The long-range planning division of the Planning and Community Development Department in Greensboro only plans in terms of 20 to 30 years into the future, and business experts advise against strategizing more than eight years out. Too much changes too fast, and even futurists, who specialize in forecasting future trends and realities, work on a shorter time frame.
It is nearly impossible to plan for 50 years into the future. There seem to be too many variables and factors, so most people don’t do it, sticking instead to shorter time frames. That is exactly what’s interesting about pushing people to consider what this place will be like in 2062, even if they might not be here to see it.
Fifty years ago Eastern Forsyth High School was built in Kernersville, and the Greensboro sit-in movement approached its first anniversary.
While dramatic changes have occurred over the last five decades, this area is not completely unrecognizable. The primary industries dwindled, but locals will tell you that these communities have retained character. Based on what has already happened, what is occurring around us, trends we can identify and other projections, what will the Triad look like in 50 years?
One thing people agree on — the area is growing and will continue to increase population-wise. In Kernersville, Mayor Dawn Morgan said the town’s population could hit 35,000 —up from nearly 23,000 today — in 50 years.
Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said he expects the population of the Triad to hit perhaps 2.5 million people. Projected growth is based off years of experience.
“More and more people will come here as a result of our economic vitality,” said Piedmont Triad Airport Authority Board chairman Henry Isaacson, who is from Greensboro. “When I was growing up as a kid we were a town of 60 or 70,000 people. We’ve quadrupled during my lifetime.”
Susan Feit, director of the National Conference for Community and Justice of the Piedmont-Triad, said the demographics of the population are rapidly shifting. In fewer than 40 years, the non-Hispanic white population (as measured by the Census) will drop below 50 percent of the country.
“Greensboro is already far more diverse, in some ways, than the rest of North Carolina [and the country],” Feit said. “The stronger the opportunity is in the Triad for all different kinds of people, the stronger the likelihood there will be increased migration from other parts of the country and world.”
Other demographic shifts, which are already beginning to appear, will be pronounced in 50 years, she said, including a change in the age of the population and increased religious, cultural and racial diversity. Feit said by 2050, the elderly will be 20 percent of the population
Scott Wierman, president of the Winston-Salem Foundation, expects the increased number of senior citizens to significantly impact the city.
“There is a large cohort of people that will be retiring over the next 15-20 years, if there is such a thing as retirement,” Wierman said. “It’s going to be a huge issue and I think everybody is aware of it but I am not sure anyone has fully digested what it means.”
The aging population could fuel job creation in order to provide healthcare and create appropriate housing, he said, but will also strain services like Meals on Wheels — which the foundation works with — who may not be able to provide for a such an increase in demand. The same may be true in Greensboro.
“One thing we’re seeing that I think will continue is diversification of who lives here,” said Russ Clegg, interim director of Greensboro’s long range planning division with the P&CD Department. “In a lot of different ways we are changing as a community in terms of who is living here and [what they need].”
Other demographic shifts, which are already beginning to appear, will be pronounced in 50 years, she said, including a change in the age of the population and increased religious, cultural and racial diversity. Feit said by 2050, the elderly will be 20 percent of the population.
Scott Wierman, president of the Winston-Salem Foundation, expects the increased number of senior citizens to significantly impact the city.
“There is a large cohort of people that will be retiring over the next 15, 20 years, if there is such a thing as retirement,” Wierman said. “It’s going to be a huge issue and I think everybody is aware of it but I am not sure anyone has fully digested what it means.”
The aging population could fuel job creation in order to provide healthcare and create appropriate housing, he said, but will also strain services like Meals on Wheels — which the foundation works with — that may not be able to provide for a such an increase in demand. The same may be true in Greensboro.
The primary demographic currently missing from the housing market in downtown Greensboro is families, according to Downtown Greensboro Inc. president Ed Wolverton. But as people wait longer to get married and start families, there may be more people looking to move downtown, he said.
Regardless of who is doing the moving, Wolverton and others expect housing density to increase in the downtown areas of Greensboro and Winston-Salem in particular.
“The percentage of people living in an urban rather than rural area is increasing worldwide, and I think that will continue,” said Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership Jason Thiel. “We’re going to show a movie called Urbanized at a/perture [that] depicts a real change in the way that people live, and that urban living has really been the trend. We’re going to have mega-cities and you see this worldwide.”
Clegg said as demographics shift over the next few years and decades, housing options will likely reflect it, and the well-built houses will still be around in 50 years.
Despite the projected increase in urban dwellers, Isaacson and Wolverton said they thought downtown Greensboro would become denser without adding any skyscrapers.
“In Greensboro we’re already seeing a lot more multi-family dwellings going up in a lot of places,” said futurist Joyce Gioia, who was based in Greensboro until 2009. “More of us percentage-wise will be living in congregate dwelling spaces like apartment complexes.”
Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said more people would move downtown in the Twin City too.
“We’ll be living in more dense housing arrangements,” he said. “People will gravitate to living in urban areas where individual vehicles won’t be as important.”
In many ways, so much of the literal and figurative landscape of the Triad is dependent on transportation.
“It will be critically important to maintain that transportation corridor to Charlotte,” said Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins. “High Point Road is going to look dramatically different.”
Perkins said if a corridor were reserved now for light rail to connect the Triad, people in 50 years would be thankful of the forethought. Numerous people mentioned the likelihood of increased public transit both within and between Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem.
“My best prognosis is that there will be more public transportation in the form of non-fuel-burning buses and trains,” said Gioia, president and CEO of the Herman Group of Companies, now based in Austin, Texas.
Like others, Gioia said transportation will depend on investment and planning as well as technological advances.
“I don’t know that we’ll have flying cars by that time but we’ll probably have more opportunities for transportation other than cars,” Clegg said.
