RALEIGH – After the U.S. Census Bureau released more of its 2010 data last week, including the counts that will serve as the basis for congressional and legislative redistricting, some politicians and pundits observed that population growth in Wake, Mecklenburg, and a dozen other counties will make North Carolina politics more urban.
I think it would be more accurate to say that state politics is about to become more suburban.
The distinction isn’t merely a semantic one. While North Carolina’s metropolitan areas accounted for a disproportionate amount of the state’s growth over the past 10 years – as they have done for many decades, by the way – the truly urban business districts and neighborhoods in the downtowns of Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, and other cities weren’t a major part of the population story.
Contrary to the marketing claims of condo developers, the flow of young people and seniors into downtown residences has remained a trickle. The vast majority of the population growth has occurred in suburban neighborhoods, some within the core counties such as Mecklenburg, Wake, and New Hanover but many others across the border in counties such as Union, Cabarrus, Iredell, Johnston, Harnett, Chatham, Brunswick, and Pender.
North Carolina’s 14 most-populous counties now account for a majority of the state’s population. By national standards, however, very little of this area is truly urban. Our population densities are low, and most people prefer to use their automobiles to work, shop, or recreate rather than live in denser mixed-used developments or villages.
In other words, the suburb is the preferred destination for most families looking to improve their lot. It’s a free country (for a while longer, anyway), so North Carolinians are free to disagree with the emerging suburban norm and pursue different dreams. But most don’t. The population magnets look more like Cary or Huntersville than like Asheville or Carrboro.
Over the next few weeks, redistricting committees in the North Carolina House and Senate will begin work on new congressional and legislative maps. Inevitably, the state’s suburban areas will gain clout at the expense of rural ones, while truly urban representation will remain about the same.
Wake and Mecklenburg will each gain a Senate seat and, most likely, a couple of House seats each. Next-door suburban counties will gain clout, too. Meanwhile, rural districts will get bigger, forcing some incumbents into either competing with other incumbents in party primaries or retiring from office.
Environmental activists, subsidy-seeking developers, transit schemers, central planners, and other assorted Smart Growth enthusiasts would dearly love for the new census data to add up to a new political constituency for their agenda of new taxes, subsidies, and regulations. It would take some really New Math to yield such a total.
In reality, North Carolina’s emerging suburban politics will reward state and local officials who keep taxes low, tackle traffic congestion primarily with new highway capacity, and prioritize spending on public safety and education. Suburban voters tend to view most other government plans and programs with skepticism, if not disdain.
Disdain is what many urban elites have felt for suburbs. Their sentiments are duly noted, and irrelevant.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.