Q/A interview

New century, new planning challenges: Graying, browning of America

Have N.C. cities – and the rest of America – built too many stores for the population? Do we face a glut of single-family housing? And how can planners be innovative in addressing three huge demographic changes we’ll see this century?

Mitchell Silver, Raleigh’s chief planning and development officer, is national president of the American Planning Association, traveling to some 40 states during his two-year term in office. He talked recently with PlanCharlotte.org director Mary Newsom about changes he sees coming to the state and the nation, and how planners can adapt. His remarks, edited for brevity and clarity:

Q.  Describe the demographic changes we face.

A. There are three major, driving components: The graying of America, the browning of America, the rise of the single-person household. They’ll change the way places are designed and change how people choose where they live.

Video of Silver's presentation

Video: Click here, or see end of this article, to see Silver's keynote address at the 2012 American Planning Association conference in April in Los Angeles.

The graying of America: By 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be over age 65.

The browning of America: By mid-century there will be no majority race that’s more than 50 percent of the population.

The rise of single-person households:  By the mid-2020s it will be the predominant household type. This includes young people and widowers and others who just choose to live single.

Q. How should planners respond?

A. They need to look at their demographic trends, which will vary, place to place, and ask, “Do you have the housing stock for the generations who are looking to rent, not own? How will the aging move around the region? What are their mobility options?”

People choose a place as a commodity. They don’t just buy a home. They buy a neighborhood, a place. If you want to have a strong economy and stabilize your tax base, you have to think about what kind of place you’re designing and planning for the future.

Q. Some housing experts predict a glut of single-family housing. Do you see that as a real possibility for places like Charlotte and the Triangle?

A. No. I think places that will be most vulnerable are maybe Florida and out west in Nevada. Places with strong growth, like the Triangle, will be able to sustain what is predicted to be a mismatch between the market and the inventory.  I’m not as concerned for the Triangle as I am for other parts of the country.

Q. Has the country built too much retail space? If so, what role should zoning and planning play?

A. Some experts will tell you we are definitely over-retailed, especially at certain locations, particularly some of the malls. Consumer habits and Internet shopping are changing retail spending, locations and destinations. But people still look for the experience of place. People like to travel, to window shop and purchase. I think there are still some new retail opportunities if the atmosphere and the place are right – a main street, not necessarily the mall.

For planners, I prefer zoning that offers lots of flexibility. It’s difficult for planners to predict where the market’s going to go. If you have a code that’s flexible, it allows the market to determine the appropriate use.

For example, Raleigh’s new development code [not yet adopted] doesn’t even have a commercial classification. It has residential, mixed-use and industrial mixed-use. You have a choice. We’re letting the market determine what’s best. Then its use can change over time.

That approach is more resilient and more adaptable than the Euclidian way of separating uses into different zones.

Q. What innovative planning tools would you like to see cities in North Carolina consider?

A.  First, there’s no question that form-based codes or hybrids are one of the best innovations I’ve seen in a long time. They offer so much flexibility to market changes.

Second, technology in general – the creation of the smart phone and apps – has changed the way we do business.

Third, this movement toward measuring the return on investment of different kinds of development is really getting elected officials to pay attention. For more information, click here and here.

I’m sure software will be developed to better figure out how we can quantify ROI, project-by-project. It will change the way we plan, big time, if you could compare a road project to a transit project to show return on investment. You could start to see how infrastructure pays for itself based on the density you put near it.

As I travel the country, more elected officials are paying attention to this idea, regardless of the political spectrum.

Q. What decisions do you wish Raleigh had made differently in the past 30 years?

A. Laying out a street-network grid 30 years ago would have helped our city and many cities a great deal. We did not do like so many cities – Savannah, Philadelphia, New York – where you laid out your grid, and that became your building block for creating a great city. We just stuck to the thoroughfares and collectors, and then let the [private] land planners do the rest, case by case.

That provided this disconnected, suburban, cul-de-sac environment that now we have to retrofit and connect, one that doesn’t, in my opinion, provide the lifestyle so many people are looking for. It’s not walkable. Even if you have a bus network, it’s a challenge.

Q. Finish this sentence: I wish someone in planning would invent an effective way to …

A. I’m looking for a real-time, scientifically calculated SimCity-type program.

Read more from top planners

Click here to read PlanCharlotte.org's interview with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director Debra Campbell.

One that, as development comes in, we can see what it’s doing to our city. Say a case comes in with 500 units: It generates X-amount of vehicle trips. What does that do to our network? I would love a program to let us analyze zoning cases – and cumulatively, so we could determine how many school children it will generate, how much demand for parks and so on. Most often elected officials and planning commissions look at projects in isolation, not at cumulative impacts.

Q. What do you see happening in North Carolina cities that intrigues you?

A. It’s this changing of the guard of a generation. The Boomers in the ’60s – that was the last moment in the U.S. where we saw this changing of the guard, with the comeback of cities and what we called gentrification back then. To me this is an equivalent:  We really see a major shift in values and attitudes about place. It’s exciting to see that play itself out.

It’s going to be fascinating to see the rise of single-person households, and “What do we now do about subdivisions?” and the battle about “We don’t’ want rental; that’s not a housing unit of choice.”

And over the next 30-40 years there will be significant changes in the demographic diversity in North Carolina. We’re going to see a huge increase in the Hispanic and Asian populations.  People will have to learn how to embrace diversity.

How will they respond to the politics, to governance? That will have a direct role on planning. And I want us to be adaptable and resilient in that change.

Video below, provided by the American Planning Association, shows Silver's address to the APA national conference in April in Los Angeles.