Growth and consequences

Dec. 28, 2013 @ 03:35 PM

A statistic tucked on an inside page of The Herald-Sun the other day served as a good year-end reminder we live in a place lots of other people want to live, too.

United Van Lines, the large household-goods-moving company, analyzes where its customers are headed every year.

The overall picture – as it has been for several years – is that people are fleeing the northeast. And North Carolina is among the beneficiaries of the trend.

In fact, our state ranks third in the nation (excluding Alaska and Hawaii which, not surprisingly, aren’t included in the United numbers) in the ratio of inbound to outbound moves. 

The Associated Press report on the study didn’t give precise numbers for the Carolinas – South Carolina was second – but we’re just behind in-migration-leading Oregon, where 63 percent of the moves were coming into the state.  By contrast, the state with the highest outbound ratio, New Jersey, flipped those numbers exactly – 63 percent of the moves involving New Jersey households were headed to other states.

The numbers are a bit inexact, of course, since they count just one moving company’s customers, but over the years United says the numbers fairly reflect broad trends.

For North Carolina, they certainly dovetail with the state’s consistent rank among the top population gainers.  That is a trend that has been ongoing for decades. Today, Pat McCrory governs a state that has more than 9.7 million residents. When he was born in 1956, the state had just fewer than 4.6 million – our population has more than doubled in our current governor’s lifetime.

The state’s growth is not spread evenly.  In the first years of this decade, almost half the state’s counties lost population. But here in the Triangle, we are in the epicenter of the state’s growth.  The Raleigh-Cary metro area was the 13th fastest growing metro in the country from 2010 to 2012. Durham-Chapel Hill was the 34th fastest.

The combined population of those two metro areas, the heart of the Research Triangle region, is about 1.7 million – in other words, just over one in every six Tar Heels.

The influx of population has changed the region dramatically since the middle of the last century.  Many of those changes have been unalloyed good – greater opportunities for entrepreneurs and young people, a far richer cultural and entertainment environment, retail choices undreamed of when Raleigh was little more than a sleepy state capital and Durham was a textile-and-tobacco industrial down.

But the years ahead will likely accentuate downsides of our growth – foremost among them the highway congestion that often slows and frequently brings traffic to a stop. Vanishing green space, sprawling subdivisions and lengthening commutes, a diminished sense of community and strained infrastructures confront us.

There’s every reason to suspect those inbound moving vans will continue to outnumber the outbound, underscoring our need to think seriously about how we want to channel and shape the growth to retain the very characteristics drawing people here in the first place. 

It will be a challenge for the new year and well beyond.