RENCI visualizations show rapid expansion of urban areas by 2030

At RENCI at UNC Charlotte, the new engagement center that involves UNC Charlotte’s Center for Applied Geographic Information Science, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Visualization Center, researchers are developing visual models to illustrate the impacts of urban growth.

The visualizations are part of a study of urban growth in the 24-county region that includes Charlotte.  The Open Space Protection Collaborative, a collaboration of five regional land trusts and one national conservation organization, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation provided funding for the project.

The research team led by Jeff Michael, director of both the Urban Institute and RENCI at UNC Charlotte, used data gleaned from satellite imagery to track a key indicator of development: the advance of impervious surfaces, such as concrete and asphalt. They mapped that trend from 1976 to the present and extended it into the future to estimate how development in the 24 counties might expand by 2030.

As expected, the models show continued rapid growth in Charlotte and surrounding areas and a corresponding conversion of undeveloped lands—either natural areas or farmland—into developed environments. In Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, the models show 58 percent of the county was developed by 2006, up from only 13 percent in 1976. If development continues at the current pace, 97 percent of the county would be developed by 2030. Overall, if current development trends continue, about 2.2 million acres would be developed by 2030, or 30 percent of the region’s landscape.

According to Michael, the research is not meant to advocate any particular view on urbanization, but to help urban planners, developers, open space supporters and others see the potential effects of urban growth so that they can make informed decisions about future development.

“Our work is a decision support tool,” said Michael. “Obviously communities want to grow and prosper, but they need to grow in an informed manner that considers impacts on traffic, water and air quality, and infrastructure so that we don’t give up our quality of life. Our visualizations are an effort to show what the future might look like. We want communities to use this information to make smart decisions.”

The study results are available at