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Long Live the Queen City


By Michael Aper

Every working day of the week, as in all major cities across the states, quiet professionals -- disciplined in the arts and sciences of regional and municipal planning -- labor with the hopes of steering the nation’s great communities in a direction of sustainable prosperity.  The city of Charlotte, North Carolina, often goes unmentioned when discussions arise about nation-leading exemplars of sustainable development.  The city coasts humbly along, moving confidently under the radar into the 21st Century.

The city of Charlotte is named after Queen Charlotte: wife to King George III of England, circa 1760.  Historians tell us that the queen, in her daily pursuits, was an avid botanist and connoisseur of music.  It’s a namesake fitting to anyone who has leisurely strolled among the city’s tree-lined corridors or relaxed and enjoyed the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s Summer Pops series.  In such moments, Charlotte can be reminiscent of the world’s great cultural hubs, emoting a sense of royal dignity.

Among Queen Charlotte’s most cherished artisans was a talented landscape designer named Capability Brown.  Brown was responsible for designing over 170 gardens in England during his tenure in the latter half of the 18th century -- many of which still endure today, including Kew Gardens and Milton Abbey.  The Queen City too, it seems, is also fond of her talented planners.  Renowned planner John Nolen helped to design Charlotte’s memorable Myers Park and Dilworth suburbs.  Simply take a walk in some of the area’s communities, and it’s hard to ignore the collective effort toward aesthetics as your eyes wander across seemingly undulated landscapes redolent of Brown himself.

Charlotte, better known nationally as a banking hub, is home to Bank of America. It’s consistently a national finance leader only outdone annually by the banking behemoth of New York City.  Today, it’s making headway as a different kind of national leader through the efforts of professionals who work with different forms of capital.

At the forefront are planning organizations like the Centralina Council of Governments (CCOG) and Envision Charlotte.  The success of these organizations in managing sustainable growth has been catalyzed by the city’s recent surge in population; its numbers swelled from 569,858 inhabitants in 2000 to over the 800,000 mark last year.  Among the top 25 incorporated places in the U.S., only Austin, Texas, had a greater percent increase between 2010 and 2013.  The key to these organizations’ success has been a combination of measurable metrics built on the time-tested philosophies of grassroots processes.

The Queen’s Court: Centralina Council of Governments

In 2008, the Centralina Council of Governments (CCOG) completed the CONNECT Regional Vision.  The vision, working collaboratively with local governments as well as dozens of public, private and nonprofit organizations, consisted of six core principles for future growth:

  • A strong, diverse economy

  • Sustainable, well-managed growth

  • A safe and healthy environment

  • Increased collaboration

  • Enhanced social equity

  • High-quality educational opportunities

In 2012, with the core values, CCOG -- supported by a $4.9 million HUD Sustainable Communities grant and $3 million in local in-kind public and private matching resources -- began developing the CONNECT Our Future Regional Growth Framework.

The framework is one of the most holistic community engagement processes ever undertaken by a regional planning agency to date.  Senior Advisor Dwayne S. Marsh from the HUD Office of Economic Resilience wrote of the process:

"[The] planning effort put [CCOG] amongst excellent company nationally with regards to innovative approaches to engage communities in resolving their local issues.  [CCOG] efforts moved the greater Charlotte region from being the largest metropolitan area without a long range comprehensive plan to national model for sustainable development."

The Framework was developed with a simple grassroots philosophy: Everyone’s voice matters.  In more than 80 transparent public-engagement opportunities, 60 local governments and government agencies, 29 nonprofit and community foundations, 12 private-sector businesses, seven educational institutions, and over 8,400 individual community-members shared their vision for the future.  The input was synthesized into 10 Regional Priorities:

  • Support Our Communities: Create new, active town centers and support existing downtowns

  • Maximize Return on Public Investment: Reduce waste and control the cost of providing public services

  • Support Local Farms: Protect and ensure the sustainability of agriculture in the region

  • Improve Access to Parks and Open Space: Ensure that residents have equitable access to parks, open space and other natural assets

  • Increase Transportation Choices: Provide a range of alternative transportation options

  • Improve Water Quality: Protect the region’s key watersheds to enhance water quality

  • Improve Air Quality: Reduce pollutants in the air and help improve public health

  • Grow Jobs Closer to Home: Improve housing and jobs accessibility

  • Increase Housing Choices: Provide a range of housing types at different prices points that support residents within communities of the CONNECT region throughout all stages of life

  • Reduce Commuting Costs: Decrease the percentage of household income spent on transportation

One of the major outcomes of the process has been the CONNECT Our Future Toolkit.  The Toolkit provides regional stakeholders with nearly 80 in-depth, multi-faceted technical support guides for addressing issues pertaining to the 10 Regional Priorities.  A few examples include the Farm to School, Creative Public Finance, Storm Water Best Management Practices and “Buy Local” Campaign tools.  Each tool provides metrics for success, an explanation of why it’s important for the community, where the tool is appropriate to use, the priorities it addresses and places where the tool has worked, among many other resources.  A cohort of the Master of Arts in Sustainability program at Wake Forest University recently concluded a year-long best-practices analysis and found the CONNECT Our Future Toolkit to be among the most comprehensive and well-organized in the country.

The Queen’s Court: Envision Charlotte

Envision Charlotte, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, is also revolutionizing pro-business approaches for energy, water, waste and air resource conservation by turning Charlotte into a smart city.  The organization provides real-time aggregated usage information at user-friendly kiosks in participating buildings of the Charlotte Uptown area and recently obtained a grant to expand their operations to include some 200 buildings.

On March 23 and 24 of this year, Envision Charlotte and the city of Charlotte hosted the Smart Cities Council to discuss their efforts aimed at making Charlotte the “smartest" city in the nation.

Organizations like CCOG and Envision Charlotte, through their targeted efforts, are making clear that they plan to transition toward sustainable practices with decisive, pro-business strategies founded on the principles of transparency and inclusion.  Through the utilization of extensive cross-sector partnerships, the aforementioned organizations and their partners are showing that Charlotte and its surrounding region are serious about sustainability -- and they’re doing it with an air of Southern diplomacy worthy of only a queen.

Long live the Queen City.

Image credits: Michael Aper

Special thanks to Emily Parker and Blair Israel

Michael Aper served as a combat Infantryman in the United States Army from 2007 to 2010. During his time in service he deployed to South Korea and Afghanistan. As a member of the 4th Infantry Division, his unit was one of the first to deploy during the troop surge of 2009. During the deployment, his unit conducted route clearance operations and worked alongside Afghan Nationals to improve the local economy in a remote area outside of Kandahar. Upon returning in 2010, he was honorably discharged and began college at Northern Arizona University. In 2013, he graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s in Community Development and Sustainability. Today, he is pursuing his Master of Arts in Sustainability at Wake Forest University, class of 2015.

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