I had the interesting opportunity yesterday morning to travel eastward to the Raleigh Convention Center as one of three hundred area residents chosen to participate in the Urban Land Institute's Triangle-area Reality Check exercise.
The project? Reality Check divided us up into groups seated at one of thirty 30 tables, each table containing Lego blocks we were to place on a regional map to signify where we wanted new units of housing and new jobs to be placed. The housing and employment units at each table together represented 1.2 million new residents and 700,000 new jobs -- the amounts by which the Triangle is projected to grow between now and 2030.
The participants and sponsors represented a wide range of Triangle leaders -- from local elected officials to corporate leaders to the non-profit and governmental sector. Oh, and the occasional irascible blogger (who owes a thank-you to Michael Lemanski of Greenfire for the nomination to participate.)
At our orientation session a few weeks ago, we all had the chance to take a glimpse at one of these Lego tables representing what today's Triangle looks like. And if you've ever wondered why we suffer so much from traffic and road congestion, and long commutes, and fights over development -- well, this photo shows you one reason why. (Click to view full size.)
Those red blocks denote where the jobs are -- 1,900 jobs per red brick. And as the map shows, we've built big job bases in downtown Raleigh, downtown Durham, and at Duke and UNC. And, of course, in RTP.
In the urban cores of Durham and Raleigh, we've also built a significant level of density, as denoted by the yellow blocks -- each of which represents 1,500 people. (Each block covers a one sq. mi. area.)
Yet we also find ourselves "stepping down" the closer we get to RTP. Western Cary and the rest of the fast-growing, upscale western part of Wake Co. has one yellow block in many cases; that translates to about one household per acre.
And of course, there's nothing to speak of in the way of jobs in these areas. Same for bedroom communities like Mebane. In short, we've got people, and we've got jobs -- but rarely do we have both in the same place.
In areas where you don't see any blocks, you may today have town or city districts, but ones where the populations are for all intents and purposes at agricultural or low-developed levels.
The spread-out nature of all this growth raises to my mind, of course, a difficult question: is this a sustainable way for the region to grow and prosper? Can a bimodal region whose densities essentially resemble a two-tower cable-stayed bridge (think of the Cisco logo) ever escape a car-centric, suburban future?
Of course, that was the issue on my mind -- others brought their own perspectives. The whole point of an exercise like this is to see, what conclusions can a group of civic-minded individuals reach when they think about these issues together, freed from the boundaries of their own geographies and hometowns?
Certainly, the organizing board of the event wanted us to think through our growth choices deliberately -- rather than just allowing growth to happen through accidents and circumstances, through zoning board appeals and backroom deals.
A discussion from the Triangle J Council of Governments' John Hodges-Copple and from a faculty member in UNC's planning department featured prominently in the orientation sessions; the ULI's Ed McMahon, who's described on the Institute's web site as "a nationally renowned authority on sustainable development, land conservation and urban design... [and] formerly the vice president and director of land use programs at The Conservation Fund," was the keynote speaker before this morning's exercise.
McMahon warned our crew of the challenges of sprawl; he talked about issues of global warming, of an overdependence on the private automobile. And he shared examples of well-thought-out urban mixed-use design, ways of creating integrated communities that are pedestrian-accessible and transit-friendly and attractive to a knowledge- and creativity-based workforce.
So far, so good. Next, it was time to meet my team; a team comprised of thoughtful individuals, each with perspectives that, whether I agreed or disagreed, I could respect. That said, in the interest of anonymity, I'm going to generalize a bit.
Let me also add, before I proceed, that the recollection below brings my own biases and preconceived notions to the table -- and those biases are no more right or wrong than those of my counterparts in Ruritan County in this little story. Competing visions are always a challenge, though a necessary one, when you're trying to envision a region's future -- a point I'll come back to in the conclusion of this little tale.
A little less than half of our small group hailed from what I'll call Duraleigh County, a wide stretch of existing urban growth area that covers Wake, Durham and Orange, as well as the heart of our growth engine, the Research Triangle Park.
The other half of our group came from what I'll call Ruritan County: places like the Sandhills, Burlington/Mebane, Wilson, Oxford, Henderson, Siler City, Pittsboro.
