain which brings water into the park strengthening the visual land water connection. The 1,200 foot palmetto lined esplanade follows the natural water line ensuring public access to the water’s edge. Restored salt marshes sweep out into the river from the esplanade edge, creating valuable habitat and a rich visual experience, while keeping the memory of the former port with the pattern of pilings and inevitable deposition at the mouth of the river.

The aspiration to improve the community context based on Charleston’s southern heritage and future rebirth was deeply shared by the mayor, community, and the design firm. Reaching out to the community which consists of old and young, black and white, wealthy and poor, was very important for success.

Exemplified by the hiring the local traditional iron worker Philip Simons to create artwork for the park gateway, project goals included integrating Charleston’s past and future, reaching out to all groups represented in the community, such as African Americans and the elderly, and stimulating the local economy.

“It is now a glorious part of the public realm and it is enjoyed by local and regional residents and tourists. It is a very democratic place, as it should be.” - Joseph P. Riley, Jr., Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina

Social concerns were a major driving force in the design of the park. Great care was taken to create a true public space for everyone, not a few. Instead of the originally proposed yacht tie up, the head of the new 365-foot pier was designed for recreational fishing, thereby making it available to everyone regardless of wealth. The long pier also allows people to experience the deep water beyond the salt marsh. Lighting was kept to a minimum so that in the evening the stars would be easily seen. Also of great concern was the environment. The Charleston Waterfront Park needed to be sustainable in every way, environmentally, economically, and socially.

At every level, the park design demonstrates sensitivity to the environment. Sustainable solutions extend from the engineering ideas to economic development to the restoration of salt marsh that offer habitat, cleanse pollutants, and buffer the land from the force of coastal storms. Committed to preserving and enhancing the salt marsh habitat that was gradually reclaiming the derelict port with its accumulated silts, the area has been mitigated and a robust river habitat now flourishes. This unique estuarine environment reveals the area’s marine ecology and wildlife while serving as a stunning element that unifies the entire park.

Since the park opened, property values in the neighborhood have risen and tourism is up. Many successful renovation and infill projects now line the blocks near the park, as outlined in the design firm's urban plan that preceded the waterfront design. It is considered a favorite amenity by residents and a must see by tourists.
With real concern for sustainability and preservation, the 17th century Adger’s Wharf pier was restored and was rebuilt in the original footprint with the original granite which was fished out of the river and reused. The pier was reconstructed using log cribbing construction of native palmetto trees to last for many generations.

Charleston Waterfront Park has had tremendous impact on the public realm, influencing and shaping the civic realm of American cities and elevating the role of landscape architecture. Although Charleston is a relatively small city, the Mayor’s philosophy of civic beauty and his pride in Charleston Waterfront Park has carried the message across the country over the course of this generation. Both Mayor Riley and the design firm have received multiple national awards for the waterfront and its local and national impact. Charleston Waterfront Park is still cited among the worlds great innovative waterfront successes.

Significantly impacting the profession and practice of landscape architecture, the park was a breakthrough on many fronts, setting the standard for design values that are taken for granted today. The design of the park is indicative of thoughtful research into a community and culture to create a park that resonates with local residents and endures over time as an authentic experience. The success of the park rests on the engaged leadership of the local constituency that can express aspirations and the landscape architect who can express these aspirations in design through form, materials and sustainability.

The park is successful in demonstrating the role of open space in urban regeneration. Rather than exploit the value of the 13 acres for private development, the park has played an important role in improving the economic status of the downtown as a whole and the entire district surrounding the park.

Charleston Waterfront Park has become a beloved destination for people of all ages. The design has stood the test of time, as the park’s popularity continues unabated.

SELECTED AWARDS FOR CHARLESTON WATERFRONT PARK - ASLA, Honor Award, 1999 | Presidential Design Awards, Federal Design Achievement Award, 1991 | BSLA, Design Award, 1991 | The Waterfront Center, Top Honor Award, “Excellence on the Waterfront” Awards, 1992 | The Waterfront Center, Honor Award, “Excellence on the Waterfront” Awards, 1990 | American Association of Nurserymen, National Landscape Award, 1993

Project Resources

Master Planning, Urban Design, Landscape Architecture, Civil Engineering:
Sasaki Associates, Inc.

Local Landscape Architect:
Edward Pinckney Associates, Ltd.

Electrical Engineers:
Holladay, Coleman & Associates

Structural Engineer:
David Carsen

Geotechnical Engineers:
LAW & Associates, Inc.

Ruscon Construction Company, Inc


The salt marsh and Adger's Wharf - where the relationship with the Cooper River is most intense. 'The waterfront park is without a doubt one of the most beautiful in the nation,' Charles de Williams of The Post and Courier. (Photo: Craig Kuhner)

The southern end of the promenade looking north. Meandering along the waterline in the residential area of the neighborhood, the promenade becomes more informal and intimate as it winds south. (Photo: Craig Kuhner)

Framed by the live oak bosque to the west and the palmetto-lined promenade to the east, the Great Lawn provides space to play and view the river. (Photo: Craig Kuhner)

Materials are from local quarries and masons and designed to last hundreds of years. Timeless design takes the city grid into the park creating intimate spaces for conversation and shaded protection from the hot southern sun. (Photo: Craig Kuhner)

Vendue Plaza, with its interactive fountain and blue stone paving, is one of the landmark spaces that celebrates the meeting of the city grid and the river. (Photo: Craig Kuhner)

After a major clean up and restoration, the natural estuarine environment now flourishes. The dramatic sweeping salt marsh is beautiful and iconic, as well as beneficial to all local life, human and other. (Photo: Sasaki Associates)

The waterfront park integrates seamlessly with the context of historic Charleston. The original urban design strategy is completed by infill builidngs and the regeneration of the adjacent neighborhood. (Photo: Alex MacLean, Landslides)

Dawn at Charleston Waterfront Park. (Photo: Craig Kuhner)

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