North Carolinians outside the Research Triangle region (“Triangle”) envy its economic success and cultural assets.
But don’t get too jealous.
The very success of the Triangle brings challenges that, if unmet, will topple the Triangle’s place as North Carolina’s capstone example of successful economic development.
The Triangle’s dilemmas are the focus of “The Research Triangle: From Tobacco Road to Global Prominence,” a new book by William Rohe, director of the Center for Urban & Regional Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The story of the Research Triangle Park is a part of the state’s defining history or myth, just as much as the Lost Colony or the Wright Brothers’ first flight.
You know the short version. In the 1950s North Carolina’s visionary government and business leaders saw the pending demise of the state’s traditional low-wage industries and the potential for using the resources and reputations of Duke, N.C. State, and UNC-Chapel Hill to attract research-related businesses to an open area of worn-out farmland near all three universities.
Thousands of acres of land were acquired and, over time, the research-related business filled them. In less than a generation, the Triangle moved from economic laggard to national leader.
This “myth” is mostly true. There were a few bumps in the road. Lots of tenacious people fought through roadblocks and disappointments before the Triangle achieved the success that makes it widely admired and envied.
Rohe tells in rich detail how the Research Triangle Park (“Park”) came about, including the 200 years of history of the region that put it in position to take advantage of the opportunities the Park made possible.
Rohe enthusiastically catalogues the benefits the Park brought to the region, including the high-value businesses, the high paying jobs, and the leveraged economic activity that results from them.
However, Rohe’s most important message to North Carolinians is like that of Professor Hill in “The Music Man,” who asserted to complacent townspeople, “We got trouble right here in River City.”
Much of the trouble in the Triangle is a result of the region’s success. The low-density sprawling housing patterns and crowded traffic routes cannot sustain the projected population growth of the region. ”It’s so crowded, nobody goes there anymore,” the saying attributed to Yogi Berra, could be prophetic for the Triangle region.
These kinds of problems face every growing metropolitan region. Rohe details a long list of strategies and tactics that could be used to absorb the projected growth without destroying the region’s quality of life. For example, Rohe suggests for consideration:
*More high-density housing, even within the Park itself.
*Light rail connections to get a substantial number of cars off the highways, but Rohe concedes that much more high-density housing has to be in place before rail can be successful.
*Limiting new residential development by requiring, before approval of a new project, a showing of the readiness of the community or region (schools, roads, and other infrastructure) to accommodate the proposed additional population.
Even if these kinds of approaches would work if they were applied region-wide, getting a coordinated approach in the region is almost impossible. Rohe says that there are 43 jurisdictions in the region that have some responsibility for land-use and transportation planning. Getting even one government to adopt such restrictions would be ambitious. Getting 43 of them to act in a unified manner would be a miracle.
Various regional organizations that coordinate activities of governmental or planning units have been successful in many areas. But it is unlikely that any of them could gain enough power to bring about the kind of transportation and housing development plans that Rohe says are needed.
Without a unified approach in the Triangle, Rohe says, like Professor Hill, “We got trouble.”