Revitalizing an Urban Village: The Example of the Sterling Community

by Thomas Schurch, ASLA

A master plan for a portion of the Sterling Neighborhood depicts street upgrades, public spaces including a memorial square at a highpoint of the site, townhouses inspired by historic mill houses, and accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Inclusive of the plan is geothermal and solar renewable energy, green stormwater management, and public safety using principles of CPTED. Click here to view at a larger scale. / image: Sterling Community Design Studio, Clemson University, 2018

The Sterling Community in Greenville, South Carolina, is a significant, legacy Black neighborhood in the Southeast. With its remarkable emergence in the 1890s through establishment of a high school for young Black Americans by Reverend Daniele Melton Minus, a tradition for education and excellence was begun. The son of former slaves, Reverend Minus was supported by philanthropist Mrs. E.R. Sterling, for whom the school and later the neighborhood were named. Sterling High School was ultimately adopted by the public school system, a new and prominent building was built, and it became a center of educational, social, and spiritual life in the community and neighborhood.

The neighborhood’s significance in the Civil Rights Movement during and prior to the 1960s and beyond is particularly noteworthy, as partially evidenced by the prominence of Jesse Jackson, who was raised there. In 1967, at a time of integration, Sterling High School was mysteriously burned to the ground—a great loss for the community. With organized efforts within the Movement, Sterling High School’s student body implored the Greenville County School Board to maintain the school’s integrity. It remained a viable institution until 1970, when integration was fully implemented.

In intervening years, outmigration of residents, subsequent neighborhood decline, and recent gentrification of surrounding areas did not diminish Sterling’s place in history as a center of African American life and vitality—a tribute to its legacy and importance. The Sterling Community Trust, formed by Sterling High School graduates in partnership with the City of Greenville, the Greenville County Redevelopment Authority (GCRA), and the Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, represented a broad coalition for neighborhood revitalization.

Eight years ago, the Sterling Hope Center—affiliated with Bon Secours St. Francis and dedicated to neighborhood revitalization—contacted the landscape architecture program at Clemson University. Working with the Center and the Sterling Land Trust, Clemson faculty and graduate students began an ongoing and close working relationship along with other members of the greater coalition working for Sterling’s redevelopment. In particular, the Trust was interested in real progress involving real estate development, in which the Clemson faculty and student teams offered guidance and collaboration that has been ongoing for several years.

Presentations to the community and inviting its input through all phases of the work were inherent to the design development process. Partnering and collaboration in this respect occurred between members of the community trust and the Clemson University design team. / image: Thomas Schurch, ASLA

With respect to urban design and urban form, these three entities—Clemson, the Trust, and the Center—worked together towards “visioning” inclusive of compatible mixed-use development, affordable housing, renewable energy (geothermal and solar), CPTED, public health, and community art. With high-quality design outcomes in hand, the Sterling Trust was positioned to demonstrate its commitment to revitalization, and to seek outside funding. In these various endeavors, Trust members were a part of the Clemson design teams and design development, and important factors of collaboration and trust were established. Importantly, design outcomes have received ASLA chapter awards and recognition in design and community service through the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).

Greenville, South Carolina’s Main Street; streetscape by Lawrence Halprin / image: City of Greenville

Regarding revitalization, Sterling’s location is fundamental—it is within walking distance of Greenville’s revitalized central business district. The CBD started in the 1970s with an extensive streetscape design by Lawrence Halprin to combat outmigration and to reinvigorate a city center that had been “boarded up.” While the advantage here is obvious, the downside is that gentrification has creeped in and housing affordability—a key mission of the Trust—was at issue. In addressing the challenge, the Trust had a two-fold implementation strategy:

  • first, maintain ownership of the properties,
  • and second, offer housing that fits demographic characteristics of the market that it seeks to serve, rather than the market forces of gentrification, with adherence to current zoning requirements.

Historically, housing in the Sterling neighborhood was characterized by “mill housing,” as typifies much of the Upstate’s history of the fabric mill economy. Despite nearly all of it being dilapidated, this history loomed large and became inspiration for the architectural character of housing to replace it. However, in responding to the Trust’s program and shifts in demographics and economics, proposed housing varies from the historic detached example and proposes two typologies: townhouse and accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

The final proposed design for the Sterling Community Memorial. Click here to view at a larger scale and to see the design alternatives. / image: Thomas Schurch, ASLA

True to standards of good urban form, modest commercial-retail enterprise, offsetting adversities of motor vehicle traffic, and civic landscape resources are significant to the visioning efforts. The latter takes into accounts walkable streets, connectivity to outlying areas including adjacent resources of the Greenville County Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Department (GCPR&T) for public health, lighting and visibility through Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), a memorial square that links proposed redevelopment to the site of the historic high school, and public art.

Community gardens and development of urban agriculture were integral to community vesting and engagement. / image: The Hope Center, Bon Secours St. Francis

Importantly—and not adequately considered in the greater context of urban form—community gardens and urban agriculture have precedence in the Sterling community, with support from various sources including Bon Secours St. Francis, the Greenville County Recreation Junior Master Gardener program, GCPR&T, and the Trust. Clearly important to public health in a “food desert” area, community gardening contributes to nutritious diets, provides habitat for pollinator species, and adds to the aesthetic quality of the setting. And, of course, the operative term in “community gardens” is “community.” The gardens are a basis for occasional market days, an empowerment movement to address community issues, social interaction, and education.

Clemson’s MLA students worked with the Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail program to produce durable renditions of historic quilts from the Sterling Neighborhood. To date, five 8’x8’ quilt art pieces have been permanently affixed to the exterior of Sterling Community Center building. / image: Thomas Schurch, ASLA

Also significant to the visioning efforts, public art has given the community resources to rally around. Partnering with the Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail program, the Clemson Landscape Architecture Program used the inspiration of several historic quilts from community residents that were reproduced as durable, oversized panels that are permanently affixed to the Sterling Community Center building. One noteworthy example captures the culturally significant Underground Railroad Movement of the pre-Civil War period, in which quilts were used with encoded symbols in their patterns, hung outside of homes, and thereby guided escaping slaves out of captivity. A prominent example of this artwork is featured at the community center entry.

The quilt pictured here at the entry of the Sterling Community Center includes secret symbols used by the Underground Railroad to guide escaped slaves to freedom in the North. Poignantly, those running the Underground Railroad used actual coded quilts that hung out-of-doors to guide escaped slaves to safe harbor. / image: Thomas Schurch, ASLA

A significant “take away” of the visioning and real outcomes for Sterling was development of a broad coalition of the many parties referenced in this article. The landscape architect as generalist, prime consultant, and working within a political framework is significant in this regard. This matches landscape architecture’s role and definition as a generalist profession wherein application of a resource database containing natural and human cultural inventory data is fundamental to the design process. In an era of specialization there is great value to be found there.

Moreover, with these various efforts of urban visioning with the Clemson Landscape Architecture Program, the Sterling Land Trust exemplifies a dedication to urban community revitalization. Acquisition of real property, growing community members’ involvement, and broadening the story of a remarkable piece of history in the Southeast is showing tangible outcomes demonstrating how urban design and revitalization go hand in hand.

The author – in the middle – with officers of the Sterling Community Trust. Mack Lockhart is on the left; James Thompson is on the right. / image: Clemson University

Thomas Schurch, PhD, ASLA, PLA, is Professor of Landscape Architecture+Urban Design at Clemson University and past co-chair of the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN). He will be inducted into ASLA’s Council of Fellows at the 2021 ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville later this month.

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