In 1970, more than half of North Carolinians lived in rural areas. In fact, at the time, only five states – Vermont, West Virginia, North Dakota, South Dakota and Mississippi – had a higher percentage of their population living in rural counties.
That’s changed. North Carolina is now an urban state, with two-thirds of the state’s people living in cities and high-density counties.
Some say this is the future, with people increasingly living in metropolitan regions where jobs, new industries and entertainment options are available. Some forecasts predict more than 80 percent of North Carolinians living in metro areas by mid-century. These same forecasts also predict 33 of the state’s 100 counties will have fewer people in 2050 than today.
The changing economy is a big part of this reshuffling. Economic sectors that have rapidly expanded – pharmaceuticals, technology, instruments, finance and health care – are mainly in urban areas where the big universities are located. The sectors need access to the high-skilled talent graduating from the universities and to the cutting-edged research conducted by the schools’ faculty.
The movement of young people to the state’s cities is another part of the explanation. With more than 60 percent of North Carolina high school graduates going to college, and with the state’s big colleges and universities primarily in urban regions, many talented rural youths end up moving to the cities after high school.
So a big reason for the growth of metro regions in North Carolina is their attractiveness – or “pull” – on people living in rural areas. At the same time, there has been a complementary “push” from rural regions causing residents to consider moving to urban centers.
The biggest “push” has been the challenging economy in many rural communities. While globalization, the tech revolution and the ramping up of educational requirements have favored urban areas, they have hurt rural regions. Globalization introduced foreign competitors for the textile, apparel and furniture industries largely located in rural regions – resulting in reduced sales and fewer jobs in our rural counties.
So are the futurists correct – will the urban-rural divide continue to widen, leaving large swaths of North Carolina with no people and a limited future? The “smart money” probably says “yes,” but there are some potential game changers that could reverse the trend.
One would be a boom in rural-based industries, like agribusiness, tourism, retirement living and large-scale manufacturing. A second would be rising costs in urban areas resulting from fast growth – costs such as housing prices and traffic congestion – causing some businesses and households to decide the city is too expensive and rural areas are preferable.
But maybe the most intriguing game-changer could be technology – technology that now favors rural locations. One innovation would be virtualization, whereby individuals could interact on a personal basis with others without being in the same location. The other is driverless transportation, which would mean long commutes from rural to urban areas could be used productively by the traveler.
Economic forces have caused North Carolina to become more of urban state, reversing its tradition of small town and rural living. Will it remain that way, or will the shifting tides ultimately cause a reversal? You decide.
Mike Walden is a professor and Extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at N.C. State University. He teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook, and public policy.