Rob Christensen

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Two recent articles by Rob Christensen, the political columnist for the News & Observer talk about the impact of demographic changes in North Carolina.

The first article was about the impact of North Carolina population shifts on legislative redistricting. Of course we know that our metropolitan areas are growing rapidly and our rural areas have been losing population. According to Christensen, almost half of the state’s 100 counties have lost population since the 2010 Census. Here is the demographic projection that startled me—by 2020 our “50 smallest counties will have 13 percent of North Carolina’s population, while Wake and Mecklenburg counties alone will have more than 21 percent of the population.”

The second article focused on how rapid population growth has transformed our state and its culture. Christensen emphasizes again that “nearly all of the growth is in the urban areas—particularly the Triangle and Charlotte metro areas—the rural areas and small towns are stagnant or dying.” The explanation for the shift is a familiar one. The decline of agriculture and the major hit to North Carolina’s industrial base caused by the loss of textile mills and furniture factories. As he correctly points out, those trends are unlikely “to change because they are being driven by market forces.”

Here are another couple of comparisons from Christensen that surprised me. “It is easy to forget that Charlotte is now larger than Detroit, Seattle, Denver or Boston, and that Raleigh is now larger than Miami, Minneapolis, Cleveland or New Orleans.”  Take a look at the following maps that compare North Carolina’s population distribution in 1930 and 2010.

NC Population Distribution 1930
NC Population Distribution 1930
NC Population Distribution 2010

What are the implications of these changes for the School? I honestly don’t know, but we need to think about them in our strategic foresight process as we position ourselves to be successful over the next twenty years.

For example, most conversations about the rural-urban divide tend to focus on how to help struggling rural areas. Maybe it makes sense for us to invest more resources in serving urban areas that will face complex challenges associated with over-the-top population growth. Are there fields of expertise associated with selected urban issues where the School should add faculty capacity? If we want to impact the lives of the greatest number of people, should we focus more energy on the governments in those places where the most people will be located—urban and metropolitan areas?

I’m not suggesting that we ignore rural communities and their officials, but I am suggesting that we think hard about the balance of our work in the future.

4 thoughts on “Demography and Destiny

  1. This was the subject of our entire Fall 2000 issue of Popular Government.

    I agree that it ought to be part of our background for planning at SOG. But like other big cultural and demographic trends, it’s something that affects nearly everyone’s field of work, as it underlies all aspects of governmental services. It’s not clear to me that a focus directly on urban vs. rural issues would help us in our mission. Cf. The NC Rural Center.

  2. All county registers of deeds must have the same expertise and provide the same services. Urban counties take in more than enough register fees and excise taxes to cover the expenses of highly qualified staff and the latest systems in their offices; these registers contribute to the general funds in their urban counties. Rural counties compete for general fund revenues to meet expenses to operate. All need the same training and advice, but urban counties have more of an advantage in being able to get some advice from county attorneys, IT staff, and elsewhere. I agree with Richard with respect to there being no difference in focus in what I do; it is important to remember how much rural counties depend on us but worry they will be forgotten in Chapel Hill and Raleigh.

    1. I completely agree that for lots of our work the expertise and services required by rural and urban counties are the same. That is especially true in most of our legal fields and areas like governmental accounting. I wonder if that holds true across all fields. I assume, for example, that the needs could be very different in some legal fields like land use. Or in areas like community and economic development. The other question is whether there are different or expanded fields where the School should invest in new faculty resources because of the need in urban areas. One we have talked about in the past is transportation issues. I don’t have any confidence in the answer, but I worry a bit that our general one-size-fits-all approach may not be as successful in the future.

  3. It may also make us re-think how we deliver services. People still like face to face training, but the prospect of getting out to rural areas has never excited us. But a what about more regional schools – a concentrated version of muni and county offered in Charlotte? would these be places to test out offering that were necessarily all NC material (budgeting?)

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