Garner: Opinion

Column: Building a city from scratch

By Johnny Whitfield

Johnny Whitfield
Johnny Whitfield

Call me a geek if you want to, but one of the most interesting aspects of local government is land use planning.

I once lived in a county in the mountains that did not have any land use rules or regulations. You could open a mining operation right next to a golf course, or beside luxury homes. People in that region didn’t want any part of their government telling them what they could and could not do with their land. But it didn’t stop the fussing when one property owner wanted to do something his neighbor didn’t like.

The upshot of that lack of planning is that the communities just weren’t that pretty. And traffic along commercial areas was just a bear.

The opposite of no land use rules, of course, is overregulation, which we can see right here in Wake County where Cary has long had a reputation for being overly strict on what it will allow and what it won’t.

Regardless of what we think is too much or not enough when it comes to managing growth in a town, one of the most interesting things to watch is how a government guides growth in virgin territory – land where there is largely nothing but open space. Wendell has that opportunity now with Wendell Falls Parkway between the Wendell Falls subdivision and the town limits proper.

Wendell Town Manager Teresa Piner, a longtime planner before she moved into the corner office, has often talked about what an exciting opportunity it is to guide growth from its start rather than having to work around what is already there. And in Garner, the town is considering a request to county commissioners seeking planning jurisdiction over several thousand additional acres that town leaders see as Garner’s next high growth area in the space around the new South Garner High School.

Last week, though, I got an interesting perspective on another new slate, though the circumstances are markedly different than we see in places like Garner and Wendell.

Our family visited New Orleans, which was decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Buildings were destroyed, homes ruined and lives disrupted. New Orleans’ pre-Katrina population of 455,000 dropped to just 200,000 in just a year. The city’s population has steadily rebounded, but 2013 estimates of 379,000 still haven’t reached earlier levels.

For comparison’s sake, Raleigh’s population in 2005, the year Katrina came ashore, was 348,000. In 2013, estimates put Raleigh’s population at about 432,000 – still not as large at New Orleans before the storm, but considerably larger than New Orleans of today.

While we were in New Orleans, the signs of recovery were still evident. Construction was going on in nearly every part of the city we visited. In some cases, buildings looked like they were undergoing renovations, in other cases, new construction was underway. There were still quite a few boarded up buildings where it looked as though nothing had happened in the 11 years since the storm hit the city.

But there were also a lot of vacant lots. New Orleans has a relatively small, but robust mass transit system that includes buses and trolleys. We used the trollies on a daily basis and they made it easy to get to activity centers, but when we wanted to go to some place a little off the beaten path, we found ourselves hoofing it, sometimes for quite a distance.

New Orleans’ downtown is remarkably large, which really isn’t a surprise considering that the city is such a tourist destination, and that part of the city seemed to have recovered the quickest from the storm. That’s no real surprise since that area is the hub of economic activity.

But as folks in Raleigh try to figure out how they want their city to grow they find it necessary to work around land that has already developed in one way or another.

New Orleans, bad as Hurricane Katrina was, got a clean slate when the storm flooded the city and I’m sure those urban planners must be having an experience not altogether different from the one planners in places like Wendell and Garner must be experiencing: a canvas wiped clean with a world of possibilities in front of them.