Across our group, we had a wide range of backgrounds, from health care administration, to social services, to the non-profit sector; from corporate presidents, to real estate professionals, to a higher education president.
With the help of our most able facilitator (Evelyn Contre, herself formerly of Greenfire), we set to discussing our guiding principles. And for a group so divided between Duraleigh Co. and Ruritan Co., we were able to settle on a few guiding principles:
- Grow communities containing both jobs and housing along with recreation and cultural amenities and diversity
- Protect and conserve natural areas and recreation
- Increase transportation options to improve mobility and connectivity
- Focus infill development around existing and new connectivity/transit options
- Designate areas for development in both urban and rural areas
These shouldn't come as too much of a shock, and it was easy to get consensus on these in the abstract.
The concept our group came up with wasn't bad; in the wrap-up, we came to term it "Strings of Pearls." Each "pearl" was a town or city that moved beyond bedroom community status, to have more density, more urban mixed-use, more jobs within it.
And while a Duraleighite like me came in with my own worries about our principle to support rural growth, I assuaged myself that, hey, some moderate growth with local jobs to sustain it isn't a bad thing. We're not going to be building the next Morrisville or Wake Forest out in the middle of farmland, right? We'll be building wee-towns in the wee places, I assumed.
You know what they say about the word "assume."
And this was all before someone at the table intrepidly proposed what I found myself calling the Bypass to Nowhere, a proposed loop highway on the northern side of the Triangle running -- I am not making this up -- from Alamance Co. to Zebulon.
But I'm getting ahead of the story.
With these guiding principles in hand (including my own misgivings on just where growth would end up), we started our effort: to place 1,168 Lego blocks on our grid-map in a little over an hour's time.
Our team started by protecting natural areas, primarily the watersheds of Falls and Jordan Lake, but also adding greenways, too. I felt my first Spidey-sense twinge of danger when a real estate professional from Ruritan Co. pointed to one section of the map and talking about how much water they had. "Three years without rain, and we'd still have enough drinking water," he proudly pointed out.
When I inquired about selling it to places in Duraleigh, forty-plus miles away, the pained expression on his face was clear: but then, who'd develop our land and build houses there?
Matters got more interesting when we next turned to transit corridors, thinking that we should lay down transit lines and then gather growth along them or at key points on them.
Just as I was turning to ask for a piece of orange string (used for modeling transit lines on our map) to create the Raleigh-RTP-Durham-Chapel Hill connector so frequently discussed, I noticed that the table's discussion had turned to the Pittsboro-Raleigh transit connector on US 64 and extension options to Siler City.
Er -- what? Somehow, it turned out that in one team member's vision, we would be adding tens of thousands of residents and 10,000+ jobs to Pittsboro, the new boomtown of the Triangle.
A number of Duraleighites (your correspondent included) brought us back to the existing focal area of RTP, and the much-discussed interest of adding more jobs but also more housing there, creating a center of density to fill the park and add a core to the region. And the group went along, assigning tens of thousands of residents to dense mixed-use and multi-family in RTP along with downtown Raleigh and Durham.
Clearly, though, this situation could not sit well with the good people of Ruritan Co., some of whom began to talk about the need to encourage more growth and jobs in their parts of the region, too. There was what seemed to be an unsaid concern in that camp: RTP has an embarassment of riches, and how can our distal towns grow if we don't have those jobs there, too?
(In a wrap-up conversation we came back to this point. One Ruritan-area economic development coordinator pointed out the need to distribute creative-class jobs throughout the region, citing Richard Florida's studies on the economic value these bring, while adding that telecommuting and Internet access allow such work to be distributed regionally; I countered that Florida's most recent work is themed around the tendency for creative-class workers to want to live in dense urban centers even though their work could be done remotely.)
Quickly, the attempt to discuss every element of growth before we placed it on the map broke down; indeed, for a time, talk at the table ceased. Clearly sensing that Ruritan and Duraleigh were in agreement on the principles of smart growth, but in disagreement about where it should happen, both sides resorted to the only logical and natural outcome:
Grabbin' Lego pieces and buildin' tall, buildin' high, buildin' new subdivisions and condos to the sky -- everywhere. Without conversation or regional agreement, mind you. For a few minutes, the project turned to a grab bag, each region looking to claim its share of jobs and residents.
