Friday, March 11, 2011

Population Indexing and Trouble Ahead For The Sunbelt

Journalists struggle with “population” stories such as those following the release of recent 2010 Census updates, typically reporting the numbers without context or, as both the Raleigh paper and the business journal seemed to do, smugly turning it into a horse race or popularity contest.

Granted, both the news releases and agencies involved in planning should make it a lot easier and instead, like a page on Wake County’s website, often make the same mistake. But there is still no excuse for not at least mentioning context or that the numbers aren’t “apples” and “apples” without being indexed.

Later on I’ll mention two new and very useful books I’ve read recently on cities and growth but first let me explain more about what I mean by indexing data to context, something that impacts any performance measure.

Data and information, to be comparable from one community to another or one county to another or one metro to another, must be put in context or if possible indexed. For example when comparing one city’s or country’s growth to another, it should be indexed to factors such as available, developable land area.2010 Population Update

Durham for example is a single city-county (slivers were permitted to be annexed by a few other communities to facilitate developments primarily not located in Durham County) but:

  • Durham is also located in a North Carolina county with the 17th smallest land area in the state.

  • A vast portion of Durham has been locked away in watershed and a significant part submerged by a lake that provides the drinking water that has enabled Raleigh’s and Wake County’s growth.

To compare Durham’s growth, either as a city or as a county, to the much more expansive Wake County or Raleigh, which is the largest of Wake’s dozen cities and towns, the numbers would need to be indexed somehow to available and developable land or, if that isn’t available, population density. Wake is nearly three times the land area of Durham with a far greater proportion that is still developable.

Similarly, while Winston-Salem and Durham are close in size, any comparison of growth must be indexed because Forsyth County is nearly one and a half times larger in land area than Durham and much larger still when accounting for how much of Durham is in watershed or under water.

Community values is another important factor that also relates to population growth. Durham, for instance has been less into “big” and more into sense of place and has grown very steadily over the past 120 years as shown by clicking to enlarge the chart shown above or at this link, while Wake County was “burning” an acre an hour in development before the economic downturn.

A Raleigh value has always been to be a large city, a value shared by Charlotte which Raleigh hopes to eclipse and should because it appears to have much more developable land.

So in many ways, as it was in the last decade, when indexed to “apples” and “apples,” Durham is not only growing at a very strong but manageable clip, and its growth rate may be faster than any of the large urban areas of North Carolina, something that gives residents here a great deal of concern.

North Carolina’s major cities have grown because they benefited from employers relocating or expanding from rust-belt cities. But as things like the view-hostile bills submitted in the General Assembly at the bidding of the outdoor billboard industry threaten to turn our state’s visual appeal and our unique communities into a ride through the yellow pages, our planners and policy makers, economic developers and neighborhood leaders need to read two new books.

One was published in mid-February and the other early March and they are must-reads for smug “big is better” and “it couldn’t happen here” thinkers.

Triumph of the City by economist Edward Glaesner is the longer and to me the more data-packed of the two. It lays out a compelling survey of what makes some cities thrive and others wither.

The even more recently published is Sunburnt Cities: The Great Recession, Depopulation, and Urban Planning in the American Sunbelt by Justin Hollander and Frank Popper with sobering warnings for high growth communities and thoughtful recommendations for declining cities on how to contract intelligently during the process of turn around.

Both are relatively quick, worthwhile reads.

Rather than reading too much into current population trends we would do much better to read books like these lest we risk repeating the mistakes of communities further north from whose decline we have been the beneficiaries.

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