City Planning Profiles: Raleigh

The following interview was conducted with Ken Bowers, Director of Planning and Development for the City of Raleigh, NC.

Below, Bowers discusses the factors that make Raleigh one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, how the public and digital media play a role in city planning and how the Raleigh of today compares to the Raleigh of 10-15 years ago.

Raleigh is currently one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Which planning projects have led to Raleigh’s success?

Raleigh has been on a growth trajectory since its founding in 1792, so it is hard to attribute its growth to any small set of plans or initiatives. Raleigh’s growth has followed an exponential curve, so while the growth rate has tended to fall in the range of 3 to 3.5 percent per year, the absolute magnitude of growth has been trending upwards.

For a city to grow, there must be demand from households and businesses that wish to locate in the city, supply in the form of buildings and developable land, and infrastructure that supports development. On the demand side, the conception and creation of the Research Triangle Park set the stage for the modern, technology-rich economy we now enjoy and that draws an educated workforce to the region. Also on the demand side, are the plans that have made our city and region livable and desirable. Among the seminal plans were Raleigh’s Greenway Plan, the Urban Form Plan that defined appropriate locations for locally serving retail and services, the adoption of highway overlay districts, tree conservation, and a sign ordinance have given the city a richly treed landscape along its major transportation corridors. The 2003 Livable Streets Plan helped jumpstart the remarkable revival of downtown Raleigh that we are currently experiencing.

On the supply side, the City’s past use of annexation to expand its boundaries as it grew, thoroughfare plans that stitched together a disconnected street network into a functional arterial grid, the creation of Falls Lake and the EM Johnston Water Treatment Plant, and land use plans that accommodated growth have all played a major role.

Most recently, the city’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan has been the premier policy document guiding the city’s growth. This plan, adopted in 2009, departs from prior plans in terms of its stronger emphasis on infill and mixed-use development and multimodal transportation. Since 2009, more than 60 percent of new building has occurred in the centers and corridors identified in the plan. This shift has been timely, as annexation authority in North Carolina was sharply curtailed shortly after the plan was adopted.

How were these projects initially created and decided upon?

Some, like the Greenway Plan, owe their existence to visionary citizens, planners, and officials. Others were prepared by engineers in response to pressing infrastructure needs, and still others grew out of broad-based community planning processes. The 2030 Comprehensive Plan, for example, was the result of more than 50 community and stakeholder meetings—both large and small—as well as a robust online participation process.

What role has the public had in shaping these projects?

Public process has been at the core of planning practice since the 1970s, and hence most all of these plans have been built on a foundation of public meetings and input. Ideally, public input should inform the three stages of plan development—the early phases, when the vision is set and ideas are generated; the plan development phase, when ideas are tested and refined or discarded; and plan refinement and adoption, when the plan is given its final written and graphical form and goes before the governing body for approval.

How has digital media changed the face of city planning in Raleigh?

The digital revolution has transformed both how input is received and how information is disseminated. The Internet has driven the marginal cost of delivering graphically rich plans and reports to the public down to almost zero. Social media serves to both inform the public and support an online dialogue. New online civic engagement tools are broadening public involvement and reaching new audiences. Lastly, citizen planners have at their disposal access to rich data sets and research tools with which to do their own analysis.

How does the Raleigh of now compare to the Raleigh of 2005? 1995?

The current population of Raleigh is more than 432,000. The population in 1995 and 2005 was about 250,000 and 338,000, respectively. Obviously, one difference is that the city is simply bigger than it was then.

One part of the city that has changed tremendously is downtown. In 1995, downtown was little more than a tall office park and was all but deserted after business hours. There was one fine dining restaurant. The landscape was covered with surface parking lots. The political leadership had pretty much written off the prospects for any meaningful revitalization.

In 2005, downtown was showing significant signs of renewal. New restaurants and bars had opened, new condominium towers were going up, and Progress Energy and RBC bank were investing in new office buildings. However, there were still lingering doubts about the depth of the market and the sustainability of the revival.

Today, downtown is dotted with cranes. Land values are being bid up to unheard-of values. The tech industry has moved in as Red Hat, Citrix, and Ipreo are located downtown. Thousands of residential units have been built, and thousands more are on the way. The growth in restaurants and nightlife has been nothing short of astonishing. Few doubt the momentum. This growth has been accompanied by a dramatic appreciation in the value of the historic neighborhoods that ring the urban core.

Alongside these changes downtown, the city also sprawled significantly on its edges during this time period. Entire new neighborhoods and business centers sprang up in places like Brier Creek, Falls River, and Wakefield. To serve these areas, a new outer loop was constructed allowing faster car commutes into employment centers in RTP and its surroundings.

The Raleigh of today is bigger and more congested, and the old core neighborhoods are more expensive than the Raleigh of old. At the same time, it offers a much richer package of opportunities and amenities than it ever has. It has a larger and more diversified job market. The demand for unique small businesses is larger and deeper. The parks and greenway system has expanded enormously, offering more than 100 miles of greenway trails. The breadth of cultural offerings has never been better. Raleigh’s art and music scene punches well above its weight for a community of its size. In the modern world, larger metros have an economic edge. Our challenge is to take advantage of the economies of scale that come with growth while maintaining our affordability and quality of life.

What is your vision for the future of Raleigh?

As planning director, I certainly have lots of ideas for the future of Raleigh; my role is not to impose a vision but to help the community craft its own vision for what our city could be. The venue for that dialogue is our comprehensive plan, which articulates a vision for the future that includes a diversified and creative economy, vibrant mixed-use centers, an ethic of environmental sustainability and stewardship, great parks and open spaces, and a multimodal transportation system that allows more people to travel by walking, biking, and transit.

Raleigh’s secret sauce is not that it is exceptional at one or two things. Rather, what makes Raleigh a great place to live is that whatever you are looking for, you can probably find it here, and it will be more accessible and available at a lower cost than most other places. Maintaining this combination of opportunity, openness, and accessibility will continue to be the key to our success going forward.

[Video] Landmarks in order of appearance: Raleigh City Hall, NC State Capitol Building, Historical Oakwood Cemetery, Carter Finley Stadium, Oak View County Park, Moore Square, View of city, Executive Mansion, Raleigh Skyline from the Boylan Bridge

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