When I moved to Raleigh in it was a sleepy state capital with little excitement and few downtown residents. Now, over forty years later, construction cranes dot the landscape of downtown. Raleigh is a magnet for young college graduates, tech and financial firms, and cutting-edge eateries.
Yet this success has brought challenges, with two in particular attracting the most attention. First is housing costs. The popularity of downtown and nearby locations has caused financial values of those sites to soar.
The second challenge is commuting. Households who are priced out of the downtown market locate in outlying areas where real estate costs are lower. Longer commutes create more congestion and higher levels of polluting emissions to the environment.
Limitations on new development, subsidized housing and mass transit have been tried or debated in many regions with revitalized inner cities.
There may be another approach that is now receiving attention. It’s the idea of
mini-cities. Mini-cities, also known as live-work-play communities, combine residences, businesses, shopping, entertainment amenities and educational and medical facilities into one coordinated development. Households can live in the development, work there, and do much of their shopping and leisure time activities in the same general location.
Depending on the size of the mini-city, routine commuting and travel are minimized and replaced by walking, riding shuttles or trams, or even using a light-rail system built as an integral part of the development. The reduction in daily traffic travel is also a big plus for the environment.
Developers of mini-cities can be motivated to construct residences with a range of prices if doing so ensures a dedicated labor supply to businesses in the mini-city. Just like the general economy, mini-cities need a variety of skills and occupations paying different salaries.
If businesses in the mini-city know they will have access to an on-site, reliable labor force, they may be willing to subsidize both the construction and occupancy of dwellings marketed specifically to moderate and lower-income households.
The idea of mini-cities has already taken hold in North Carolina. Chatham Park near Pittsboro is a mini-city under construction.
Mini-cities can also be adapted to small town and rural regions, especially if focused on a particular economic function.
Mini-cities can also be developed around a large employer, such as an auto assembly plant or a technology complex. In fact, such developments would be similar to the numerous textile towns of North Carolina’s past.
If current trends continue, North Carolina’s population could increase by 30, equivalent to 3 million new people, by . Adding this growth to our already strained urban regions could lead to considerable new costs in those locations. Mini-cities built in both urban and rural regions can moderate these costs and still allow for the benefits of growth to occur.