A Talk of the Towns interview and podcast

Talking with Owen Furuseth: Farms, neighborhoods and immigration

Hindu Fire Ceremony in 2008 at a home in suburban Charlotte. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Owen Furuseth, UNC Charlotte’s associate provost for Metropolitan Studies and Extended Academic Programs, is retiring June 30 after a career researching land use, urban and neighborhood planning topics. During those years he has been an advocate for open space preservation, has worked with Charlotte-Mecklenburg local government to create and refine an extensive set of neighborhood-level information, and has studied Charlotte’s emerging immigrant community and the effects on neighborhoods of the city’s changing demographics.

PlanCharlotte interviewed Furuseth about his work. His comments, edited for length and clarity, are below. Or you can listen to the full conversation in the June installment on our “PlanCharlotte: Talk of the Towns” podcast.

Q. In ’80s and ’90s there was a lot of talk in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County about open space preservation. What came of that?

A.  Early on, the focus was on farmland preservation. Not much came of it at all.

But in terms of raising the issue of open space and its value to prosperous urban regions, I think the issue has resonated, especially in discussion about parks and how we plan our cities and how we look at it as an urban as well as a rural issue.

I came to UNCC from Oregon – which at the time had one of the more progressive urban planning and open space preservation policies in the U.S. I arrived as a young academic and was looking for collaborators locally, and I went down to the planning commission. I had gone to East Carolina [University] and there were some planners from there. They said, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m really interested in farmland preservation and open space planning. Who are your environmental planners?” They said, “We don’t have environmental planners.” Coming from Oregon where environmental planning was key to what was going on, it was kind of an awakening: that open space and green issues really were not so important.

Q.  When I was at Charlotte Observer you were someone I could call to learn how open space preservation works in other places. I learned about some tools not being used here. What are some?

A.  Probably the most important tool was the notion of purchasing development rights. That is a fairly complex idea, but essentially, think of property ownership as a bundle of rights – sticks if you will. You can separate out those sticks, so in urban areas you can sell the air rights, for example, the right to build above a parcel of land. Fundamental to this is the notion of development rights. Through conservation easements or through the outright purchase of development rights you can separate those rights from the property and either transfer them to another property or hold them in perpetuity, or on a temporary basis. In Oregon and in other parts of the country, transferring or purchasing development rights was fairly common. When we began to think about farmland preservation here in the ’80s and looked at the tools, that was one that came to the fore.

Q.  But did it ever really come to the fore in Mecklenburg County?

A.  It was very progressive, alien to this area. We were able, though, under the leadership of former county commissioner Fountain Odom, to put together a bond vote to purchase farmland and open space and development rights in the ’80s [1986].

It’s kind of a funny history. It was the only bond referendum that moved forward without the creation of a community-wide bond committee, so Fountain brought together about 20 people interested in this issue. We would meet around the table, collect a little money, talk about what needed to be done. We went out and posted signs around the county with the shape of a red barn that said, “Save Farmland, Vote for the Farmland Bonds,” and despite the fact that all the media editorialized against the bonds, they passed.

“There was authorization for Mecklenburg County to sell about $10 million in bonds to purchase (farmland) development rights. That could have gone a long way back then. But ... those bonds were never sold.” — Owen Furuseth

And so there was authorization for Mecklenburg County to sell about $10 million in bonds to purchase development rights. That could have gone a long way back then. But what happened was fairly strong opposition from folks who felt this would impede development. So those bonds were never sold.

Q.  For 20 years you’ve worked on a long-running initiative that is now the Quality of Life Explorer. It uses demographics and other data to help understand local neighborhoods. How did that get started?

A.  That project arose out of the City of Charlotte’s City Within a City program, which targeted inner-city neighborhoods. The original program looked at all neighborhoods within a 3-mile radius from Trade and Tryon [the center of uptown Charlotte]. There was a legitimate concern that a city could not prosper unless inner-city neighborhoods were growing and prospering as well as suburban neighborhoods. The original purpose was look at neighborhood conditions. The planning commission in 1996 asked my colleague Dennis Lord in the UNC Charlotte Department of Geography & Earth Sciences if he could come up with a methodology to allow them to assess, across multiple dimensions, what was happening in those neighborhoods.

