Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Before It’s Too Late

The write-up in the local newspaper on May 24th did a nice job of putting Durham, North Carolina’s growth rate into perspective.

However, growth has never been a challenge for Durham.  According to the millennial census, the city was even the fastest growing of all major cities in North Carolina during the decade of the 1990s.

That was also a decade during which Durham’s community-destination marketing organization spearheaded a dramatic image turnaround among residents of neighboring Raleigh and Chapel Hill, clearing the way for transformation in some of Durham’s districts during the last decade.

For the nearly 25 years I’ve lived here, the clock has been ticking on what are Durham’s real growth-related challenges.

The state’s fourth largest city is shoehorned into a county of the same name with the state’s 17th smallest land area.  Approximately 30% of the city is covered by impervious surface and tree canopy here has shrunk to 40%.

A third or more of Durham County has been set aside in watershed, much of it without recompense so that nearby (and three-times-larger) Wake County could populate.  Durham County is already the fourth most-densely populated in the state and on track to become third over the next decade or two.

Durham’s challenge remains not to keep pace with its growth rate but instead to take long-ago delinquent actions to preserve its sense of place.

However, rather than becoming more strategic, Durham appears to becoming even more siloed and anecdotal.  Critical areas such as urban forest, historic preservation and open space are not being pursued holistically or with a sense of urgency.

Each should be indexed by now based on what is needed to offset growth factors such as sustainability, optimum density and impervious surface.   Instead there is evidence of denial.  These and other strategic needs are becoming even more trapped into anecdotal decisions.

It is good that local governments here are conscious of shifting from over-reliance on property taxes to fees and other funding tactics that could address growth.  However, their application seems siloed as well.

Good arguments were made for social justice when a $1.80 monthly trash fee was assessed on households but not on apartment complexes and businesses.  Winning the day was the argument that those excluded make other arrangements for pick up.

However, a strategic argument for assessing the fee across the board is that these dumpsters are also tremendous sources for litter that blows out into the community at large.  They are also in areas where recycling needs to be amplified.

The whole argument for selective fees brought to mind the myopic causes for the problems with deferred street resurfacing from which Durham just emerged at great cost.

Well-run cities and counties are not just about transactional leadership and day-to-day operations.  We also need these organizations to worry about tomorrow.

With glaring exceptions for general upkeep and appearance, Durham local governments are exceptionally well-managed.  But in my opinion, they aren’t worried nearly enough about “tomorrow.”

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