Charleston, South Carolina

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POPULATION: 97,000 // MEDIAN AGE: 33 // MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $248,000 // AVERAGE COMMUTE: 20 min.

You can't capture a sense of place and charm in a bottle, of course. But Charleston has come pretty close. In the past 30 years, this port city on the peninsula where the Cooper and Ashley rivers flow into Charleston Harbor has become a lively, subtropical magnet for young creative types, families, and the water-obsessed. The city's revival has coincided with the 30-year mayoral tenure of Joe Riley, who, starting in the 1970s, spearheaded the redevelopment of a down-at-the-heels business district and the creation of lovely Waterfront Park, along the Cooper River. A model of cultural preservation, Charleston formed the nation's first historic district, in 1931, to protect its narrow "single houses," piazzas, and lush garden courtyards. Geography—especially the tracts of undeveloped marshland that beckon in either direction along the coast—also wields a powerful influence. "It's easy to be a conservationist here," says Dana Beach, of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, which is at work on land-use, water-quality, and forestry campaigns in the Charleston area. "People talk about it at cocktail parties. They see it as part of their heritage."

PROGRESSIVE CRED // Keeping the waterfront accessible to all is an ongoing quality-of-life issue in Charleston; a four-mile promenade along the peninsula is 80 percent complete. Although battles over outlying growth and sprawl are heating up, a new county sales tax, passed in May, will fund public transportation and green space. The city has also pioneered scattered-site affordable housing, mixing low-income tenants with market-rate homes.
LIVABILITY // The economy's sizzling: Next to tourism, the port (second-largest on the East Coast), the Medical University of South Carolina, and the military are major players, alongside a host of thriving startups: iPod accessories, software for nonprofits, and robot helicopters. On weekends, locals catch waves at Folly Beach, sail the harbor, and hike and bike among 300 bird species in Francis Marion National Forest.
YOU'LL LOVE IT IF // You think "approaching hurricane" is a quaint southern expression meaning "great surf."

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