Charlotte gets a poor report card on land use

By: Graziella Steele//August 11, 2014//

Charlotte gets a poor report card on land use

By: Graziella Steele//August 11, 2014//

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CHARLOTTE – Charlotte received a grade of “D” for land use in a new report issued by Sustain Charlotte, a local nonprofit dedicated to environmental sustainability and economic vitality.

A new report by Sustain Charlotte, a local nonprofit, shows Mecklenburg County has lost 33 percent of its tree canopy over the past 30 years. Photo by Graziella Steele
A new report by Sustain Charlotte, a local nonprofit, shows Mecklenburg County has lost 33 percent of its tree canopy over the past 30 years. Photo by Graziella Steele

In its inaugural report, Sustain Charlotte said the city faces challenges in a variety of different land-use metrics, including parks and recreation space, developed acreage per capita, percentage of tree canopy and total impervious surface area. What the city has done well is redevelop brownfields, and it received a “B” for its preserves and residential density.

In its analysis, Sustain Charlotte cited a Smart Growth America’s urban sprawl report that ranked Charlotte fifth among the nation’s most-sprawling large metro areas. The report by Smart Growth – a Washington, D.C., nonprofit – found a correlation between sprawl and lower economic mobility, higher housing and transportation costs, and higher rates of obesity.

“Our region’s population is growing rapidly, so data-based land-use planning that considers long-term consequences is critical to ensuring that growth does not compromise our economic and environmental sustainability,” the Sustain Charlotte report says. “Land use planning and zoning policies that support community health, wellness and equitable development ensure the inclusion of parks, greenways, recreational space for all and protection of existing trees.”

The report found that developed park acreage per 1,000 Mecklenburg County residents decreased 8 percent from 2007 to 2008. On a brighter note, the city has done a better job of preserving land, with an increase of 2.7 percent over the same period.

In 2014, Charlotte’s ranked 57th among the 60 largest US cities in the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore Index. The Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, grades municipalities on the quantity and quality of their parks and greenways. About three-quarters of Charlotte’s housing units were within a half mile of a park, Sustain Charlotte said, meaning that park access is a problem for many residents.

While Sustain Charlotte was encouraged that the county’s residential population density had increased 3 percent every year since 2000 – meaning land was being used more efficiently and population was not sprawling as much as it could be – the report expressed worry that the county’s developed acreage had more than doubled between 1976 to 2010.

“We still have 21 percent more developed land per person than the national average of 0.19 acres, based on 2006 data,” the report found.

Mecklenburg County’s impervious surfaces – land that is built on or dedicated to roads, driveways, sidewalks and parking lots – increased by 127 percent between 1984 and 2001, according to a study by American Forests, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.  The trend slowed in subsequent years, Sustain Charlotte said, with impervious area rising 24.5 percent over the past five years.  “For an urban county, our impervious surface percentage is fairly good, but we need to maintain green spaces to facilitate natural water flow and continue the trend of increasing population density to reduce urban sprawl,” the report concludes.

More troubling was the situation with the city’s trees, the report said. Between 1985 and 2008, Mecklenburg County lost over 33 percent of its tree canopy, and Charlotte lost 49 percent, according to the report.

Not only do trees provide a beautiful character to the city, they also have health, environmental and economic benefits, Sustain Charlotte said.

“Charlotte’s trees alone contribute approximately $6 million annually in cost savings by providing stormwater interception, energy use reductions, aesthetic benefits resulting in higher property values, and sequestration of carbon dioxide and combustion pollutants,” Sustain Charlotte said.

Mecklenburg County has done a good job with brownfields – contaminated land that has been cleaned up for redevelopment – the study found, resulting in an “A” on the scorecard.  Brownfield reuse has increased dramatically, by an average 32 percent per year, from two sites in 1997 to 107 in 2013, according to the report.

Among the report’s recommendations on land use: “Plan future land use strategically by developing policy documents that set specific measurable goals rather than vague aspirations — and adhere to them.”

The full 60-page report – which also measured transportation, air quality, energy use, water use, waste, jobs and incomes, and issues of equity and empowerment – can be found at

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