I watched with a mixture of amusement and pique as a transportation planner hailing from Ruritan Co. busily and efficiently added thousands of jobs and households all up the I-85 corridor, and over to Roxboro, which was merrily connected to Oxford by a greenway.
Of course, the grab was on for the heart of the region too. Side note to Neighbors for Sustainable Development in Trinity Park: I think I somehow managed to put the equivalent of a few thousand new residents in Brightleaf Square. Ditto much of the space in downtown Raleigh, and in the areas right around RTP.
(Yes, the blogger who likes to say "Durham-Raleigh" could actually be heard at one point to say, "You know, Raleigh has a good plan for sensibly growing and adding density to Glenwood Ave. in advance of a future transit corridor. Let's add more homes there.")
Similar scenarios began to unfold across the Sandhills, and to the Triangle's east -- all of which, keeping with our smart growth (no roads!) mantra, began to get connected with enough transit lines to make the roadbuilder's lobby want to hang themselves by a fan belt.
Which is probably about when the idea of the Bypass to Nowhere came up. Your faithful correspondent may have been the first to raise the alarm, when he witnessed a thin string of purple yarn (our key for expanded or new highways) connecting Burlington and Zebulon, with thoughtful stops in places like Louisburg and Oxford.
This brought our group back for a conversation. The highway proponent noted that if we were adding all of these residents in distal areas, they'd need some way to get back and forth. "I thought our goal was to have people work and live where they were outside the urban core," I responded, confused.
Clearly, something had happened. Here we were, planning new centers of residential and employment excellence where jobs and homes were in the same place -- but in our principles, we also assumed people would want to be mobile between them. Never mind why you might want to go to Zebulon; how would you do so, without having a highway between them?
It was around this point that the relations between Duraleigh and Ruritan residents began to stumble a bit; shortly after a representative from another table stopped by to good-naturedly ask one of our Ruritan folks whether their part of the region was getting "enough jobs and houses," I ended up in a somewhat-friendly tete-a-tete with my opposite number, which went something like this:
"Well, I think y'all are messing everything up. Putting all these jobs and houses in Raleigh? That's going to mess up a nice place. And don't get me started on Durham, you all have enough problems."
"Oh, really? My wife and I moved to downtown Durham and loved it there."
"Aw, my parents were from Durham. They couldn't wait to get out. All you have is a ton of violent crime."
"Well, all you have is that infernal J&R Cigar Shop and digital billboards."
In the waning minutes, we pulled ourselves together and looked at the relatively non-dense growth we'd built everywhere, even along the transit corridors we'd proposed. After reviewing the number of residents and jobs needed in order to justify transit, we hurriedly recombined some of our Ruritan growth areas in patches dense enough to make that commuter rail or BRT stop make sense.
Which led to our group's final master vision -- a vision of urbanity, these strings of pearls; each individually dense but located in disparate, disconncted geographies. With lots of growth in the centers of Durham and Raleigh, as well as jobs and many residents in RTP, but with distinct concentrated centers of of growth throughout the region, too.
And these strings of pearls stretch from Durham to Raleigh... and from, er, Pittsboro to Durham... and from Raleigh to Wilson... and from Burlington to Durham... and from Durham to Henderson... and...
So what's the lesson learned here?
Well, the first lesson learned is that regionalism is difficult, damn difficult, damn near impossible -- unless one is mindful from the get-go to the need for compromise.
We were all asked to "put our regional hats on" by the organizers, and when we were talking about the issues in the abstract, we did a pretty good job of that.
Mind you, I don't mean to be flinging arrows at the Ruritans in the account above. Heck, I ended up becoming every bit as regional, as partisan, as protective-of-urban-infill as they did once I sensed that we were at a collision point.
Our one table's "regional planning" process managed to go from high-falutin' ideals all the way down to land-grabs in about 3.8 seconds flat.
