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Sustaining Sustainability: It Ain’t Always Easy

Mary Newsom / Feb 28 2010

For Release Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mary Newsom A little more than a dozen years ago, a collection of three adjacent suburban towns in the sprawling Sun Belt region of Charlotte did something extraordinary. After months of public workshops, lectures and community discussions, months of looking at slide shows to choose what kinds of streets, stores, houses and apartments they wanted for their towns, they revamped their town codes. They aimed to discourage conventional suburbia and encourage traditional neighborhood development, transit-oriented projects and farmland preservation.

It warmed the hearts of planners. It drew national attention and awards and, after a couple of New Urbanist neighborhoods were built, busloads of visiting Smart Growth disciples. Writers, including yours truly, ladled on praise. In 1996 I wrote an editorial calling the new ordinances in Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson, N.C., “a remarkable exercise in local and regional planning” and “a remarkable vision.”

But as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys sang decades before, “Time changes everything.”

“It faded away in Cornelius first,” says David Walters, an urban design professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who has worked as a consultant for all three towns starting in the mid-1990s.

“The torch didn’t get well passed,” says Bill Coxe, transportation planner in Huntersville, a one-time mill-town and railroad hamlet that has grown from less than 3,000 people in 1988 to an estimated 39,000 in 2006. In both Huntersville and the next-door town of Cornelius, early enthusiasm for concentrating development into higher density nodes and for pushing more growth into the towns’ tiny, historic downtowns has faltered, victim of elections and the departures of some key planners, mayors and town managers. It hasn’t helped that a long-wished-for commuter rail line remains in funding limbo.

Today, Huntersville town commissioners are thinking of using a city-owned former cotton mill site–purchased years ago with an eye to a mixed-use development clustered at a planned commuter rail stop–to build a new police station. After all, the reasoning goes, it would save money to use land the town already owns. And anyway, conservatives on the town board had successfully scuttled a deal with a willing local developer. That happened back in the pre-recession days when developers could still get financing.

By 2010, only Davidson–an affluent college town of about 9,000, home to Davidson College–was hewing religiously to its strategy: channel most growth into already developed areas, protect the village feel of its historic downtown by requiring new development to fit in with the old and try to protect open land in its fast-disappearing rural surroundings.

In Huntersville, by contrast, “The cadre who believed in it moved on,” Coxe says. “Now you just have a bunch of suburbanites. And they just don’t get it.”

How, he wonders, do you embed into a town’s culture the precepts of smart planning, of building walkable town centers and channeling the growth into the areas where it makes sense to grow? After so much work by so many townspeople and elected leaders, how do you maintain that level of interest, engagement and understanding of the underlying principles? After all, most Americans still equate “density” with poverty.

With so many newcomers, and the generally transient nature of much of America, how many Huntersville and Cornelius residents were even aware of all those hours townspeople devoted 15 years ago? Walters worked with Cornelius, population about 13,000, on an area plan in 2003 and with Huntersville on a 2005 downtown plan. Public participation, he says, was “pretty disappointing.” And, he says, “More worryingly, there was not a whole lot of interest from public officials.”

In addition to the turnover and the influx of newcomers unaware of the past work, I suspect a piece of what has happened relates to starker political partisanship and more liberal-versus-conservative tensions in the past decade. Much about traditional neighborhood design might be considered conservative–such as its aim to hold down municipal services costs and its association with small-town values. But once “smart growth” came to be associated with environmentalism, it became a target for many conservatives suspicious of anything favored by liberals.

Yet the northernmost town of the three, Davidson, has held to its course. Walters credits many things, including its long-time mayor, Randy Kincaid, who only left office two years ago. “He got it,” Walters says. “He really didn’t need any convincing.” The town board, also, has seen little turnover and is generally well-educated about the complexities of growth and planning. And while the town’s top planners have changed, they’ve all been, in Walters’ words, “activist planners.”

And, as if happens, Davidson is a place enamored of itself. “Davidson’s own dynamics, its sense of specialness,” has, over the years, helped it work through difficulties and keep its eye on its goals, Walters says.

Coxe, the Huntersville planner, told me recently that he considers it a personal failure that Huntersville hasn’t held to its much-praised vision of a decade ago. I think he’s too hard on himself. Like a large number of Americans, many of Huntersville’s new townspeople have never lived anywhere but suburbia. That’s the way of life they know and love.

Walters, who has worked as a consultant on planning projects around the country, thinks the inability to stick to community plans is likely a continual problem, especially rapidly growing suburban areas such as Huntersville. He’s right. People move away. They forget. They elect new politicians. Time changes everything.

Even if 15 years ago hundreds of people devoted hundreds of hours to learn a better way to grow, Walters reminds us, you need “constant vigilance, constant education, constant programming of public events to keep the issues alive.”

Mary Newsom is an associate editor, op-ed columnist and blogger at The Charlotte Observer. Read her blog, The Naked City, at 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. Robert Justice
    Posted February 28, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Dear Neal:
    I have been sending your articles through a friend to our new Houston mayor, Annise Parker. The mayor sent one of them to the Chair of the Metro transition team, Mr. George Greanias. I don’t know if you try to get these to those types of people or not. I will send this one on as before, however, I would think that trying to reach Mr. Greanias might be more productive.
    Good Luck
    Robert Justice
    Kingwood, Texas

  2. Posted March 3, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Translating plans from pretty pictures and good intentions into reality is always a challenge. It could become less of a challenge, however, if economic incentives were created that favored compact development that took advantage of transit and other existing urban infrastructure.
    Some Pennsylvania cities have done just that — reducing the property tax rates on buildings and increasing the tax rates on land values. This discourages real estate speculation which often drives development away from prime sites. It also creates an economic imperative to develop high-value land — which tends to be land that is well-served by existing infrastructure. For details about how this works, see http://www.justeconomicsllc. .

  3. Posted March 4, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Permalink


    I’m just coming across this now, but you hit the nail on the head with this post. I live on the Huntersville/Cornelius border in Birkdale Village. Although I think the immediate area around where I live is ok because I can walk to shops, bike to work on the greenway down the street from my house, and walk my dogs in the stand of trees that will someday be Robbins Park, I think the greater Lake Norman area is like a snapshot of Atlanta 20 or so years ago. Sad to say that I don’t think it’s going to get better anytime soon either. Maybe the North Main Line will get funding approved and get things back on track, but I can’t say that I’m too optimistic.


  4. Posted March 5, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Hi Mary –

    I’ve followed your blog off and on now for some time and really like it. I featured this excellent post on my my own blog here.

    Keep up the great work!

  5. Posted May 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

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