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The Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion

by Ronnie Bryant

March 9,2010

Charlotte always has been a forward-looking city. More than two decades ago, the city’s leadership recognized that for the city to prosper, they had to plan growth on a regional level. The result was the Charlotte Regional Partnership.

What has become a sixteen-county, two-state economic development collaboration was a bold vision when it was suggested in 1989. Since then, the world has become more interconnected economically, politically, environmentally and technologically. Look no further than climate change and the recent financial meltdown to see how much a decision made in New York– or Charlotte– impacts London and Beijing.

We are again on the cusp of opportunity. But we need to look beyond our Charlotte USA footprint as we design infrastructure, develop water use policies, determine land use and set our economic development strategy. Our vision must be cooperative and audacious.

More than fifty years ago, Jean Gottmann recognized emerging population and trade patterns. The French geographer foresaw the development of a broad urban area that he called a 'megalopolis.' Today, we call his idea 'megaregions.' The urban migration that Gottmann saw has since escalated. Now, eighty percent of the U.S. population lives in cities and metro areas– including Charlotte– with 361 of these accounting for more than eighty-five percent of U.S. jobs, income, and output.

Over the next twenty years, our population is anticipated to grow more by more than one million, over 42 percent. This compares to a U.S. population growth of just over twelve percent. Preparing for our region's growth is both a significant challenge and a tremendous opportunity– if we plan cooperatively with other metros in the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion (sometimes called Charlanta), which runs along Interstate 85/20 between Raleigh and Birmingham.

Not only has the idea for megaregionalism been around a while, but multi-jurisdictional planning is underway throughout the world to build more efficient transportation networks, use public funding more effectively, and better mitigate greenhouse gases. In the E.U., a Trans-European Transport Network identifies common needs and coordinates transit infrastructure planning continent-wide while leaving implementation to its constituent members. A mega-Metropolitan Planning Organization, composed of the existing regional groups, could serve the same function for our region.

There are some models we could look to in the U.S. as well: Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania have formed the Delaware River Basin Commission. So far, it has helped settle water-related disagreements among these states and has additional unrealized potential. In the Southeast, thirteen states, including both Carolinas, formed the Southern Growth Policies Board nearly forty years ago. The public/private think tank based in Raleigh provides a forum for discussions on economic development related issues, including workforce and global competitiveness. However, the group is not empowered to take action on critical issues.

Reaching consensus on policies that would impact the entire Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion will be difficult. It’s hard enough for our sixteen-county region to work together for the common good; however, we have already taken the first steps. Former mayors Shirley Franklin of Atlanta and Pat McCrory of Charlotte, in collaboration with The Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development at Georgia Tech, are leading the effort that twice last year gathered other government, planning and business leaders to explore areas of cooperation on some of our greater regional challenges: air, water, and transportation infrastructure. These three issues are among those that have the greatest impact on communities and thus create the strongest ties among cities within a common geographical area. Addressing them collaboratively, through public/private partnerships and multi-jurisdictional agreements would benefit the entire megaregion by increasing trade and breaking down barriers to competitiveness on a global scale.

Since the group last met, the federal government announced more than $100 million for a high-speed rail line between Charlotte and Raleigh, as well as a Charlotte commuter train line. This decision is a big step in the right direction, and is sure to be part of the conversation when Pat, Shirley, research universities from Georgia and the Carolinas, and businesses meet again in Macon in mid-March.

Working together on shared critical issues that improve our efficiencies and increase our competitiveness isn’t an option. It’s a necessity.

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