The 10-year spread

2000 census shows suburban sprawl continuing across the Triangle

Staff WriterApril 9, 2002 

The Triangle absorbed 332,396 more people in the 1990s by pushing outward, sticking with the suburban development style that made it one of the nation's most sprawling metro areas.

While a few showcase high-rises and downtown condos made headlines, most people found their dream homes on the fringes, where small towns and fallow fields became suburbs. An analysis of new census data by The News & Observer confirms a pattern of low-density development that many blame for the region's worsening traffic congestion and loss of open space.

Despite the influx of newcomers, the Triangle did not become much more urban. Nearly 46 percent of Triangle residents live in areas too sparsely populated to meet the Census Bureau's definition of urban -- 1,000 people per square mile. That is little changed from 1990, when 48 percent of the region's residents lived outside urban neighborhoods.

At the same time, low- and medium-density housing pushed into 547 square miles of what had been sparsely populated land, an area larger than Franklin County.

The trend was typical of metro areas in the South, said Robert Lang, a researcher for the Fannie Mae Foundation in Washington. Lang, who based his research on 1999 data, said only four of the nation's 50 largest metro areas were less densely populated than the Triangle: Greensboro; Nashville, Tenn.; Charlotte and Rochester, N.Y.

Southern cities sprawl in part because their urban cores -- sections developed before the automobile -- are much smaller those than in cities such as Cleveland, Boston and New York, Lang said. And unlike the West, where deserts, oceans and mountains often halt a city's advance, places such as the Triangle are rich with water and land that invite development to spread out.

"If you want to do suburban development, you go out and drop some wells, you dig some septic tanks and grade the road," Lang said. "And you can do it at great distance from the center of the region."

This far-flung pattern means traffic will get worse, as people drive farther to get to work and other places.

"Folks drive more," said Ben Hitchings, a planner for the Triangle J Council of Governments. "They spend more time in the car because it's the only way they can get to destinations."

Suburban development also could mean a difficult future for bus and commuter rail service, Hitchings said. Only a few places in the Triangle approach the 11,000 people per square mile that many transit agencies cite as a minimum density to support mass transit.

But transit and low-density development aren't necessarily incompatible, said Jim Ritchey, the Triangle Transit Authority's general manager. The TTA's 35-mile commuter rail line will be designed for the Triangle's lower densities, he said, with park-and-ride lots at some stations and new compact neighborhoods around others.

"I don't subscribe to a belief that overall densities truly matter," Ritchey said. "The only thing that really matters is what are the activities around the transit stations themselves."

The N&O compared the population density, or number of people per square mile, among census "block groups" -- clusters of city blocks or rural areas. During the decade, 94 percent of the Triangle's population growth occurred in semirural and suburban locations, with densities of 100 to 4,999 people per square mile. Only 12 percent occurred in areas with the greatest density, of at least 5,000 people per square mile.

At the start of the decade, the Triangle had 2,133 square miles of rural land, with fewer than 100 people per square mile. By 2000, that had slipped to 1,586 square miles, much of it in Chatham, Franklin and southern Johnston counties.

A small-town feel

Despite the suburban trend, the Triangle also was home to North Carolina's most densely populated town, Carrboro. With 3,754 residents per square mile, the town has a large student population from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a growth boundary that hems in development.

Being able to walk around town is a big reason that Adrienne and Victor Jimenez chose Carrboro when they moved from Florida two months ago. Carrboro does feel packed to Adrienne Jimenez, though ask her why and she talks about cars, not people.

"I think it's the traffic that makes it feel crowded to me," Jimenez said, strolling downtown with her 2-month-old son, Sergio. "Probably when I've been here a while, it won't feel so bad."

But the place doesn't feel crowded to John Foster, a painter and stay-at-home dad who has lived in Carrboro for 10 years.

"The surrounding roads feel very crowded, but Carrboro still has a small-town feel to it," said Foster, on his way into Weaver Street Market with his 2-year-old son, Ian. "I think it's because of the lack of mega-superstores like Wal-Mart. There's still a lot of local businesses. I always recognize people."

Local government planners would like to see more places like Carrboro. They're worried the region can't sustain its growth pattern and are trying to encourage more compact development that puts homes and businesses closer to one another and to major bus routes and the planned train line.

Drawing people outward

But local governments are also fostering development on their fringes by extending water and sewer lines and widening roads, said George Chapman, Raleigh's planning director.

On top of that, the creation of Research Triangle Park has put the region's largest concentration of jobs close to big stretches of undeveloped land in western Wake and southern Durham counties.

Chapman thinks many people buy houses away from the center of town simply because they are available and not necessarily because buyers prefer them.

"The market is a subject of supply and demand," he said. "And I'm not sure the preference for low-density housing has driven the market as much as the supply of low-density housing has."

But home builders do plenty of market research before putting up houses, notes Chris Sinclair, executive director of the Triangle Community Coalition, a group whose members include development interests.

And when that research shows there is a market for more urban projects, such as The Oberlin off Wade Avenue in Raleigh, they often run into opposition from people living nearby, Sinclair said.

"People don't favor higher density," he said.

Elbow room is one reason Beverly and Byron Royse moved to a home overlooking the 10th tee at Sunset Ridge in Holly Springs, a former crossroads that was the state's fastest-growing town in the 1990s.

The Royses can walk from home to the clubhouse and pool. Few cars pass on their dead-end street. They're close to the mall in Cary and the ballet and Cardinal Club in downtown Raleigh, but the only interruption to the quiet at home is the occasional "fore" shouted from the tee.

"We like that we're not involved in the hustle and bustle of Raleigh," Beverly Royse said. "We kind of feel like we're almost out in the country, but we're not."

The only drawback is traffic outside Sunset Ridge. The two-lane country roads of Holly Springs will surely have to be widened, the Royses said.

And while Byron's drive to work at Tyco Electronics in Fuquay-Varina couldn't be easier, Beverly spends 45 to 75 minutes in her car each morning, covering a route to work at a Raleigh law firm that takes 20 minutes without traffic.

"I have a car with a six-CD changer, and I just sit back and enjoy my music," she said. "No sense getting upset because there's nothing you can do about it."

News researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.

Staff writer Richard Stradling can be reached at 829-4739 or

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