The city came back a couple years later and asked can we take his model and use it with local data, rather than relying on census data? Can we create a statistical model that combines variables so we can get a single aggregate measure? That measure was kind of a red/yellow/green marker – neighborhoods that were stable, threatened, and fragile based on how they ranked.

Three or four years later it expanded citywide.

In 1986 Mecklenburg voters approved $10 million in bonds to buy development rights to protect rural areas in Mecklenburg, like this Cleveland County scene. With opposition from the development community, county commissioners let the bonds expire. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Q.  How did a closer and more statistical look at neighborhoods help in analyzing the city?

A. It was clear there were low-wealth neighborhoods and high-income neighborhoods. The question became: What are the elements that put this neighborhood in a particularly disadvantaged status? We could drill down and say, “Oh my gosh there’s a high violent crime rate,” or “Oh my gosh there’s no sidewalks in the neighborhoods.” Because the study was done every two years, we could look at changes over time. The city, with its infrastructure investment program and its deployment of human resources, could identify key issues in, say, east Charlotte versus west Charlotte neighborhoods, then make strategic investments that would, ideally, pay off.

Q.  Those reports are now online. How has going online changed how that tool is used?

A.  The change occurred in 2010. We had been working with the city, and the geography included was only the city. In 2010, the county wanted to become a participant. We went from having only Charlotte neighborhoods to the whole county, including the six towns. So now we have complete geographic coverage – a huge increase in geography.

We expanded the variables in the model. So we had a richer palette for looking at what was happening in the neighborhoods.

The third major change was that, until 2010, we combined all the variables into a composite measure for each neighborhood, ranking them: stable, transitioning and threatened. We realized you could be a neighborhood doing a whole lot of work and good things were happening, but because you were so poor to begin with, you never were moving out from that bottom category. It was stigmatizing. So we dropped that.

 “For virtually all of Charlotte’s history to the latter part of the 20th century it was framed by this black/white dichotomy. ... We began to look at the census data, and saw Charlotte was ... among a handful of places in the country that were Hispanic hyper-growth metropolitan areas.” — Owen Furuseth

Q.  You’ve spent a lot of time the last few years looking at immigrants in Charlotte.

A.  I came to Charlotte in 1977.  My work has focused heavily on neighborhoods and what’s been going on in neighborhoods in Charlotte. But I was never really sensitive to immigrants until we hired Dr. Heather Smith in the Department of Geography & Earth Sciences. Heather is an urban social geographer, interested in neighborhood change. Her work had focused on immigration in large Canadian cities. She began to look around this community. As we drove through the community and I noticed a tent over here or a Spanish-language sign over there, it was one of those epiphanies where you say, “Oh my God, you’re talking with me about something I haven’t really noticed.”

For virtually all of Charlotte’s history to the latter part of the 20th century it was framed by this black/white dichotomy. She and I began to talk to people in the community, and we began to look at the census data, and saw Charlotte was in the midst of this dramatic demographic transformation. We were among a handful of places in the country that were Hispanic hyper-growth metropolitan areas.

Q.  In addition to Latino immigration, what are some less well-known immigrant groups?

A.  To set the context, the local population is about 13 percent foreign-born. Over half of those are from Latin America. But somewhat overshadowed by the number of Latino immigrants was a significant immigrant stream from Asia – refugee populations from southeast Asia and a more professional, middle-class immigration stream from China, Taiwan, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. A small but probably the fastest growing immigrant stream locally now is African immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa – east and west Africa.

Q.  You’ve worked on making Charlotte a more welcoming community. What are some observations?

A. The data nationally and internationally tell us that if you’re going to be a prosperous metropolitan place competing in a global market, you’re going to have to have a diverse workforce – one that is bilingual, comes from different cultural backgrounds and increasingly is international. If we look at the global cities around the world, or at U.S. cities that are the most competitive and growing the fastest, these are places that are welcoming immigrants.

There is an enormous amount of data that shows immigrants tend to disproportionally hold patents, disproportionally are leaders of growing corporations and disproportionally are the Main Street entrepreneurs. They are in many ways an advantage to our country and to the places where they’re going.

We need to find a way to make this community more welcoming, rather than creating barriers or creating a popular sense that Charlotte is where you don’t want to go, because of a lack of opportunities or lack of openness.