Did you know that an average of 44 people move to Charlotte every day, and we are projected to become the second fastest-growing large U.S. city through 2030? Whether you’ve lived in the area for decades or only a few months, you’ve likely noticed signs of growth all over town. A glance at Uptown’s skyline reveals numerous residential and commercial projects under construction. Development and re-development are booming in our urban neighborhoods, too.
But how do we ensure that Charlotte remains an attractive place to live and work as we prepare to welcome 400,000 new residents over the next 25 years? This is an exciting time for Charlotteans to shape the future of our city by making sustainable choices today.
In past decades, Charlotte’s swelling population rapidly expanded into previously undeveloped forest and farmland by building suburban shopping centers with vast surface parking lots, single-family homes on large lots, office parks far from residential areas, and an extensive road network designed almost exclusively to move cars as quickly as possible between them. Regionally, this led to a five-fold increase in our human footprint, or amount of developed land per person, between 1976 and 2006. In fact, Smart Growth America has now identified the Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill area as the 5th most sprawling large metro area in the nation. Past growth patterns have contributed to a number of economic, social, and environmental problems that our region is now struggling to correct.
Fortunately, there is a smarter way to grow. Smart growth means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops, and schools. This approach supports local economies, protects the environment, and furthers opportunities for all.
Sustain Charlotte is the voice for smart growth strategies in our region because we believe that this proven approach to development is critical for our community’s sustainability.
Strong local economy
A resilient workforce is a strong workforce. When workers have convenient and affordable transportation to employment centers or are able to live within close proximity, both employers and workers benefit. A U.S. Census Bureau report found that accessibility to jobs significantly reduces the duration of joblessness among unemployed workers. We are seeing a nation-wide market trend towards more compact development. According to development expert Christopher Leinberger, housing prices in walkable urban places have about a 40-200% premium over drivable single-family housing. Smart growth also reduces the combined cost of transportation and housing, which currently makes up more than 50% of the average household budget. Smart growth even helps local governments make the most of their budgets by reducing the cost of infrastructure like roadways and water systems.
Safe and healthy environment
Smart growth strategies protect the air we all breathe, the water we all drink, and our world-famous tree canopy. Sprawling, car-centric development increases air pollution from our vehicles because it results in residents taking longer and more frequent trips by car. It also increases water pollution as more roads, parking lots and rooftops lead to more runoff into our streams and rivers. In fact, the Catawba River -- the source of our drinking water -- has twice been named one of the most endangered rivers in the nation due to the runoff caused by unsustainable development practices.
These types of pollution can be reduced by locating housing, jobs, and stores nearer to each other (commonly called mixed-use development) and providing safe and convenient opportunities for residents to ride transit, walk, or bike between them.
Opportunity for all
Charlotte ranks last among the largest 50 U.S. cities for upward mobility of children born into poverty. Lack of safe and convenient ways to get from home to work or school by bicycling, walking, or transit is a hurdle to economic opportunities that can lift people out of poverty. Families in Mecklenburg County spend an average of 23% of their annual income on transportation costs, much more than the 17% national average. When children and college students can walk or bike to school, and parents can save more than $7,000 per year by taking the bus or light rail to work instead of driving, the savings allow our region’s residents to improve their economic situation.
The link between development and transportation
The ways that we develop our land and build our transportation systems are inextricably linked in a cyclical cause-and-effect relationship. Dense development supports the high population density necessary to make mass transit economically feasible, and it allows people to live within walking or bicycling distance to work or school. Investment in safe transit, bicycling, and walking networks create an inviting atmosphere for developers to build residential, retail, and office buildings more compactly. When we get all of the elements of smart growth right, the result is a city that offers a variety of transportation and housing choices for all who call Charlotte home.
Learn more about how Charlotte-Mecklenburg is doing as well as our recommendations for each of the nine major community issues below.
Mecklenburg County currently exceeds the federal limit for ground-level ozone – primarily due to tailpipe emissions. Providing more safe, affordable, and convenient alternatives to driving, and replacing suburban sprawl with more compact, walkable, and transit-oriented development are critical steps to improve our air quality. Read more
Residential electricity consumption in Mecklenburg County is 21% higher than the national average, while residential natural gas consumption is 4% lower than the national average. To meet our long-term energy needs, it will be important to set ambitious and achievable goals for increasing local renewable energy use and provide information to citizens and businesses to help meet those goals, as well as work with federal and state governments to ensure that tax credits for renewable energy and energy efficiency are continued. Read more
The cost of transportation as a percentage of income is growing, with the average Mecklenburg household spending 26% of income on transportation. A key step towards increasing equity in our sprawling metro area is to give existing communities priority for economic development dollars to encourage infill development, reuse or improvement of existing structures, and compact mixed-use development that offers opportunities for pedestrian-friendly economic growth supportive of affordable housing and commuting options. Read more
Although a lower percentage of Mecklenburg residents live in food deserts (defined as urban areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket, or urban areas more than 10 miles) than the national average, past land development decisions and our low population density have created sixty food deserts in the county. Incentives such as reduced permitting fees to reduce the up-front construction cost of full-service grocery stores as infill development in food deserts, and zoning for the use of city and county properties for temporary farmers’ markets would increase access to nutritious foods. Read more
While unemployment figures have improved since 2009, local unemployment is still three times higher than in 2000. Wages and employment rates could be improved locally by identifying the existing skills mismatch between the pool of unfilled jobs and unemployed workers, then working with local businesses and educational organizations to develop workforce training for unemployed workers in order to meet employer needs. Read more
The Charlotte metro area was recently identified as the fifth most sprawling large metro in the US. Mecklenburg has more developed acreage per capita than the national average, and the local trend is worsening. Planning future land use strategically by developing policy documents that set specific measurable goals rather than vague aspirations -- and adhering to them -- will be critical to improving land use. Read more
While more workers are commuting by biking, walking, or taking public transit than in the past, we still lag far behind the national average for these modes, and the majority of workers (83% in 2011) commute in single occupancy vehicles. We recommend increasing the level of current transportation spending for transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure by decreasing spending for expanding road capacity in outlying areas, as the latter encourages further sprawl and more driving. Read more
Mecklenburg County’s increased collection of yard waste, dramatic decline in construction and demolition debris, and significant decline in commercial waste have led to a decrease in the overall amount of waste being sent to local landfills. However, our per person rate of recycling processed by the county and the amount of residential waste landfilled per person have remained nearly unchanged since 1999. Enacting a “pay as you throw” pricing system for residential waste pickup is recommended to discourage waste generation and incentivize waste reduction strategies such as recycling and composting. Read more
The population size of Mecklenburg County is growing rapidly, yet our water resources are limited. Average annual residential water consumption in Mecklenburg County is decreasing and we use less water per household than the national average. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department should continue comprehensive water audits, benchmarking, and incorporating the projected impacts of climate change into long-term plans to target consumption reductions and meet the water needs of a growing population. Read more