December 21, 2009
What might our landscape look like in the near future? More specifically, where has urban growth occurred in the last thirty years, and where is it likely to occur over the next twenty years? Researchers at UNC Asheville and UNC Charlotte, as part of an ongoing Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) project, are conducting analyses that answer these types of questions, and also developing tools to help policy makers and planners understand and manage rapid urban growth. . Using historical satellite imagery, development trends, population data and population projections, they’ve been able to design an Urban Growth Model that can generate visual representations of what our landscape may look like in the future.
Building upon a similar study of the Greater Charlotte region, released in 2007, researchers are in the process of analyzing land conversion patterns for all of western North Carolina. The initial results of their collaborative research highlight the effect of development on four western North Carolina counties: Madison, Buncombe, Henderson and Transylvania. Those results indicate that between 1976 and 2006, development in the four-county region increased nearly 500 percent, or at an average rate of six acres of green space per day – outpacing population growth by nearly 10-to-one.
Researchers have identified several important predictors of development patterns, including an area’s proximity to nearest road or interstate interchange and proximity to nearest urban center, or major employment center. Topographical slope and “development pressure,” or proximity to previously developed areas, are also key indicators of where urbanization and future development are likely to occur. Development forecasts extend to 2030, utilizing all available county-level population projections for the region.
The Urban Growth Model indicates an additional 47,489 acres of forests and farm lands will be developed in the four-county region by 2030, which is the equivalent of losing almost 75 square miles – or more than six properties the size of the Biltmore Estate – worth of green space. That’s significant for an area that draws visitors from around the globe for its natural and scenic attractions.
The Urban Growth Model results include statistics on the amount and rate of development as well as maps of future development patterns. These are important tools for policy makers, planners and conservationist as they provide valuable information on not only when and how much development is expected, but also where it is likely to occur.
James Fox, the director of RENCI at UNC Asheville and the school’s National Environment Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC), has already witnessed local lawmakers' interest in the growth model results. “It’s going to be used by several different groups of decision makers,” he said, adding the study is an important tool that will make it easier for local governments to collaborate with each other when making policy and planning decisions.
“This is another important tool we can incorporate into our work," said Richard Broadwell, a Land Protection Specialist for the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, which is working to preserve the scenic viewsheds along the Blue Ridge Parkway. His organization plans to use the data to help them determine which lands to protect and "how to spend our limited funds."
Most of the anticipated growth is expected to occur in Buncombe and Henderson Counties. These two counties are forecast to contribute 22,101 and 18,381 acres of developed land, respectively, between 2010 and 2030. Henderson County is predicted to experience the greatest change in total developed land relative to county area, with total number of developed acres comprising 13.5% of county area in 2010 and 21.3% of county area by 2030.
“For every acre of land that is converted from a natural state through development, there is a really big impact on the mountains' plants and animals,” said Carl Silverstein, Executive Director for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.
Silverstein is also concerned about development pressure on local farmers, decreased interest from tourists, and the impact urban sprawl could have on the headwaters of rivers, which provide drinking water for millions of North Carolina citizens.
Further, the findings demonstrate that humans require more land per person than they once did. In 1976, developed land equated to 0.06 acres per person in the four-county area. By 2030, researchers forecast per-capita land requirements will increase to over a quarter-acre in the region.
Madison County’s "human footprint" is projected to increase more than the other three counties, by 0.18 acres per person (a 67 percent increase) between 2006 and 2030. In comparison, per-capita land consumption in Buncombe, Henderson and Transylvania Counties is forecast to increase by 28 percent, 13 percent and 18 percent, respectively, in the same period.
Created in 2004, RENCI includes a statewide network of academic institutions working to solve complex problems affecting quality of life and economic competitiveness in North Carolina by tapping into university expertise and through the use of advanced technologies.
The study on the four-county expansion of the Urban Growth Model was conducted by researchers at UNC Charlotte’s Center for Applied Geographic Information Science (CAGIS), which is one of the partners in the RENCI at UNC Charlotte team. RENCI’s UNC Asheville Engagement Center is the lead regional partner for the western North Carolina expansion, with funding from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the City of Asheville, the U.S. Forest Service and RENCI’s home office in Chapel Hill. The study’s findings for the remaining western North Carolina counties are expected to be released in the spring of 2010.
Additional research findings, including animated maps of land conversion rates for the four-county region, are available at (http://renci.uncc.edu/WesternExpansion).
RENCI operates facilities at UNC Asheville, UNC Charlotte, East Carolina University, UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University and NC State University as well as its flagship site off campus in Chapel Hill. http://www.renci.org
RENCI at UNC Charlotte involves faculty and staff from three UNC Charlotte research centers: the Urban Institute, the Center for Applied Geographic Information Science and the Charlotte Visualization Center. www.renci.uncc.edu; www.ui.uncc.edu; www.gis.uncc.edu; www.viscenter.uncc.edu
About UNC Asheville
As the only designated liberal arts institution in the 16-campus University of North Carolina system, UNC Asheville serves students who are prepared for academic challenges by offering an intellectually rigorous education that builds critical thinking and workforce skills. UNC Asheville's 3,400 undergraduate students select from 30 majors. The University gets high marks for educational innovation from U.S. News & World Report and is ranked among the best liberal arts colleges nationally. http://www.unca.edu
About UNC Charlotte
A public research university, UNC Charlotte is the fourth largest campus among the 17 institutions of The University of North Carolina system. It is the largest institution of higher education in the Charlotte region. The University offers 18 doctoral programs, 62 master’s degree programs and 90 programs leading to bachelor’s degrees. Fall 2009 enrollment surpassed 24,000 students, including 5,000 graduate students. http://www.uncc.edu
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