Comprehensive Open Space Planning in the Coastal American South: Integrating Cultural Landscapes with New Tools for Resiliency and Growth Management


Beaufort County, SC is home to a complex cultural landscape with a dynamic and complicated past and future. The combined impacts of sea level rise and population growth threaten the significant cultural resources, sustaining ecosystems, working waterfronts and agricultural landscapes that are integral to the county’s cultural lifeways.

The 2020 Beaufort County Greenprint Plan draws on science, local expertise and a community-driven process to promote forward-looking open space conservation practices that will sustain the county’s unique sense of place—balancing future growth, equitable distribution of open space, and anti-displacement strategies—as future climate models predict shifting land uses and land values.

The Greenprint Plan also provides a resiliency and open space protection focus for the county’s comprehensive plan and larger conservation community. The planning team seized this opportunity to blend old methods, such as traditional storytelling, with new digital tools, to allow for robust public engagement during COVID-19. The result is a flexible decision-making tool that embeds the open space values of the community and allows easy updating as new data and science emerge.


Ecological and Cultural Landscapes of the Lowcountry

Beaufort County’s unique natural environment and cultural landscape are intertwined and essential to the county’s sense of place, way of life, ecosystem health and economic sustainability. Both are under threat from the forces of climate change and development pressure, which will only grow in intensity as sea levels rise and the county’s population continues to grow.

More than half of Beaufort County’s 468,000 acres are tidally influenced rivers, creeks or marshes. Of the county’s dry land, two-thirds are in a flood zone. The local sea level has risen six inches since 1965. Beaufort County is already experiencing the impact of that rise in the form of more frequent tidal flooding, and scientists expect local sea levels to rise by another three to seven inches by 2040. At the same time, Beaufort County’s population has skyrocketed and is projected to grow by an additional 125% by 2035.

These climate and growth pressures create challenges for local water quality and the protection of ecosystem and habitat health. They also threaten the cultural landscapes that define sense of place – the farmland, the working waterfronts, and the specific ecological-cultural landscapes created by Gullah/Geechee communities over the span of 300 years.

The Greenprint Plan considers these multiple and intertwining layers and creates a framework—informed by community priorities—for data-driven open space conservation that balances culture, history, ecology, resiliency and growth.

Public Process and the Power of Storytelling

The Greenprint planning process happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, necessitating a creative and multi-pronged approach to community engagement.

First the landscape architect-led team met with stakeholders to develop an understanding of the complex environmental, cultural, economic and political landscape. The team compiled extensive research on water quality, habitat and cultural landscape protection in the Lowcountry, drawing on previous efforts to build a picture of the past and future trajectory of Beaufort County’s ecological and cultural landscapes.

Then the team shared that environmental story with the public and invited them to weigh in—by filling gaps, identifying and honing conservation goals, and sharing the places they love. An ArcGIS StoryMap used interactive maps and images to walk users through the importance of open space in Beaufort County and introduced a varied toolkit of conservation strategies, educating the public and laying the groundwork for public support of tools outside the county’s traditional wheelhouse of land acquisition and purchase of development rights.

The StoryMap linked to an online survey, completed by almost 1,000 residents, that gave the planning team a clear picture of the community’s conservation priorities and the different tools—land acquisition, conservation easements, conservation development incentives, development restrictions—most appropriate for different goals.

These preferences inform the open space strategies of the Greenprint Plan and growth management strategies of the comprehensive plan, and they give public officials vital political information about the steps they can take to protect the county’s ecological and cultural landscapes.

Place-Specific Methodology for Resilient Habitats

When it comes to the permanent legal protection of open space, County residents’ top priority is the protection of critical habitat. The landscape architect team relied on local expertise to define methodologies for the identification of conservation lands based on the land’s importance to regional ecosystem health and the immediacy of the threat posed to it by development and climate change.

