Commentary

In 2013, can region apply lessons from past 5 years?

2013 may be a year historians look back on as the time local leaders hit the “reset” button on issues that had been at the forefront of public policy discussions before the 2008 economic meltdown. Will leaders revisit these issues following the same assumptions and conventional strategies as before? Or will lessons learned in the past five years and a new set of leaders take the region down an entirely different path in addressing some of these issues?  

As we approach a new year, we tend to have a sense of anticipation about the possibility of change. Following a major election year, that anticipation is often heightened with a mixture of excitement and anxiety, as we all try to discern what new policies and ideas newly elected officials will bring to governing. Many will watch closely to see how Gov.-elect Pat McCrory’s experience as mayor of the state’s largest city will inform his policies, particularly on issues important to an increasingly urban state such as transportation and growth management.

In the Charlotte region, many expect the modest economic recovery of the past year to gain momentum, and with it will re-emerge a number of issues, like transit and public education, that were temporarily set on the back burner as leaders struggled to respond to the human and economic needs during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Among key issues we’ll be watching closely in 2013:

  • Will the Charlotte region pick up where it left off, in terms of land use, with development following the conventional, suburban-form, automobile-centric model that has defined the Charlotte region since the World War II?  Or, as many urban experts have predicted, will more people embrace greater density tied to public transit, responding to the suburban housing crisis of the past five years and growing concerns about energy independence?
     
  • Can communities as economically and culturally diverse as those in the Charlotte region come together to address regional planning issues that transcend political boundaries, like air, water and transportation?  The success of a three-year HUD-funded initiative called CONNECT, with numerous governmental, private sector and nonprofit partners, will tell us much about whether the region can get serious about collaboration at a time of greater urgency than ever to work together. Or will this be just another well-intentioned effort in a long line of regional planning discussions, like Voices & Choices a decade ago, that withers in the absence of an institutional and political framework for implementation?
     
  • Will efforts to diversify the region’s economy succeed, not just in Charlotte, where the financial crisis demonstrated the vulnerability of the city’s over-reliance on one sector, but in the surrounding region, where an economic restructuring away from manufacturing was already under way before the Great Recession hit?
     
  • What is the future of public education, in particular the prospects for racially and economically diverse populations having equal access to high quality education?  This region and state didn’t go the way of many other Southern communities that turned to private schools in response to desegregation. Can that tradition survive, in an era when many newcomers bring different perspectives and attitudes about public education, and in a political climate more sympathetic to alternative approaches to education?
     
  • The idea that one would need to be concerned about water resources would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago in a temperate region of abundant rivers and man-made lakes. Yet dramatic population growth and recent droughts had pushed this issue to the forefront in the years prior to the recession. Debates about inter-basin transfers and the renewal of federal licenses for hydroelectric projects were common. Five years later, continued growth and increased concerns about climate change mean these debates will likely continue, and perhaps take on even greater importance in the years ahead.
     
  • With the economic crisis lessening, will leaders in Charlotte and surrounding communities have the courage to once again think boldly about infrastructure – in particular the role of passenger rail in the region? Anyone who has followed the history of light rail in Charlotte knows the apparent overnight success of the Lynx line was decades in the making.  In addition to uncertainty over  Charlotte’s proposed streetcar and the proposed commuter line to north Mecklenburg and southern Iredell counties, will leaders in surrounding counties begin to understand and embrace the role commuter rail could play in the region’s development, and lay the foundation for it?  In the same way that the development of the nation’s rail network determined the destiny of many communities in the 19th century, how that question is answered in the next few years is likely to tell us much about which counties in the Charlotte region are likely to succeed in the 21st century.

As it has for more than 40 years, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute will be following these issues closely in 2013, and through research, analysis and commentary will continue to help the region understand the dynamics that contribute to a healthy and vibrant region.

In 2007, just before the Great Recession hit, the institute launched the Charlotte Regional Indicators Project as a means of benchmarking the region’s progress on a number of quality of life measures.  Since then, rather than retreat in the face of state budget cuts, the institute was able to expand its capacity to continue its historic role of research and convening around regional public policy issues.  This included the integration of the university’s Institute for Social Capital and its Center for Transportation Policy Studies into the institute, and launching our new online publication, PlanCharlotte.org,  to enhance the institute’s  web communications as a way to reach even greater numbers of people who care about the Charlotte region.

As we enter this historic year, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute is better prepared than ever to chronicle and inform the decisions that will determine this region’s place in 21st-century America.

- 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.