“We love our cars and we’re very tied to them,” Wolverton said. “The transit piece is such a variable. Are we looking at gas at $10 or $20 a gallon?”
In addition to increased growth in the cities, chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners Robert Linville said he expects to see growth along the highways in order to offset suburban sprawl into rural areas.
“In 50 years it’s most likely going to be a big metropolitan area,” Linville said. “When you have more commercial activities… it’s going to cause more growth in residential areas too.”
Perkins, Isaacson and a number of others said the airport would be a central component to the area’s growth, with a parallel runway, HondaJet, Cessna and the Fed Ex hub in particular. The airport, as well as accompanying training programs at GTCC and the highway infrastructure, will pave the way for an increased number of high tech manufacturing jobs, Isaacson said.
Isaacson was not alone in emphasizing the importance of education. Most everyone agreed higher education would be one of the defining characteristics of the future Triad.
The collaboration between UNCG and NC A&T University for the school of nanoscience is just the beginning of a larger trend and is symbolic of the impact local universities can have on the area economy, a number of people said.
“Greensboro will be known nationally as a model for higher education and business collaboration,” said April Harris, director of Action Greensboro, which helped initiate the business-education partnership group Opportunity Greensboro. “[The] seven colleges and universities will use shared teaching facilities downtown, as well as housing. Unlike cities with one major university that dominates the landscape, people are attracted to the diversity of our offerings.”
Even though Jamestown and High Point have fewer educational facilities, both are considered major players.
“We’ll see a lot of young people coming out of High Point University who are going to move on to some degree of notoriety,” Gioia said, who also emphasized the importance of Elon Law School. “We’ll see some biotech companies located in Winston take advantage of the large number young graduates [in the Triad].”
Other people made similar forecasts: Greensboro planner Russ Clegg said the two defining characteristics of Greensboro in 50 years will be the continued importance of the schools and the city’s position as the Gate City, and Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said education will be essential to position the city to compete globally.
“Institutions of higher education are a hub for attracting the best and the brightest of a diverse and a young population, so we have really strong engines,” NCCJ director Susan Feit said. “GTCC has done a remarkable job positioning this area for aviation jobs and others. When you see that connections between economic needs and education it really brings dividends to this community.”
When Richard McMillan thinks of the future, he thinks about waste management. As the assistant director of public services for High Point, McMillan is focused on trying to maximize the life of the city’s landfill, which he said could last up to 40 years if they can continue to divert waste and recycle at increasing rates. After that, it’s hard to say.
“Let’s say in 50 years we look at it and [consider] a transfer station or a regional landfill, but then you don’t have as much control,” he said. “We could explore the option of finding a new cite for a landfill, but it’s expensive and nobody wants it in their backyard.”
By the time the landfill runs out, new technology may allow the city an alternative moving forward. High Point already profits off its compost and recycling collection, selling 6,000 tons of recycling last year.
Kernersville Mayor Dawn Morgan said the town was recently recognized as a green community and a tree city, and boasts a strong recycling program. Green space will continue to be an important component of Kernersville’s identity, as well as civic engagement, she said.
“Hopefully [in 50 years] we’ve taken steps to protect the environment, reduce our carbon footprint and do things sustainably,” Joines said. “Hopefully we will have clean air and clean water.”
People did not agree about future access to water and energy, though some like Joines agreed Winston-Salem was well positioned for water access and Perkins said Greensboro would need to work towards a regional solution. Gioia said technological advances would allow for sustainable energy creation and diversification, thus alleviating energy concerns.
She also said as people have more leisure time in 50 years, they will take greater advantage of the area’s parks. The importance of green space is not lost on Perkins, who sees Center City Park and the downtown greenway as two of the most important current projects.
“We were smart to purchase all the land around the lakes,” he said. “We have some basic infrastructure through our park system [that will help us] preserve green space.”
Russ Smith spent 10 years working for different local governments in the Triad and as a state planner for the area before becoming an assistant professor of geography at Winston-Salem State University. Now he is working with the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Project to help develop a 20-30 year plan for the area. As an urban and political geographer, Smith said the regional approach is the way of the future and just makes sense.
“Lines on a map don’t impact water quality,” he said. “If the water is polluted in County A, it’s going to be polluted in County B. We’ve really seen in the last 50 years a lot of focus placed on individual cities. In the future I think cities won’t be as important, but regions will be.”
Bret Marchant, director of research and economic development at the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, envisions the future on an even larger scale.
“The thing that I think about most is how Winston-Salem and the Piedmont Triad will connect with [the area] stretching from Raleigh to Atlanta,” Marchant said. “We will need to connect within that larger region to grow and thrive within the community. These will essentially become region-states.”
Joines also said there may be a new intra-city government by 2062.
“I see the possibility for an umbrella government for the whole Triad region [while] still allowing the regions to have a local identity,” he said.
Despite all the speculation about changes, people agreed some things would — or should — stay the same. Most people expressed their desire that their community would retain its character despite the anticipated growth, whether that meant a city and small town feel in Greensboro or the arts and overall quality of life in Winston-Salem.
Morgan said she knew Kernersville would keep its identity.
“It’s a challenge to envision 50 years into the future, but if you look into the past and see the value of Kernersville, it’s been pretty consistent throughout,” she said. “Kernersville has always had a very friendly atmosphere and cooperative partnerships.”
Other people hoped different aspects of their cities would stay the same too, from Tournament Town to our historical neighborhoods neighborhoods, and while most were optimistic, a few feared the possibility of bad planning and prioritization that could lead to environmental destruction and increased poverty.
Driving through the Triad communities it is easy to see evidence of a bygone era intact, not far from brand-new developments and construction, so it isn’t too difficult to imagine a new world alongside the shell of the old. But then again, 50 years is a long time — more than twice as long as I’ve been alive.