UNC Charlotte collaboration shows huge increase in western NC development

Asheville, N.C. – Ever wanted to predict the future? Researchers at UNC Asheville and UNC Charlotte, as part of an ongoing Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) project, are learning how to do just that. Using historical satellite imagery, development trends, population data and population projections, they’ve been able to design an Urban Growth Model that can generate a visual representation of what our landscape may look like in the near future.

Building upon a similar study of the 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 nearly 10-to-one.

Researchers have identified several predictors of development patterns, such as an area’s proximity to a road or interstate interchange, an urban area or a major employment center. Topographical slope and “development pressure,” or proximity to already developed areas, are also key indicators of where urbanization and future development are likely to occur.

The Urban Growth Model indicates an additional 47,489 acres of forests and cultivated farms will be developed in the four-county region by 2030, which is the equivalent of losing almost 75 square miles worth of greens space – or more than six properties the size of the Biltmore Estate. That’s significant for an area that draws visitors from around the globe for its natural and scenic attractions.

The statistical forecast, which only extends to 2030 because that’s as far into the future as the state has projected population growth, is also important for policy makers, planners and conservationists. Understanding when development is likely to occur will help them know where to focus their attention.

James Fox, the director of RENCI at UNC Asheville and the university’s National Environment Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC), has already witnessed local lawmakers’ interest in the modeling data. “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 predicted development is expected to occur in Buncombe and Henderson Counties, with Henderson County experiencing the greatest increase – 11.6 percent – relative to county area. By 2030, it’s expected 21.3 percent of Henderson County will be developed, not counting water or protected areas.

“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.

Additional findings demonstrate that humans require more impervious land per person than they once did. In 1976, land development equated to 0.06 acres per person in the four-county area. By 2030, researchers forecast per-capita land requirements will jump to a quarter-acre, or approximately 9,500 square feet.

Madison County’s “human footprint” is projected to increase more than the other three counties, by 0.18 acres per person (or 67 percent). In comparison, per-capita land use in Buncombe, Henderson and Transylvania Counties is only forecast to increase by 28 percent, 13 percent and 18 percent, respectively, in the same period.

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.

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.

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.

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.

RENCI at UNC Asheville focuses on disaster research, mitigation, and preparedness, taking advantage of western North Carolina’s expertise in weather and climate modeling, visualization, and public outreach.

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.

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 will surpass 24,000 students, including 5,000 graduate students.

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact John Chesser at (704) 678-2762 or jchesser@uncc.edu.

John Chesser, Associate Director for Research Services
UNC Charlotte Urban Institute
(704) 687-2762

James Fox, RENCI and NEMAC Director
UNC Asheville
(825) 301-2075