“Now we don't have to move!” exclaimed a friend on election night as President-elect Obama's victory was declared. That sentiment has since been echoed by many others who were so relieved at America's change of direction on November 4th.
Such is the political divide in this nation that several of our friends and family were considering moving abroad if John McCain and Sarah Palin had been elected. They wanted no part of that America.
Obama won 52.5 percent of the popular vote to Sen. McCain's 46.2 percent, and while we and our friends are ecstatic, we should spare a thought for how the other half of the population is feeling. This is especially relevant in North Carolina, where only a few thousand votes out of millions separated the political rivals. This split is even more significant in the Charlotte region, where Mecklenburg is the only “blue” county as far as the eye can see.
Every single county in the Charlotte region outside Mecklenburg went for McCain/Palin, often by a very considerable majority. This confirms something most who pay attention already know: The values of voters in adjacent counties are often diametrically opposed to those of residents in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Simplistic comparisons unwise
A supposed gulf between rural and urban voters has long been thought a common phenomenon, but new challenges throw this traditional divide into a sharper and different focus. Simplistic comparisons between “urban” and “rural” won't work anymore: Tens of thousands of voters in the surrounding communities who rejected Obama work, shop and recreate in Charlotte and think of themselves as living an urban lifestyle.
The place we live is called “the Charlotte region” for good reason: Charlotte is the economic and cultural engine for as many as 18 surrounding counties. If Charlotte falters, the whole region suffers, and we're likely to see Charlotte's slump in fortunes ripple during the coming recession. Likewise, for the region to prosper, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has to be moving full speed ahead. Moreover, all the gears in the financial, environmental and social “machine” that comprises our region have to mesh. But with the regional population split nearly 50-50 between two sharply divergent views of America, this kind of collaboration will be hard to come by.
Yet the challenges couldn't be more urgent. The Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury Combined Statistical Area (CSA), a regional population zone including parts of both Carolinas, boasted a population of 2,191,604 in 2006. That's a lot of people sharing a crumbling infrastructure and an eco-system burdened by growth. And there's more to come: Mecklenburg alone is projected to increase by 350,000 new residents between 2000 and 2020!
Urgent need for planning
Progressive planning and investment at a regional scale are desperately needed. There's no way our region can meet the challenges of the future by operating in a fashion where every town or county does its own thing, often in deliberate opposition to its neighbors. But a collaborative approach flies in the face of the ideology of individualism that still defines America for many people. This means the kind of sophisticated, communally based planning that operates in most of our competitor nations is rarely possible in America, putting the country at a huge disadvantage.
Regional planning will be hard for many to accept, and necessary changes will be resisted fiercely. Politicians, letter writers and Buzzers will seethe at “socialist ideas” and fulminate at “pointy-headed planners” who “want to take away the American dream.”
They couldn't be further from the truth. What we all need is a new, sustainable American dream for a world where the rules have changed.
Economic forces will inexorably alter the ways we live and demand new types of development that serve the “triple bottom line” – economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and social sustainability. Can we anticipate and manage dramatic changes in the form of cities and regions in time to conserve resources, minimize pollution and regain prosperity through investment in regional infrastructures – for transit, compact land use and preserved, productive open land? Or will we react in panic and run in a thousand different, individual directions?
Collaborative planning faces enormous difficulties, and our region may indeed fail the test. But like it or not, we're all in this together.