Chapel Hill and Carrboro have exceptionally high population density rates in Orange County, and the two towns are still growing.
According to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 State of the Community Report, 94 percent of Orange County is located outside Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough. However, only 43 percent of the county’s housing units are located outside of those areas.
Aaron Nelson, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, said Duke University is the county’s largest landowner, holding thousands of acres of forestland.
“Carrboro is so dense because it is a very small land area. I think it’s about six square miles, and it has (about) 19,000 people, and it’s a lot of apartment complexes,” Nelson said. “But Carrboro is only (about) 2 percent of the land area of Orange County, so it can be very dense and then Orange County can still be very not-dense.”
Nelson said this disparity had historical roots. As downtown Carrboro developed into a mill village, small houses were built very close together, creating a dense urban core that survives today.
Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said smaller houses are encouraged in modern Carrboro by ordinances to allow more people to live in the community while keeping housing costs affordable.
“For instance, we try to encourage developers to provide affordable housing and when they do that we allow them a density bonus,” she said. “We allow them more houses on a property they would not normally be able to build if they also agree to provide affordable housing.”
Carrboro compared to other cities
Lavelle said Carrboro's density was still lower than in many comparable communities across the country.
“In Carrboro, we have the highest density per square mile of any town in North Carolina, but yet, if you look at other states, there are other cities in other states that are much more dense,” she said.
Nelson agreed Carrboro’s density was not abnormal and said Orange County in general is actually outpaced by many surrounding areas, including Wake County, Durham County and Chatham County.
“Carrboro is growing faster than Chapel Hill, and faster than the county on average, but still slower than almost anywhere else in the Triangle,” Nelson said.
The State of the Community Report predicts the concentration of residents will stay manageable. While Chapel Hill is expected to experience an increase in density, it would still be less dense in 2030 than the college towns of Charlottesville, Virginia, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Boulder, Colorado and others are today.
The same report also stated that Orange County is growing at its slowest percentage rate since the 1930s, averaging 0.9 percent per year since 2010.
Lavelle said planners have long identified an area around Carrboro and Chapel Hill to target for development, but also seek to manage its density.
“In our county, we actually proactively work to try to keep our density within what we call an urban growth boundary,” Lavelle said.
How population density affects transportation
As the population continues to increase, transportation planners use data to craft predictions and solutions to challenges such as increased traffic.
Andy Henry, senior transportation planner for the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the MPO uses a land use model to distribute population and employment increases to different places in Orange County. Next, this information is run through a travel demand model, which forecasts the traffic on roadways and transit systems.
These projections help planners like Henry adjust to the transportation challenges posed by density. As population increases, Henry said transportation planning responses can be constrained by the layouts of tightly-packed communities.
“There’s only so many places where you can widen roads or add lanes in Orange County, because so many of the roadways are already in urbanized areas, and the negative impact of the community would be too great to widen the roads,” he said.
Unless citizens adjust their transportation habits, Henry said population growth means traffic in the most populated areas is bound to increase.
“In a lot of areas, with the expected population and employment growth, you’re going to see overall congestion increase.” Henry said. “Of course, that would depend, because if a lot of people moved over to transit, or walked or biked more, especially in the urban area, that could kind of mitigate or reduce some of those increases in roadway congestion.”
Lavelle said Carrboro's geographic features and zoning rules help ease the challenges posed by population increases, and the town could feasibly become denser.
“Our town is fairly flat, and it’s easy to get around by walking and biking,” she said. “Our neighborhoods are zoned in a way that we can pack a lot of people in our 6.4 square miles, and they’re also able to get around fairly easily.”
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