What’s in a name? Defining ‘urban’ in the South

It’s a quirky fact about all three of the most recent directors of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute: We all came, not from large urban centers, but from small, rural communities. Jim Clay, director from 1979 to 1984, was from Crum, W.Va. Bill McCoy (director 1985-2001) hailed from Ekron, Ky. And me? My friends are quick to remind me it’s a stretch for me to try to claim the rural Stanly County community where I grew up as being in either Albemarle (population 15,489) or Badin (population 1,154), much less Charlotte.

But what we three may have lacked in urban sophistication we made up for in our conviction that great metropolitan regions are a healthy mix of interdependent relationships between urban, suburban and rural communities, and that a metropolitan-oriented university like UNC Charlotte could, and should, play a central role in advancing the concept of regionalism through research and dialogue, fostering a greater awareness of those interdependencies within an urbanizing context.

We’ve paid even closer attention during the past year to this question of what it means to be a university-based, applied research center focusing on an urbanizing region like Charlotte, as the institute has been working to develop a five-year strategic plan in preparation for our 45th anniversary in 2014. Our goal: to build on the institute’s historic mission and strengths while acknowledging – and responding to – the fact that the Charlotte region and this university are significantly different places than they were when the institute was founded in 1969.

Of course, we also examined such functional issues as how to capitalize on ever-changing technologies and the explosion of “big data” in our research, and how best to tap into the growing pool of intellectual talent here at UNC Charlotte. But on a more basic level, we explored the fundamental question of what it means to be an institute with the word “urban” in its name.

Does “urban” suggest a focus only on the region’s urban core? Or do we define that term more broadly to include the larger metropolitan area, where ongoing urbanization is dramatically changing some places, while subtly influencing others? Does the name imply that we are concerned only about issues of growth and urban design, or, as our history reflects, are we committed to a more holistic view of the region, embracing research that addresses its economic, environmental and social health?

I think many will be pleased to hear that our strategic planning process reaffirmed the institute’s focus on the metropolitan region more broadly defined, including urban and suburban, small town and rural.

It also acknowledged that the difficult challenges facing a growing region like Charlotte are too interconnected to be addressed in isolation. Persistent rural poverty 45 miles outside Charlotte is directly related to economic opportunities and affordable housing options in the core. Traffic congestion in suburban communities is connected to residential and employment patterns elsewhere in the region. And prospects for a healthy agricultural economy in surrounding counties are increasingly tied to the growing demand for local food and regional distribution networks, not to mention wise land use decisions, in neighboring communities.

Another important question we asked during the strategic planning: As UNC Charlotte has matured, embracing the concept of becoming “North Carolina’s urban research university,” should the institute’s geographic focus expand beyond the Charlotte metro region, to serve other urbanizing regions in North and South Carolina?

In recent decades, urbanization has transformed much of the Piedmont Crescent running along Interstate 85 from the Research Triangle Park south to the Greenville-Spartanburg area. If current population projections hold true, every county along that corridor – rural, suburban and urban – will be significantly affected by continued urbanization. Might the institute leverage its expertise on urbanizing regions, gained from studying the Charlotte region for nearly five decades, to assist other Carolinas communities wrestling with the effects of growth? It’s an intriguing question that we look forward to exploring.

Posted last week on our website is a new photo gallery from photographer Nancy Pierce that captures the great diversity and complexity of an urbanizing region like Charlotte. She takes us on a virtual tour of the historic U.S. 21 corridor that runs north/south through the Charlotte region, from Statesville, N.C., to Great Falls, S.C. Included are evocative images of historic transportation links (antebellum roads and canals, century-old rail lines), of both fading and ascendant economies (ranging from country stores and 1950s curbside restaurants to new, upscale apartments along Charlotte’s light rail line), and of the region’s abundance of rivers and creeks that literally and figuratively tie us together across jurisdictions. It’s a tapestry of interconnectedness.

While the highway – and the photo gallery – take you through the heart of one of America’s fastest growing metropolitan regions, many of those images would still be familiar to people living in Crum, W.Va., or Ekron, Ky. That’s a reminder of just how complex the urbanizing regions of the South are. And it’s a great metaphor for the ongoing relevance of our work here at the institute.

Best wishes for the New Year.

Jeff Michael

Jeff Michael is director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Views here are his and not necessarily the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.