The Challenges and Good News
Community leaders and urban analysts have long recognized that vibrant, sustainable neighborhoods are critical for successful cities. During the 1990’s, the City of Charlotte initiated an innovative framework of neighborhood focused renewal and planning. This approach targets social capital and physical infrastructure. It is centered around making strategic investments that build upon neighborhood assets while addressing shortcomings.
As a key part of this policy, a mechanism for monitoring neighborhood level quality of life was constructed. Starting in 1997, the Charlotte Neighborhood Quality of Life Study was implemented. It has been carried out biennially. This applied research tool measures neighborhood scale quality of life through an analysis of a wide ranging set of 20 locally derived variables. In turn, these variables are aggregated to create a quality of life index or score for each neighborhood. Individual neighborhoods were labeled Stable, Transitioning, or Challenged, based upon the cumulative variable scores. The data presented in that study offer a baseline of information that has enabled the city to carry out a longitudinal review of neighborhood conditions. The index score is intended to serve as a benchmark, a first step toward tailoring activities to sustain and renew neighborhoods.
The translation of the index scores into a descriptive term: Stable, Transitioning, and Challenged, is intended to create a general template that can convey the idea of quality of life at a small, localized scale. In broad terms, the Stable, Transitioning, and Challenged labels translate into the following conditions (“NSA” stands for Neighborhood Statistical Area, which is defined further within this article).
Stable: NSAs that exhibit few neighborhood level problems. Compared to other NSAs, the Stable grouping has a significantly higher quality of life than the other parts of Charlotte.
Transitioning: These are NSAs that display a weakness in one or more areas. Relative to other Charlotte NSAs, Transitional status can indicate an improving or declining position.
Challenged: Challenged NSAs generally have low to moderate scores on the quality of life dimensions. A Challenged neighborhood presents “at risk” conditions. This grouping represents below average quality of life compared to citywide values.
The geographic coverage of the Charlotte Neighborhood Quality of Life Study encompasses the entire city and Charlotte’s Sphere of Influence. Within this area, covering over two-thirds the area of Mecklenburg County and nearly 723,000 residents, are 173 neighborhood statistical areas (NSAs). The NSA boundaries largely reflect self identified neighborhood boundaries or clusters of smaller communities. As a general rule, NSAs in the inner city or middle-ring neighborhoods are smaller in scale and population than the newer suburban positions of Charlotte.
In 2006, the Quality of Life Study added a new component, the Variable Trend Analysis (VTA). The VTA measures changes for 14 study variables in each NSA. Variable change from 2002 to the latest Quality of Life Report is recorded. Significant changes, either improvements or declines in variable scores are captured. Subsequently, each NSA is grouped into one of three categories based upon the cumulative variable performance. NSAs experiencing significant improvement in individual variable performance and positive change in variable scores are labeled Trending Up. Those NSAs showing modest or slight changes in individual and cumulative variables scores, either improving or declining, are labeled No Change. Finally, the NSAs where individual variables are declining are labeled Trending Down.
The significance of the VTA is the scale of analysis. It is focused on the changing quality of life conditions for individual NSAs. Thus, VTA results are not based upon citywide data, but rather what are the changes that are taking place within a community. In this way, neighborhood level improvements (or declines) are better identified and represented.
The last several years of a deep national recession and the restructuring of Charlotte’s financial sector have been tough on the city and translated into neighborhood-level challenges. As a result, the 2010 Neighborhood Quality of Life analyses revealed a mixed set of findings.
The latest study finds that 88 NSAs are in the Stable category, 58 are classified as Transitioning, and 27 fall into a Challenged grouping (Figure 1). A comparative review of the 2008 and 2010 citywide Quality of Life findings reveals several, not unexpected, changes. First, the number of Challenged NSAs increased from 20 to 27. This is the largest ever jump in the below average neighborhood rankings since the beginning of the study process. Conversely, the number of Stable NSAs declines slightly, a drop from 90 to 88 NSAs. Finally, the Transitioning NSAs also decrease, but more significantly, from 63 to 58 NSAs.
The geographic pattern of quality of life findings shows little change from earlier findings. The greatest concentration of Stable NSAs is still found in southeast Charlotte, in neighborhoods around center city, and in NSAs positioned on the edge of the city. Transitioning neighborhoods are generally clustered in west Charlotte, older suburban portions of Eastside Charlotte, and north Charlotte, while Challenged neighborhoods persist in the west and north sections of inner city Charlotte.
Although the latest citywide NSA scores are somewhat troubling, the VTA offered a more upbeat set of trend findings. The good news in 2010 is that the number of NSAs with improving variable ratings continues to increase, despite the economic downturn.
Specifically, among the 173 NSAs, 79 are Trending Up, 84 are in a No Change group, and only 10 are labeled as Trending Down (Figure 2).
An equally important finding in the VTA is the geographical pattern of neighborhood improvement. Stated simply, NSAs with improving quality of life rankings are found throughout the city. Consequently, these data offer evidence that Charlotte’s long-term efforts to guard against neighborhood deterioration are continuing to pay off across the city in neighborhoods with varying socio-economic status and geographical positions.
The design and execution of the 2010 Charlotte Neighborhood Quality of Life analysis contained a new element. Whereas the focus of previous studies has been exclusively focused upon residential vitality and sustainability, the 2010 analysis included business development for the first time. Specifically, a Business Corridor Benchmarking tool was compiled and rolled out in the report. An explanation and review of this business oriented tool will be a topic for an upcoming UNC Charlotte Urban Institute report.
Photo Courtesy of City of Charlotte