Raleigh Planners Keep Growth Engine Tuned

By Eric F. Frazier

The planning and economic development departments within the Raleigh government have successfully catapulted the city into national rankings for growth and economics.

That statement may prompt retorts that the private sector is the engine that drives development. No argument there, but let’s extend the vehicle metaphor: the engine must rest on a strong chassis (infrastructure), be properly fueled (demand), respond to steering (leadership), and help power a comfortable driving experience (quality of life).

Viewed this way, public administration professionals function like computer chips in your car that keep various systems in sync, maintain diagnostics, flash warnings on the dashboard, and help navigate to your destination.

Raleigh’s emergence as a leading metro area is not the fluke result of a growth spurt by a single company or economic sector. It is the byproduct of many years of proactive planning and multiple long-term initiatives designed to foster the conditions for sustainable urban growth.

“Raleigh’s secret sauce is not that it is exceptional at one or two things,” Ken Bowers, director of planning and development for the City of Raleigh, said in a recent interview. “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.”

During the past 25 years the population more than doubled, with most of the gains coming since 2000. The city has grown from roughly 91 square miles to 145 square miles in size. Bowers noted that while Raleigh has been growing since its founding in 1792, the trajectory has followed an exponential curve with the magnitude trending upward.

Raleigh saw a 45 percent increase since 2000 among residents 15 and younger. That compares to a 2 percent gain nationally.

Despite rapid growth, Raleigh remains attractive from a cost-of-living standpoint compared to Sunbelt peers Atlanta, Charlotte, and Richmond. (See chart below.) When Forbes magazine listed America’s Fastest Growing Cities of 2013, it identified lower urban-core density and more affordable housing as key factors behind Raleigh’s No. 1 growth ranking. Young families are attracted not only by lower housing costs but also natural and cultural amenities that improve livability and quality of life.

Bowers pointed to several planning initiatives that have shaped the urban environment:

  • Capital Area Greenway Trail System provides 110 miles of trails connecting many of Raleigh’s 50 neighborhood, 25 community, and nine metro parks.
  • The Urban Form Plan defined appropriate retail and service locations.
  • Highway overlay districts, tree conservation, and sign ordinances provide natural landscapes along major transportation corridors.
  • The 2003 Livable Streets Plan helped jump-start downtown redevelopment.

Notably, Raleigh appointed its first historic preservation committee in 1961, five years before the National Historic Preservation Act. Today, Raleigh has 156 Local Historic Landmarks, three National Historic Landmarks, and 28 National Register Districts. Vibrant historic urban cores are a well-recognized indicator of thriving metropolitan cities.

People who run companies want to locate in livable cities, too, particularly when the workforce reflects the educational levels and skillsets associated with having three major universities and the Research Triangle Park in the region. That’s a major reason why employment in technology, information, health care, and professional and business services is augmenting Raleigh’s traditional strengths in public administration and education.

This January, Forbes moved Raleigh to fourth place (behind oil-boom cities Houston, Austin, and Dallas) on its list of “America’s Fastest Growing Cities of 2015.” However, in May, Raleigh claimed the No. 1 spot among the “25 Best Cities for Jobs” compiled by the employment website Glassdoor.com, which considered cost of living, job satisfaction, and ratio of job openings to population. Broader publicity followed when CNN Money posted part of the list as its “Top 10 Best Cities for Jobs.” Then, in July, the Triangle Business Journal reported that the employment search firm ZipRecruiter ranked the Raleigh-Cary metro area No. 2 among Up-and-Coming Cities for Tech Jobs.

Will Raleigh continue to lead the nation in growth? Experts think so. Raleigh and Charlotte are expected to grow in population by 71 percent through 2030, making the two cities the fastest growing cities in the U.S., according to a United Nations study. That would boost Raleigh’s population to more than 738,000. Charlotte NPR affiliate WFAE talked with two North Carolina demographers, who cited strong economic growth, lower cost of living, higher immigration and migration to the state, and even better weather.

Raleigh’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2009 and now being updated, notes that the city’s 100-year average of 3.2 percent annual growth would lift the population to 800,000 by 2030. Significantly, the plan emphasizes infill and mixed-use development and multimodal transportation (walking, biking, transit) within existing jurisdictional limits, envisioning a city that is denser but with more opportunities and amenities.

“Our challenge is to take advantage of the economies of scale that come with growth while maintaining our affordability and quality of life,” Bowers observed.

Forecasting the future is challenging. Numerous public administration professionals work daily monitoring development, tweaking data, and weighing scenarios—all to provide reliable information and viable choices about how the city could grow. Over the next 15 years, that work promises to be more needed than ever.

Eric F. Frazier is an independent writer, editor, book reviewer and co-author of GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones. He holds a bachelor’s degree in geography/planning from Appalachian State University and writes often about public policy issues, particularly in the areas of science, technology, education and health. You can read his blog posts at frazeology.com or connect via Twitter @Frazeology.