You Decide: Will North Carolina continue to urbanize?

Dr. Mike Walden

North Carolina Cooperative Extension

North Carolina used to be a small-town and rural state. In fact, we were traditionally one of the most non-urban states in the country. There were a couple of reasons for this. It wasn’t that long ago that a significant share of people worked on farms. Of course, most farms, due to their need for large acreage, are in rural areas. Also, what manufacturing North Carolina did have was concentrated in small towns.

Today, the majority of North Carolinians live in urban areas – or, as some call them, metropolitan areas. Since 1970 urban counties like Wake (Raleigh) and Mecklenburg (Charlotte) have added people at more than twice the rate of the state. Many previously rural counties (Johnston and Union are good examples) have flipped to being more urban than rural, and a couple of rural counties have even lost population in the last 40 years.

In the 1990s many “futurists” thought this wouldn’t happen. They believed the development of information technology, which can connect anyone to anywhere, would free people from living where they worked. This would allow people to live in the serenity and beauty of rural areas and escape the noise, congestion and high prices of the city.

It hasn’t worked out that way. If anything, today’s technology has made urban areas even more desirable. Information technology allows us to make contacts with a larger number and range of people. But for many people – especially those in the business world – information technology is still not a substitute for person-to-person contact. And face-to-face contacts are still easier to accomplish in cities.

So, by enabling us to cast our net wider, information technology has increased the number of people we ultimately want to see in person. And being able to meet and see a larger number of people is best done in cities.

Urban areas and cities have had other pluses going for them. Average household size has been dropping. Indeed, more than half of adult households are now single individuals. This means households don’t need as much living space as they did decades ago. Since space is more plentiful and less costly in rural areas, the shift to less space by households has favored urban areas.

At the same time, as urban areas have added people and become denser, driving to and through cities has become more time-consuming. If a person wants to be in a city for work or other reasons, then living in the city and avoiding the commute makes sense.

Changes in the economy have also favored cities over rural and small-town regions. Far fewer people are needed to work on today’s high-tech modern farms. In contrast, new industries such as technology, pharmaceuticals, medical research and finance have mainly developed in and around cities. Often the industries collaborate with the large universities located in urban areas.   These industries like the creative energy that comes with this setting. Young people who come to the universities to train for the new jobs end up staying in the cities. They enjoy the urban excitement and opportunities to meet more people like them.

If these urbanizing trends continue, then North Carolina could look very different by mid-century. Population growth will continue to be strongest around the Triangle, Charlotte and Wilmington metropolitan areas, with these counties increasing their population totals by 70 percent or more between 2010 and 2050. In contrast, one-third of the state’s rural counties could lose population. The Triangle-to-Triad-to-Charlotte urban ring will effectively merge with metropolitan counties in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama to form a large multi-state mega-region.

But, of course, this is not certain; trends can change. For example, some scientists think “virtualization” may someday become a reality. As in the “Star Trek” television series, virtualization would allow an image of an individual to be instantly “beamed” somewhere else.   The image would have all the sensory perceptions of the individual actually being there. Virtualization would therefore supplant the face-to-face contact advantages of cities and allow these contacts regardless of where a person lived.

Even if virtualization seems a little far-fetched, advantages in real-time face-to-face contact via computers, tablets and smartphones – such as Facetime or Skype – could erode the advantages of cities. Also, for individuals who value cities for their availability of consumer products and services, drone delivery and remote servicing could also lower the advantages of urban living and reduce the costs of being in rural areas.

One hundred years ago, few people could imagine how the geography of North Carolina’s population would evolve. If current trends continue, we have a fair idea of how and where the state’s people will live in coming decades. But much could change in the next 50 to 100 years. How will those changes affect residential choices and lifestyles? You decide!


 Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences communications unit provides his You Decide column every two weeks.


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