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How the city conquered its sprawl to create a bustling downtown.

Not too long ago, Charlotte, North Carolina, was an emerging metropolis attempting to solve its explosive population growth issues through sprawling development. However, over the past 20 years, it has consciously reinvented itself as a city of sidewalks.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Charlotte had fewer than 20,000 residents. By 2000, the city had a population of 540,800. Thirty-six percent of those residents arrived after 1990. By 2010, the city had increased to 1.25 million people. In fact, from 2000 to 2010, no American city with one million or more people grew faster than Charlotte. Over that 20-year period, Charlotte shifted from a largely agricultural and manufacturing region into the region’s urban center with a financial stronghold.

What accounts for this population explosion? In the 1970s, Charlotte became home to two international banks. As the industry grew, so did Charlotte’s population and prominence. In the 1990s, the city made giant leaps by acquiring several professional sports teams and drastically expanding Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.

Initially, the city dealt with the onslaught of residents by building more roads and developing office space in the suburbs. Growth was accompanied by the familiar issues of sprawl, congestion, and urban decay.

But Charlotte's top-tier workforce rebelled. According to Tom Flynn, former Charlotte economic development director, the city’s business community led the effort to transform the city in order to retain talent. "As the banks grew up in the 1990s, they were able to attract a more diverse workforce," he says. "This new workforce wanted a different urban lifestyle, so the markets responded in order to keep top talent."

The regional economic development partnership brought in an Urban Land Institute advisory services panel of real estate and land use planning experts (which I helped put together) to study the city's downtown. Subsequent studies explored how the city could develop the greater Charlotte region and market itself to businesses and workers worldwide.

Our recommendations included expanding the convention center and revitalizing uptown Charlotte (the city's main downtown neighborhood) to include cultural facilities, new office space, open space, and housing within the urban core. Additionally, the panel suggested constructing an NFL stadium Uptown. Better coordination between transportation planning and land development, reviewing the proposed light rail network, and developing key transportation linkages were other key recommendations.

After ULI's study, the city realized that poor transportation was hurting the region’s quality of life. Leaders quickly realized that a public transit system was needed to broaden travel choices and relieve congestion. 

Soon, the focus on sustainable development became a trend in Charlotte. In the 1990s, a number of nonprofit groups and government leaders made sustainable land development one of their main priorities. The Catawba Lands Conservancy was established to preserve public open space. A sustainable planning initiative named Voices & Choices laid out a smart growth vision for the region. In 1996, Charlotte opened a streetcar system that ran into Uptown. Three years later, the Charlotte Area Transit System was created to oversee improvement in the region’s transportation. Finally, in 2007, CATS would take major steps by introducing light rail services to Charlotte. Since then, the city’s trolley and light-rail system have transformed city life.

In addition, local governments partnered with the business community, foundations, and philanthropists to raise money for the creation of cultural facilities like the Spirit Square, Discovery Place, and the McColl Center for Visual Art.

In 2007, the Levine Center for the Arts was constructed in Charlotte’s Uptown and has become one of the region’s premier destinations for local residents and tourists. At the heart of the Levine Center for the Arts lies the 48-story Duke Energy Center, a LEED Platinum-certified tower that serves as a testament to the sustainable transformation of Charlotte’s urban core.

It appears that the land use studies and initiatives have paid off. Charlotte was selected as the Policies & Regulations category winner for the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement for incorporating pedestrian, bicycling, and public transit elements into their street designs. The EPA again recognized Charlotte in 2010 with its annual Building Healthy Communities for Active Aging Award for its aggressive development of senior-friendly housing to compliment the numerous miles of green ways, bike facilities, and sidewalks. 

According to Flynn, Charlotte’s business community and city government teamed up to revitalize the Uptown area. This has led to sustainable improvements in the streetscape that are likely to continue for years ahead. He says that former Mayor Pat McCrory’s vision for expanding the city’s bus system and introducing a successful light rail system created a thriving Charlotte region has been carried over into current Mayor Anthony Foxx’s commitment to improving the city’s business district, extending the light rail system, and fully integrating land use and transportation planning.  

Since the city’s 2006 adoption of a new transportation action plan, Charlotte has been aggressively committed to reinventing the city so that it has a safe and well connected pedestrian system.  The new Sidewalk Program called for the retrofit of streets and the construction of over 600 miles of new sidewalks by 2030.  Currently, the city allocates $7,500,000 annually to the Sidewalk Program and constructs an average of 12 miles of new sidewalk each year.

Next week, over three thousand real estate, urban planning, and land use experts will visit Charlotte for the annual ULI Spring Meeting. With the theme “The Power to Lead, the Energy to Thrive,” the meeting will showcase a number of topics including the benefits of sustainable communities, financing energy and efficient retrofits, mixed-use development, and innovative urban initiatives. The meeting will shine a spotlight on Charlotte and showcase how it has addressed rapid growth with a focus on green development and quality of life.

Charlotte continues to improve the quality of life for residents through the synthesis of transportation development and land use. It is a model for what cities can do to achieve sustainability and economic prosperity.

Photo credit: CLS Design/Shutterstock

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