April 2018 Park Angel of the Month: Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.

After retiring in 2016 Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. joined the board of the Charleston Parks Conservancy to continue his lifelong passion for the highest quality parks and public spaces.

Joe Riley’s passion for parks comes from an intuitive understanding of the Athenian oath that he likes to cite, wherein citizens pledged to leave their ancient city greater and more beautiful than it was left to them. And, as was said of Sir Christopher Wren, if you seek Joe Riley’s monument here, look around you.

He pursued the creation of new parks and the refurbishment of older ones with a zeal, tenacity and enthusiasm that continued unabated throughout his 40 years as the preeminent leader of Charleston. From parks in the heart of the City – like Hampton Park, Waterfront Park, Marion Square and Gadsdenboro Park – to new parks, recreation centers and pathways in newer areas of the City such as Daniel Island, James Island and West Ashley, Mayor Joe Riley understood the profound importance of adding high-quality public realm to our City. Parks, he says, are owned by everyone, and they are owned by everyone forever. He points with pride to a letter writer who, intending the statement as a pejorative, said that Joe Riley never met a park he didn’t like.

As Mayor, he strived to understand the hearts and the dreams of the citizens of his City, an understanding he received from constant engagement with them as they went about their lives and as they expressed to him their deepest wishes for Charleston. This understanding was put to work in service of parks. A fundamental rule was to understand the opportunity that each park represented to add to the public realm, to make certain that a park’s design served its purpose. In his mind’s eye, he imagined citizens using their park, and the joy and pride they would feel being in them. Together with great designers like his long-time collaborator Steve Livingston, he strove to make each addition to the public realm, as he says, “just right.”

Mayor Riley’s attention to the details of a project are legendary. From the analysis of dozens of gravel samples for the walkways at Waterfront Park or paint color samples for the renovation of City Hall, to discussions about the proper selection of tree species to ensure that sun and shade were available to park users at the right time of year, Mayor Riley felt the pressure to make sure that each addition to the public realm was the best it could be. He insisted on the highest quality materials, and made sure that designers felt the same pressure to be certain that each design decision was just right.

From the large parks to the small waysides, Mayor Riley’s passion for parks is imprinted all over twenty first century Charleston. His understanding of the profound purpose of public realm, the pride that citizens feel in spaces that are designed with the utmost care, and an understanding of the importance of simple beauty in public projects created parks that confirm that he achieved the Athenian standard: clearly this ancient and beautiful city is an even more beautiful and better place because of Joe Riley.

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