Seriously, as soon as questions of purpose and strategy came up, there was an immediate reversion to growing "smart," yes, but growing everywhere. We'd agreed that we'd grow in urban and rural areas, but never by how much.
And as soon as we started asking questions about the specifics -- about how much we should grow near existing assets like universities and RTP, for instance, versus near existing rural populations in places like Siler City, places that have seen job losses and populations suffering -- the group moved independently, in ways that reflected, consciously or not, individual regional interests.
Which is in and of itself a valuable lesson. After all, it's what happens in the daily lives of our communities. They harp over developments, over dueling economic incentives; over whether we should grow in places like RTP that are already highly-successful, or whether we should spread the wealth to places like Henderson and Clayton.
And at the end of the day, what happens around guiding principles is talk -- whereas granting zoning approval for Subdivision X and getting people to move to your corner of Duraleigh or Ruritan before another community can is a hell of a way in which to grow your tax base.
Leaders talk regionally, but tend to act locally, in the interests of their voting base, not of the region writ large. That's a real reality check right there.
It's what Jim Goodmon means when he harangues us all to think regionally, not locally. And you know what? He's right -- even if it's hard at times to take my Durham cap off.
On a more practical level: A more particular lesson I learned was that, on the plus side, you can get a group of folks to talk about growth issues and see the value in smart growth in a real way. And I think the decision of our one table to cluster growth within individual cities rather than to sprawl growth out the way we've historically done so makes sense.
Yet if there's a nagging fear I've got, it's that while it was great to want to tie new infrastructure (like transit lines, or like the missing link of I-540 shown in purple on the map above) to new, dense development only in certain areas -- well, once you've got the infrastructure in place, what's to stop people from building new, less-dense housing all along the way?
We assumed in our principles that we wouldn't want to see towns like Pittsboro and Wilson sprawl out over existing undeveloped land, but to increase their densities where they are. So if you're connecting the areas by, say, commuter rail, you would be connecting dense pockets separated by open areas. Yet once the infrastructure is there, won't it induce new residents, new homes -- new commutes? And will they really bring their jobs, or just their out-of-town paycheck and their car keys?
During the post-exercise lunch, a gentleman from Wilson who had been part of another group brought this point up -- inadvertently. He noted how the opening of US 264 as a freeway all the way to Wilson was great for growth. "Oh, it used to take forever to get to Raleigh. Now it just takes 45 minutes by car, all freeway. Plenty of people are moving out here and commuting in."
Mind you, dear readers, it's not my goal to sound at all cynical or disillusioned about the outcome of the Reality Check at all. Far from it: it was a terrific exercise, thoughtfully planned -- and hopefully, leading to us all being more thoughtful about growth to boot.
I actually think that for ninety minutes' effort, our team accomplished a lot. And in the end, it takes a healthy tension between competing interests to get a compromise that both sides can live with.
Kudos to the organizers of the event -- who most certainly set us up in diverse groups in this way so that we would encounter and wrestle with the kinds of issues that our team did.
We don't yet know the overarching outcome; a phalanx of data-crunchers and GIS whizzes will spend the next couple of days crunching the numbers and summarizing each of the thirty tables' models into one of several "high level" summaries.
If I had to guess, I'd assume we'll see a mix of the centers-of-growth model we pursued; RTP-focused regional strategies; and Wake-centric visions. Heck, I saw one table that projected zero new jobs or residents in RTP.
Another sign that the exercise seems to have worked: I didn't see too many tables where growth was just spread around haphazardly across and among regions. Whether groups wanted to concentrate growth in the "heart" of the Triangle, or wanted to sprinkle pockets of growth in a number of different communities, you still saw groups thinking about the benefits of concentrating new housing units and jobs in most cases.
That's another plus: if Reality Check can get our group of three hundred-odd people to think about growth deliberately, to recognize our own values, assumptions, desires and interests -- but to place them in at least a better regional context -- then it will have succeeded beautifully.
Interested in seeing all the results amalgamated together? RSVP for Friday morning's summary of the Reality Check event, to be held at Raleigh's Meymandi Hall. Admission is free, but sign up on the Reality Check web site if you're planning to attend.