Playing with the Future

Posted on: March 4th, 2009 by Guest Writer

Using Legos to plan regional growth.

I work in the Triangle region of North Carolina, one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country, where the dividing lines between Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and the surrounding communities are beginning to fade. The terms smart growth, mixed-use, and transit-oriented development are buzzing in our ears. But, how do we integrate these planning strategies with our plans for the region’s heritage resources? And what does a box of Legos have to do with it?

I and a colleague from Preservation North Carolina (PNC) participated in the Urban Land Institute’s Reality Check, regional planning exercise. As PNC's Partner in the Field focusing on urban preservation issues in Raleigh, the exercise was a unique opportunity for me to look at the Triangle area regionally and see how regional issues affect preservation on the ground in Raleigh.

The event divided the 300 participants into teams of 10, each gathered around a map of the 15-county region. We had a box of Legos representing the new residents and jobs coming our way. Our region is expected to grow to over 3.2 million residents by 2030. We had 90 minutes to put them all somewhere on the map. Our team, like all of them, was pretty diverse, with people from each of the large cities and several of the smaller communities, and we each had our own perspective on growth issues.

Everyone immediately agreed on the need for more transportation options, including mass transit. Turns out that 80% of the teams focused on mass transit. We also wanted to concentrate jobs near residential centers – the creation of mixed-use centers was the second most common theme among the teams. We wound up putting increased residential density in the existing downtowns of most of the region's cities and towns, focusing the most intensity on the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill core.

It became abundantly clear that smart growth, mixed-use, and transit-oriented development are necessary ingredients to planning the future of the Triangle region. But these strategies pose obvious challenges for the preservation community. An extra million people are going to put even more development pressure on our already threatened rural historic sites – we need to work with them now to protect them. While downtown density can be a good thing – we need to design carefully to integrate the new with the existing urban fabric and near-downtown historic neighborhoods.

I am more convinced than ever that the historic buildings in our downtowns represent wonderful opportunities for adaptive use and that the preservation community can play an active role in smart and equitable growth. This is going to be exciting work!

-- Elizabeth Sappenfield

Elizabeth Sappenfield is the director of urban issues at Preservation North Carolina.

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