For a place that supposedly refuses to grow, Chapel Hill has grown rapidly over the past 25 years. The town’s population and its housing stock – to name just two variables – have grown at double-digit rates and are apt to keep growing. Why, then, is Chapel Hill depicted as a town that stands still?
Make no mistake: From 1990 to 2010, the number of people residing in Chapel Hill increased by 48 percent, climbing to 57,233 from 38,719. The gain was not due simply to growth in college students. Rather, the number of people in every age group rose: the working-age adult population (ages 25-64) expanded the most in absolute terms, and the child population (under age 18) grew the most in percentage terms. And although Chapel Hill is a university town, the share of the population represented by the 18-to-24 age group fell to 32 percent.
Chapel Hill also added housing units at a rapid pace. From 1990 to 2010, the number of housing units rose 50 percent, to 22,254 from 14,866; that translated into an average yearly gain of 369 units. The addition of detached single-unit homes drove about half of the gain, yet the town’s population density increased, with the number of people per square mile rising by 16 percent to 2,710.
Such trends point to robust municipal growth – growth that many communities would love to have, especially when coupled with the town’s favorable educational and income levels. Nevertheless, Chapel Hill often is portrayed as static. Why?
One reason is that the Triangle region has grown even faster. From 1990 to 2010, the combined population of Wake, Durham, Orange, and Chatham counties rose by 85 percent, with some places doubling or tripling in population. Compared to the region, Chapel Hill – and Orange County more broadly – grew slowly, but that was partly by design. During the 1980s and 1990s, Chapel Hill, often in concert with Carrboro and Orange County, adopted policies to foster relatively slower, more deliberate growth. One may disagree with those choices, but they were informed, democratic ones that advanced articulated community goals and values.
A second reason is that Chapel Hill’s comparatively slower rate of growth has not been as financially advantageous to business interests that profit from the development of land. For them, the growth trajectories in other parts of the Triangle are more appealing, and these actors have an understandable self-interest in shifting Chapel Hill onto a path of more rapid, more intensive growth.
Portraying Chapel Hill as a “no-growth” community creates a rationale for steering the town onto a different – and, for some, more lucrative – path. Saying that the town has not grown and then attributing all community problems to an absence of growth positions more growth as the only solution. Of course, when growth alone proves unable to solve complex problems, the response will be to call for even more growth. Growth in effect serves as its own end and its own justification.
Town leaders may decide that Chapel Hill should grow faster, but the idea that the town has not grown is wrong. By any objective standard, Chapel Hill has grown rapidly, if more deliberately than other parts of the Triangle. The decision to alter course, then, is a political one that has little to do with growth per se and everything to do with power: the power to rule, the power to decide whose interests matter, the power to spend the public purse, and the power to socialize costs and privatize profits.
John Quinterno is a principal with South by North Strategies, Ltd. in Chapel Hill and the author of “Running the Numbers: A Practical Guide to Regional Economic and Social Analysis.” The opinions in this column are his own.