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A Burning Question for Sun Belt Cities

Mary Newsom / Aug 10 2012

For Release Friday, August 10, 2012

Mary NewsomIt was a hot night in a hot city the day after the hottest month ever recorded in the United States. By 7 the temperature had slid from the 90s to the high 80s, as I pulled up in front of a 1960s split-level on a half-acre lot in a vast subdivision of 2,450 single-family homes.

I was 7 miles from the heart of downtown — in Manhattan terms that’s roughly as far as Wall Street to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But this was not Manhattan. It was Charlotte.

Regardless of thermometers, this N.C. banking center has been hot for years now, as people streaming in from across the country and the globe made it one of the nation’s fastest-growing metros. They’re drawn by the image of a prospering city with jobs and reasonably priced homes, a place of shade trees and lawns. Next month the city arrives on the world stage as host of the Democratic National Convention.

Like its Sun Belt sisters — Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas for instance — Charlotte boomed in the postwar era, although a more accurate term might be “post-central-air-conditioning era.” And like almost everywhere in America since the 1950s, growth has looked much like the neighborhood I was visiting: houses only (zoning bans other uses), on large lots, built and purchased by people who assumed all residents would own cars and drive to work, shopping or just about anywhere.

And that’s the weak underbelly of the Sun Belt boomtowns. Can cities mostly made up of this kind of neighborhood — strung together by corridors of big-box stores, fast-food joints and strip centers, all built on an assumption of cheap fuel, clean air and a stable planetary climate — stay competitive as the world focuses on conserving energy and shrinking carbon emissions?

Inside the split-level, a small group sat overlooking a back yard of mature trees, talking about the neighborhood’s future. I’d been invited to listen as they followed up a meeting two weeks before, where they had brainstormed a long wish-list of items such as “walkability .. with destinations (ie café/coffee shop),” “convenient public transit,” “general store (could be combined with café/coffee shop),” “farmers market” and so on.

“I know you have to have some density to support the retail,” one neighbor said.

“I’m not against density,” said another. “I’m an environmentalist. I don’t want sprawl to go on forever.”

Yet talk focused on worries about a proposal from city planners trying to nudge more homes into neighborhoods citywide without the traumatic intrusion of apartment towers. The idea is to allow duplexes on any lot zoned for single-family homes, capping the number of duplexes on a block. The neighbors here feared, not unreasonably, that too many rental duplexes could undermine neighborhood stability and lower property values. “My home is my biggest investment,” said the self-described environmentalist.

They “bought into a lifestyle,” some said, of single-family houses, yards and trees. Would duplexes and more density change that?

Yet some also clearly longed for more: To be able to shop without always driving. Nearby transit options. A city study of neighborhoods measured “percent of persons with access to basic retail” and measured this neighborhood at “0.0 percent.” Not one transit route goes through the large, spread-out neighborhood.

The neighbors didn’t use this word, but their wish list sounded like they wanted urbanity. Yet can an expanse of 2,000 single-family houses on big lots achieve urbanity? The question matters for every urban region that, like Charlotte, is mostly built of neighborhoods like this.

Despite the lawns and mature trees here, accumulating research points to the alarming conclusion that a lifestyle of single-family homes on big lots is more environmentally harmful than denser, city-style neighborhoods.

When things are closer, people drive less. Transit is feasible. Smaller homes need less heating and cooling. Buildings with shared walls retain more heat. Together, those factors make city-style living easier on the planet. The average single-family detached home consumes 88 percent more electricity than the average apartment in a five- or more-unit building, economist Edward Glaeser wrote in his Triumph of the City. This too: Yearly gas consumption per family declines by 106 gallons as the number of residents per square mile doubles.

So where does that leave this collection of almost 2,500 houses? Decades of sprawling suburbanization mean this area is now considered “in-town,” yet that description pinpoints location, not neighborhood form. Charlotte’s downtown is a tiny urban core sized for when it was a sleepy, small city too hot for Northerners. By the time Charlotte’s growth zoomed, the era of single-use zoning, interstates and suburban tract homes was well under way. The city’s “historic” close-in neighborhoods are early 20th-century suburbs. When this split-level was built in the 1960s, who had an inkling that a home in a tree-shaded subdivision might create more environmental problems than apartments in the heart of downtown?

Neighbors here aren’t unfeeling polluters, segregationists or income snobs — at least, no more so than most people. They see a more urban future maybe heading their way and want a say, because, as for most middle-class Americans, protecting their property values in a real sense means protection from old-age poverty.

But as Charlotte and other Sun Belt cities keep growing, few of their choices are palatable: Keep sprawling over the landscape? Or begin a vast retrofit, carting houses like this one to landfills to build apartments and stores?

Across America’s suburban-form cities, that may be the hottest question of all.

Mary Newsom is associate director of urban and regional affairs at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute where she directs, a website offering news and analysis about urban growth issues in the 14-county Charlotte region. Views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted August 10, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Charlotte won’t be able to sprawl, but there will be sprawl thanks to the anti-annexation law that got passed in North Carolina. What’s coming to North Carolina is the energy robbing sprawl North eastern and Midwestern cities are more familiar with.

    Cities sprawl even in other regions. The cost is more than gas. Please visit the Strong Towns website. The enable is the muni bond market. If the US didn’t have that/or if it was more difficult to issue debt, US would have more regionalism-as Canada’s example indicates.

  2. Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    There is a reason that in great cities like New Orleans – which is a city of houses, detached building types and lots of greenery – that the “corner store” (mostly mixed-use) building type is pepper-potted all over every neighborhood. They were historically built at least every other block and depending on the block density and location, often two or more corners are mixed use or commercial. It’s easy to walk one or two blocks for a cold drink or to meet and greet. What is sad is the attempt by primarily NIMBYs aided by government to “zone out” anything other than residential uses. Good news is the building typology remains and can be reanimated….

  3. Karin
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Maybe these yards help keep the heat index low? At least I notice it when on hot summer evenings I go into my wooded backyard which reduces somewhat my guilt of being part of that unsustainable expansive city structure. What can we do short term? We often think of just setting up a neighborhood pub in our 300 house subdivision – clandestinely of course. Otherwise, we have decided to bike to the nearest grocery store instead of driving. I chose the preschool that I can bike to. Charlotte does have an ideal climate for biking. Too bad the tolerance of other road users is low to make things worse for idealist bikers. Long term? Make a sexy efficient bus system? Push for rezoning so that our cladnestine pub/coffee shop becomes legal? Let all the familes who have set up chicken coops and bee hives, and have set up expansive fertile vegetable gardens set up their own little farmers market in the neighborhood? I don’t think we can trash all the houses that have been set since WWII, but we can try and adapt our lifestyles accordingly and turn our backyards in to virgin forests. And then push for the urban sprawl to stop – but it seems homes further out are more affordable for young families who often still carry student debt.

  4. Karin
    Posted August 12, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    on a similar note: why are colleges always on seperate campuses away from cities, as in brain sprawl? why are these not integrated in the cities? colleges in cities would provide youth, ideas, intellect, grass roots arts and create an organic economy. For Charlotte I think it is such a loss that UNCC build this huge empire outside the city. Maybe CPCC will do it differently?