The Charlotte region is surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscapes – farm, forest and village – that we've seen anywhere on the American continent. It has fine older cities, from Salisbury to Rock Hill, and many exquisite neighborhoods, especially the closer-in, more seasoned ones.
But the way people and activities have been scattered about, as new subdivisions occupy more and more former farmland, has had serious consequences.
Whenever the growth edge of the Charlotte region advances outward a few more miles, the new residents require new roads, schools, sewers, libraries, police stations and fire stations. Electric and other utility lines must be extended. The costs rise exponentially. The region's residents and businesses must, in effect, subsidize that growth.
And as the cities, region and state try to keep up with all this growth, among the places that suffer are existing neighborhoods and districts.
Drive down Albemarle Road, Independence Boulevard and Sharon Amity Road in east Charlotte, along Wilkinson Boulevard to the west, or Sugar Creek Road in the north. Go visit Eastland Mall. You'll find a depressing scene of abandoned stores, decaying parking lots, supermarkets now standing empty or converted to check-cashing places.
The great American throwaway-society syndrome is alive and well in “Charlotte USA.”
Yet the Charlotte region can improve its economic performance by treasuring its fine old towns and neighborhoods. The more it can grow in, not out, and spend tax dollars on existing roads, sidewalks, train lines, street signs and the like, the higher the quality of life will be for residents.
Investing in alternatives to the car is not an eat-your-spinach strategy. It's a living better strategy.
A region where people can choose to drive – or to walk, bicycle, take a streetcar, take a light rail line, take a train out of town or take an airplane to another state – is a better place to live.
If “growing inward” became the prevailing practice, the pattern could help the region become more socially cohesive.
Charlotte's immigrant population is growing. The Latino population, almost nonexistent when we did our 1995 report, is at more than 10 percent of the city's population. Spread-out development encourages segregated enclaves. Growing inward can help differing populations mix – as already proven on Central Avenue, with its lively restaurant array and delicious mix of ethnic foods.
Growing inward, as some fear, does not increase crime rates. New York, the densest and biggest city in the country, has a crime rate significantly lower than Charlotte's.
Nor does growing inward necessarily mean growing “up” physically. Charlotte, outside uptown, does not need many tall buildings. Growing inward means filling in the blank spaces, including, in time, some of today's tawdry commercial strips.
The towns and cities of the region could have many times the number of people as they do now, without requiring any new buildings above two or three stories.
Finally, growing in enables a region to more easily preserve its farms and forests. Buying development rights, for example, is easier when there's not a highway scheduled to come right by the strawberry field or dairy farm. Farms in Iredell, Union and Rowan are a precious part of the region's assets, and assets that shouldn't be swept away for a few more subdivisions.
To date, most serious land conservation in the Charlotte region has come through voluntary conservation easements negotiated by nonprofit land trusts. One impressive effort in western Rowan County has preserved several thousand acres of farmland. But if this region is to succeed in protecting significant acreage for farms, wildlife habitat and recreational, local land trusts can't do it alone.
Local governments must get active. They should: provide money to buy development rights, offer more property tax relief for undeveloped land, and make strategic land use and infrastructure decisions for areas they don't want to develop. As planners say about sewer lines, “Growth follows the pipe.”
A piece of positive news is that a different form of development, one that saves land and fosters social interaction, has arrived and flourished in the Charlotte region in the last 15 years. It's called “New Urbanism,” and it's modeled after the way towns and neighborhoods were built 100 years ago. Examples can be found in Davidson, Huntersville and Fort Mill's Baxter Village. If the New Urbanist towns are tied to effective transit, with bus and rail service handy, their growth and intimate physical settings can add convenience and beauty to a region that grows sensibly “in” rather than “out.”
We'll take a more careful look at the character and potential of the region's towns in next month's installment.