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North Carolina is a ‘sticky state,’ and other lessons on population growth

Raleigh’s skyline is changing as more construction projects come to downtown

There are several large-scale projects currently under construction or near completion in downtown Raleigh, with many more expected to follow suit in the coming months.
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There are several large-scale projects currently under construction or near completion in downtown Raleigh, with many more expected to follow suit in the coming months.

Building communities so people can walk from home to work or work to lunch and shopping can do as much or more to reduce traffic congestion in the Triangle as mass transit.

It’s also a pattern of development that two growing demographics in the region — millennials and retirees — are looking for in a place to live.

Those are two of the observations made by demographers and planners who spoke at a forum about the region’s population growth Wednesday night. The event, part of The News & Observer’s Community Voices project, drew more than 150 people to the N.C. Museum of History.

Ken Bowers, the planning director for the City of Raleigh, said the Wake Transit Plan correctly emphasizes improving bus service in the coming decade, because that’s the best way to connect the commercial centers spread around the county. But Bowers said developing walkable centers, such as North Hills, does more to reduce traffic than better bus service alone.

“The more we can retrofit more employment centers to have other stuff in them — housing and retail — the more trips we’ll take off the road, because now this stuff is within walking distance of where you are,” Bowers said.

Public places and spaces that are easily accessible by transit and on foot are prized by the young and old, said Audrey Galloway, the AARP’s associate state director for community. AARP has adapted guidelines from the World Health Organization for helping cities become more “livable” for older adults, and Galloway says they’re the kind of steps that help people of all ages.

“What you’ll find is older adults and millennials have quite a bit in common,” she said.

Galloway and Bowers were part of a panel that also included Sharon Peterson, Wake County’s long-range planning administrator; Morrisville town council member Steve Rao, and Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Among their observations about population growth in the Triangle and North Carolina:

The state’s population grew by 738,000 between 2010 and 2017, and 43 percent of those people settled in nine cities, including Cary, Durham and Raleigh. “We have a lot of growth, and a lot of it is coming to a very small handful of places,” Tippett said.

Since 2010, Wake County’s population has grown by 171,000 people, and 45 percent of them are age 55 and older, Peterson said. Many of the older adults moved to the county to retire or be close to grandchildren, but a sizable number also came for jobs, she said.

Hispanics have not become a major force in electoral politics in North Carolina yet, but they could soon. The largest portion of the state’s citizen Hispanic population is under the age of 18, Tippett said. “So we’re not necessarily going to see that effect on the electorate until two years, four years, 10 years from now, at which point there will be large group of voting-eligible Hispanics.”

Transplants drive much of North Carolina’s growth, but natives are also more likely to stick around here than in other states. “Only Texas has a higher share of native-born adults who are still living in the state,” Tippett said. “North Carolina is what we consider both a sticky state and a magnet state. So we’re appealing to lots of people for lots of different reasons.”

Raleigh’s population growth averaged more than 3 percent a year for a century, but it has flattened out a bit since 2010, at 2 to 2.5 percent a year, Bowers said. That’s in part because the city is no longer annexing land at the pace it once did, which has in turn led to more apartment construction. “What we’ve seen is a ginormous apartment boom,” he said.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 19 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.


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