Demographer sees megalopolis along I-85
Urban sprawl could take on a whole new meaning for the Triad and central North Carolina if projected housing and population growth patterns come to fruition by 2050.
It could lead to -- if not make necessary -- the intertwining of the Triad's economy with Charlotte and the Triangle into what a UNC Chapel Hill demographer calls a "megalopolis."
Such a region, based mostly on the Interstate 85 corridor, could resemble the urban corridor that connects Baltimore and Washington with New York and Boston, said Rebecca Triplett, the director of Carolina Demography, a unit of the Carolina Population Center.
It also could lead to the swallowing up of small- to -medium-size communities, such as Burlington, Lexington and Salisbury, which are between the three urban hubs.
Those communities likely would maintain their independence, but lose a portion of their identity.
A YouTube presentation by the UNC unit features a map of North Carolina from 1940 to 2050 that shows the progression of housing units per square mile along the I-85 corridor.
In 1940, there were fewer than 1 million housing units in North Carolina.
By 2050, there are expected to be more than 7 million housing units.
Currently, the map shows very little space along the corridor -- essentially in Alamance and Orange counties -- that has fewer than 100 housing units per square mile. The majority has more than 250 housing units, with parts of Charlotte, the Triangle, Guilford and Forsyth counties exceeding 2,000 units per square mile.
By 2050, the spaces listing more than 2,000 housing units are projected to have spread beyond the core urban areas to include Burlington, Concord and Kannapolis, with Lexington and Salisbury on the cusp.
Tippett said megalopolis is "one potential look at the future."
"Where and how development occurs is very responsive to policy and planning, and I hope this sparks conversations about what we might want North Carolina to look like in 2050."
Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University, said he could see the development of a megalopolis similar to the Washington-to-Boston corridor.
"It could have limited open space, still big cities but a blur of lower density development in-between, and commuting time would skyrocket," Walden said.
That potential for further interstate congestion, Walden said, would make "options for mass transit look much better."
"Hopefully, land planners and public decision-makers would learn from the Northeast's experience and carefully plan breaks of open space and a coordinated network of traditional transit and mass transit," Walden said.
Link to transportation
Tippett said she used historical U.S. Census data and demographic techniques to project future housing unit numbers.
She said the data can be used by businesses, local government and the public to understand potential future needs for schools or health clinics or transportation routes.
"How things have changed in the past is likely to forecast how they will change in the future," Tippett said.
"As a result, we have the ability to predict 37 years into the future where state transportation dollars may need to be spent to meet current needs. Increasingly, that spending is likely to be needed around the three urban areas."
Gov. Pat McCrory, in a letter to the editor of the Charlotte and Raleigh newspapers, said "merit, instead of political influence, will determine where transportation infrastructure is built."
Under previous Democratic administrations, there were accusations that Eastern North Carolina was given state transportation funding at the expense of urban projects.
"Relieving congestion, improving safety and fueling economic development are now the pillars of a long-term transportation strategy that will connect our rural areas to economic hubs to help rebuild towns that have been hit hard during the economic downturn," McCrory wrote.
"Job creation will be the cornerstone of smart transportation planning going forward."
Growth of cities
Tippett said Forsyth's population is projected to grow 10 percent between 2010 and 2020, and by another 7 percent between 2020 and 2030.
By comparison, she projects Guilford County's population to increase by 14 percent between 2010 and 2020, and by another 13 percent between 2020 and 2030.
Between 2010 and 2020, Mecklenburg County's population is projected to grow 23 percent, and Durham and Wake counties by 20 percent. Between 2020 and 2020, Durham and Wake are expected to maintain a 20 percent growth rate, while Mecklenburg will slow slightly to 10 percent.
The Census Bureau reported in May that Winston-Salem had 234,349 residents in 2012, a net gain of 4,732 from the 2010 estimate. Greensboro had a net gain of 7,400 people during the two-year period to 277,080.
Charlotte had a net gain of almost 44,000, remaining the state's largest city by a wide margin at 775,202.
Three Triangle cities -- Raleigh, Durham and Cary -- together had a net gain of 41,000 residents. Raleigh was at 432,179 residents, while Durham was at 239,358.
"We have never grown at the rate that the Triangle has, and quite frankly that is not necessarily a bad thing because you can outstrip your roads and so forth," said Gayle Anderson, president and chief executive of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.
Tippett said she shares Anderson's perspective that the state's rural areas will continue to shrink through 2050 as lack of sustainable jobs compel people, particularly young adults, to move to the urban areas, if not out of state.
"One-third of North Carolina's counties will lose population between 2010 and 2020," Tippett said.
Tippett said it is important for suburban communities lying between the three urban hubs to be proactive in addressing their population, transportation and economic challenges.
"They need to be stakeholders in how any megalopolis is created so they are not swallowed up along the way," Tippett said.
Winston-Salem late to the party
Triad officials are aware the region may have to take a "join 'em" rather than "beat 'em" approach to secure sustainable economic growth.
Walden said the economic recovery and long-term transition have been stronger in Greensboro than in Winston-Salem. "Greensboro has the advantage of being closer to the fast-growing Charlotte and Triangle economies," Walden said.
So much so that a statewide economic triangle -- "a sweet spot" according to Walden -- is emerging with the Triangle in the east, Greensboro in the center and Charlotte in the west.
"Winston-Salem may join the party later, but right now, the action is in the greater triangle of Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte and Greensboro," Walden said.
Tippett said the Triad, "by most standards, is doing well, especially when you compare it with similar regions out of North Carolina."
"It's just that the Triangle and Charlotte appear to be dominating the state."
John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University, said the main political aspect of the population growth is that Charlotte and the Triangle are gaining seats in the state legislature while other areas of the state are holding steady or losing seats.
"That has been the trend, and there is no sign of any reversal or lessening of this trend," Dinan said.
Journal reporter Wesley Young contributed to this article.