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Embracing the complexity of N.C. urbanization

From Jeff Michael, director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute:

It’s a quirky fact: All three of the most recent directors of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute came, not from large urban centers but from small, rural communities. Jim Clay, director 1979-1984, was from Crum, W.Va. Bill McCoy (director 1985-2001) hailed from Ekron, Ky. And me? It’s a stretch for me to try to claim the rural Stanly County community where I grew up as being in either Albemarle or Badin, much less Charlotte.

But what we may have lacked in urban sophistication we made up for in our conviction that great metropolitan regions are a healthy mix of interdependent relationships between urban, suburban and rural communities, and that a metropolitan-oriented university like UNC Charlotte should play a central role in advancing the concept of regionalism through research and dialogue, fostering awareness of those interdependencies within an urbanizing context.

We’ve paid even closer attention recently to what it means to be a university-based, applied research center focusing on an urbanizing region, as the institute has developed a five-year strategic plan in preparation for our 45th anniversary in 2014. Our goal: to build on the institute’s historic mission and strengths while recognizing that the Charlotte region and UNC Charlotte are significantly different places than when the institute was founded in 1969.

Among the many questions we explored was this: What does it mean, in 2013, to be an institute with the word “urban” in its name? Does that suggest a focus only on the urban core? Or do we define it as the larger metropolitan area, where ongoing urbanization is dramatically changing some places while subtly influencing others?

Our process reaffirmed the institute’s focus on the broad view of the region, including urban and suburban, small town and rural.

We recognized, again, that the difficult challenges facing a growing region like Charlotte are too interconnected to be addressed in isolation. Persistent rural poverty 45 miles outside Charlotte is directly related to economic opportunities and affordable housing in the core. Traffic congestion in suburban communities is connected to residential and employment patterns elsewhere in the region. Prospects for a healthy agricultural economy are increasingly tied to regional distribution networks, as well as wise land use decisions in neighboring communities.

Urbanization has transformed much of the Piedmont Crescent that runs along Interstate 85 from the Research Triangle Park south to the Greenville-Spartanburg area. How can the institute leverage its expertise on urbanizing regions, gained from studying the Charlotte region for nearly five decades, to assist other Carolinas communities wrestling with the effects of growth?

Posted this month on our website (http://ui.uncc) is a photo gallery from Charlotte photographer Nancy Pierce that captures the diversity and complexity of an urbanizing region like Charlotte. Her virtual tour depicts the historic U.S. 21 corridor from Statesville, N.C., to Great Falls, S.C. Images show historic transportation links (antebellum roads and canals), country stores, 1950s curbside restaurants and new apartments along Charlotte’s light rail line, as well as the waterways that literally and figuratively tie us together. It’s a tapestry of interconnectedness.

Yet while the images are from one of America’s fastest growing metro regions, many would still be familiar to people in Crum, W.Va., or Ekron, Ky. That’s a reminder of just how complex the urbanizing regions of the South are. And it’s a metaphor for the work the institute will keep pursuing in decades to come.

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