For habitat protection, the result is an emphasis on higher-elevation lands, given that those areas face greater development pressure; lack other forms of federal and local protection afforded low-lying lands such as wetlands and the floodplain; and will be essential to accommodate future ecosystem shifts—such as marsh migration—precipitated by climate change.

The methodology is strengthened by additional economic and cultural layers: It anticipates land value shifts to protect ecosystem services at a lower cost, and it seeks to avoid displacement by protecting historical communities and heirs’ property—land without a clear title, which in Beaufort County is most often undeveloped acreage collectively owned by generations of Black families. This is a forward-thinking approach to habitat protection that demonstrates the utility of seeking local input to drive place-specific mapping methodologies.

Development, Climate Gentrification and the Protection of Cultural Lifeways

Since the 1960s, many visitors have associated Beaufort County with its long sand beaches and plantation-era ruins. But before the development of resorts on Hilton Head Island, Beaufort County was almost entirely rural, and its most historically significant cultural landscape—the communities, waterways, cemeteries and other landscapes of the Gullah/Geechee—is threatened by the pressures of climate change and development.

The development of Hilton Head Island displaced Gullah/Geechee communities, prompting the Gullah/Geechee community of St. Helena Island to develop planning, ordinance and partnership strategies to prevent the development of golf courses and resort communities there. Today St. Helena Island faces the additional threats of sea level rise, and developers seeking inland land as part of a trend of climate gentrification.

The landscape architect team worked with the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition and learned from past planning efforts on St. Helena Island and the larger Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor to develop a conservation focus that is informed by the identification and protection of cultural lifeways.

Within the Greenprint Plan and the aligned comprehensive plan are recommendations to utilize strategic partnerships, land restoration, development restrictions, tax incentives and educational programs to protect water access, working waterfronts, farmland, scenic views, historic sites and heirs’ property. The expertise of the Gullah/Geechee community informed a mapping methodology and set of strategies that will protect not just Gullah/Geechee sites, but significant cultural landscapes throughout the county.

Truly Comprehensive Planning

Comprehensive plans are often static tools that address community needs at one point in time, letting snapshots of projected growth become the foundation for the plan. This often-shortsighted perspective guides the future direction of the community for the next seven to 10 years. However, dynamic environments, where climate change and climate gentrification are happening at a rapid pace, require dynamic tools that find synergies between history, culture, the environment and economics—now and into the future.

The Greenprint Plan informs comprehensive planning through the recommendation of a Greenprint Overlay derived from a prioritization mapping model, with data inputs and weighting informed by the research and public input collected during the Greenprint planning process. The priority model is a living decision-making tool that aims to map—and highlight—land areas that have overlapping and multiple benefits to the community, within the conservation themes of Cultural Landscapes, Water Quality, Critical Habitat, Resiliency and Connectivity.

The Greenprint prioritization model was built using ModelBuilder in ArcGIS Pro. Conservation priorities can be weighted within each individual theme, and/or across multiple themes, depending on the focus of users. This is a living tool. As land areas and priorities change over time, data can be reanalyzed through the model to identify new areas for conservation strategies.

The Greenprint Overlay, which is derived from the composite Greenprint priority land map, adds a conservation lens to development ordinances by using county-specific ecological and planning transects to form a matrix that allows local planners to craft conservation, stormwater and growth management goals and policies informed by the intersection of the built environment and Beaufort County ecosystems.

Under this approach, permanent conservation and land stewardship efforts are concentrated in Rural and Natural Preserve zones. Suburban areas accommodate conservation-oriented development, allowing growth while strategically protecting critical habitat and ecosystem functions. In urban areas, there are options for promoting ecological health through Green Stormwater Infrastructure and urban forestry best management practices.

The result is a plan that meets the unique needs of a Lowcountry community with cherished and at-risk cultural and ecological landscapes. The Greenprint Plan promotes the interconnected natural, cultural and economic benefits of open space conservation, and it further deploys open space planning as a valuable framework for resilient growth management and development standards.

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):