Resisting Inevitable Urbanization

In North Carolina, lawmakers don't want to embrace the state’s shift away from rural, small-town life. But their efforts may be futile.
December 2015
The fictional small-town Mayberry on "The Andy Griffith Show" was set in North Carolina. (CBS Television)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

When North Carolina became a state, upon ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, it was far and away the nation’s biggest backwater. Virtually alone among the original 13 colonies, it had nothing remotely resembling a city. The inhabitants didn’t do much except raise tobacco; most of the modest population centers were sleepy market towns scattered along the rivers in the eastern part of the state. Coastal Wilmington, the largest place in 1850, had only 7,000 people.

After the Civil War, medium-sized cities began to emerge: Raleigh and Durham in the center; Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem in the Piedmont farther west; and Asheville in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains.

But it’s fair to say that North Carolina never thought of itself as an urban state. It didn’t have a monstrous capital city, as its neighbor Georgia did, and it had almost nothing in common with the thoroughly citified states farther north along the Eastern Seaboard. Its political leaders tended to come from little towns that nobody outside the state’s borders had heard of. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that the fictional Mayberry was in North Carolina, or that its sheriff was played by Andy Griffith, who came from Mount Airy, a town at the northern end of the state that was home to barely 5,000 people at the time he was growing up there.

But in the past generation, and especially in the past decade, North Carolina’s image as an old-fashioned small-town state has been increasingly difficult to maintain. Barack Obama carried it in 2008, and he came within about 2 percentage points of doing the same four years later, separating North Carolina from virtually the entire rest of the South. Between 2000 and 2010, North Carolina had one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations of any state. Its total number of immigrants is still less than 10 percent, but to many traditional North Carolinians that seems like an inundation.

In any case, the old pretensions no longer apply. Charlotte crossed the line into undeniable big-city status in the 1980s and 1990s as Bank of America and Wachovia Bank (now Wells Fargo) competed with each other to erect imposing clusters of skyscrapers a few blocks from each other in what had been a fairly modest southern downtown. Earlier, Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill had combined forces to host the Research Triangle, an emblem not so much of urbanism per se but of northern-style academic sophistication unrelated to anything in the state’s economic past history. Meanwhile, Asheville was acquiring a bohemian downtown that attracted artists and aspirants to the counterculture from all over America.

So one way or another, almost all of North Carolina’s larger cities are now confronting questions not about whether to pursue an urbanist future, but about what sort of urbanist future theirs is likely to be.

Charlotte is getting ready to embark on a total rewrite of its zoning code, even though the current one dates back only to 1992, not an unusually long time in the zoning game. City planners are promoting what would be very largely a New Urbanist master plan, one that would call for walkable neighborhoods, mixed-use projects and dense development in the center.

The new document is expected to feature the “form-based codes” that are becoming fashionable in large Northern cities. This means that building plans will be accepted or rejected according to the nature and quality of their design, not the use for which the structure is intended, as has been true for the past 100 years all over America. “Charlotte is behind the curve,” city planner David Walters told a local newspaper reporter a few weeks ago. “Our zoning codes are hopeless about urban design.”

So far, the city government and the real estate development community seem equally favorable to all this; the opposition has come from neighborhood groups that fear drastic changes to places they grew up in. These are the voices of an older, somewhat less ambitious community. A protest petition to stop the rezoning failed earlier this year to attract the votes it needed on the city council.

Raleigh is ahead of Charlotte. Two years ago, the capital city adopted a new Unified Development Ordinance to serve as a guide to future planning. As a result of that approval, 30 percent of the city is currently being rezoned -- more than 35,000 properties altogether. As in Charlotte, the focus is on mixed uses, walkability and denser development. And as in Charlotte, there is concerted opposition from neighborhood groups that don’t want this much urbanism this fast. “Growth whirls nonstop,” Raleigh News & Observer columnist Ned Barnett explained this summer, “and people accustomed to a smaller, quieter and more predictable city yearn for a way to stop their worlds from spinning.”

Half an hour down the road from Raleigh, the city of Durham has embarked on an even more ambitious reinvention of its downtown, wooing businesses with the conversion of a cluster of old warehouses into more than a million square feet of office space for tech companies and other entrepreneurs. Durham County is investing millions of dollars in public transit to bolster the central district renewal.

And the downtowns of both Durham and Raleigh, essentially lifeless two decades ago, are starting to poach businesses away from the suburban Research Triangle office park, whose campus-like design was touted as an economic development showplace barely a decade ago but whose leaders now admit that they have slipped behind the curve of 21st-century change. The Triangle is embarking on its own massive modernizing project to give it a more urban character.

It isn’t just the cities. Driving across the state, you find something oddly urban in the unlikeliest places. The small town of Goldsboro, where Andy Griffith once taught high school drama, dug up its downtown streets this summer in hopes of creating a compact urban district comfortable to pedestrians and welcoming to visitors. Just 25 miles away, struggling Kinston, where many of the storefronts remain empty, boasts in its downtown a gourmet restaurant whose tables have to be booked weeks in advance.

So many things are happening all at once in North Carolina. And most residents, if somewhat bewildered, seem to be accepting them. But there is at least one important place in the state where the shift to urbanism is not going over very well. That one place is the legislature.

In 2010, the North Carolina House and Senate both went majority Republican after nearly a century and a half of Democratic control. In 2012, Pat McCrory won the governorship, giving the GOP full control of state government for the first time since Reconstruction.

Within a few weeks, the legislature embarked on what can only be described as an anti-Charlotte vendetta. It debated bills to limit the city’s annexation and environmental enforcement powers. It moved to curtail funding for expansion of Charlotte’s light rail transit system. And it passed legislation to strip the city of control over its airport and give that power to a new regional authority. These things happened even though McCrory was himself a former Charlotte mayor. He had no choice but to go along with many of them.

Some of it was partisan politics. Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County had voted decisively for President Obama in 2012 even as the state tilted narrowly for Republican Mitt Romney. Now they were being punished. But these legislative adventures were in fact something more. They were a blow by newly empowered rural and small-town lawmakers on behalf of conservative values that seemed to have gone out of fashion amid the demographic change and urban experiment that was taking place in diverse parts of the state. “There are folks that still look back really nostalgically at our past and think through government action they can restore that past,” Julie White, executive director of the North Carolina Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, told me recently.

Not all of the bills became law in the form in which they were introduced. But the GOP legislative majority was nowhere near finished. When it returned for work this year, buoyed by a strong showing at the polls in 2014, it started in on a whole new agenda of anti-city legislation. This time, it wasn’t just Charlotte. The legislature redistricted the county commission in Wake County, where Raleigh is located, to give more power to rural areas. It redrew the city council map in Greensboro to force several African-American members to run against one another.

And at the very end of the session, the Republican majority unveiled its most ambitious project of all: Senate Bill 279, which would have limited the powers of every local government in the state. It died in a House committee on the last day of the session, but it served notice that in the conflict between urban and rural values, the anti-city forces had some powerful cards to play.

In the end, though, no matter how effective rural and small-town hardliners may be in calling upon images of a fondly remembered past, the reality is that urbanization will only gain more momentum as time goes on. Downtown warehouses will become condominiums, young people will move there, and businesses will settle in city centers because that’s where the young people are. That’s as true in North Carolina as it is in the more liberal north. Minorities will be the largest population cohort in many of the state’s cities, as they will eventually be in much of the country. These aren’t things that the legislature can ultimately do much about.

For many people in North Carolina and elsewhere, Mayberry will remain a nice place to think about. But it exists only in reruns.