The greater Charlotte area is one of the fastest growing in the country. By 2050, our region is projected to almost double in population, adding roughly 1.8 million residents and 860,000 jobs. Our region has experienced accelerated growth for many years. Even in 2012, it was clear that our region needed a strategic vision for the future, one that addressed the influx of people and provided options for how to maintain our economic competitiveness and quality of life.
This was the catalyst for CONNECT Our Future, a three-year project that engaged 8,400+ residents, elected officials, officials, businesses, educators and non-profits from 14 counties and two states. Although the final phase of CONNECT Our Future concluded in 2015, the project continues to deliver value and impact in our region today as Centralina assists in developing growth systems that cross jurisdictional boundaries and helps local governments apply the priorities and principles in their local land use planning and decision making.
CONNECT Our Future
CONNECT Our Future is one of the most comprehensive regional efforts to date, aimed at building relationships across our region, reaching consensus on shared values and goals and developing strategies to achieve those goals. The results included a regional growth framework, a vision for how our region should grow to align resources and efforts across the 14 counties.
This growth framework is made up of three components: the region’s top priorities, a preferred growth map and a toolkit of best practices. These components were developed over the course of three phases, and during each, community engagement played a central role. Engaging the public allowed CONNECT Our Future to produce strategies that truly represented the communities’ wants and needs while also garnering broader public support and implementation.
What aspects of the community did residents value most? What elements were essential to achieving a higher quality of life? What did residents want to be able to maintain in the face of growth? To help answer these questions, more than 2,200 individuals shared their personal needs and values through open houses, small group discussions and surveys.
Based on that input, CONNECT Our Future was able to define the 10 most important regional priorities as:
- Grow jobs closer to home
- Improve access to parks and open space
- Improve air quality
- Improve water quality
- Increase housing choices
- Increase transportation choices
- Maximize return on public investment
- Reduce commuting costs
- Support local farms
- Support our communities
These priorities set the stage for the final framework and were used to measure and evaluate the growth map strategies developed in phase two.
While it was clear what community aspects the public valued most, it was not clear how to synergize those values with the new residents and jobs entering the region. CONNECT Our Future’s next task was to illustrate what ideal growth might look like, answering what, where, when and how growth should occur.
To begin, CONNECT Our Future brought together 400+ political, business and community leaders to develop growth scenarios. These growth scenarios explored different growth patterns for people, jobs and transportation within the region, each presenting their own opportunities and trade-offs. Four leading growth scenarios emerged.
The next step was to share those four scenarios with the region’s residents for evaluation. More than 1,600 residents representing the 14 counties ranked the growth scenarios based on which they felt worked best in their community and produced the regional outcomes they wanted to see.
It was logical that communities would prefer different growth scenarios considering their differences in size and needs. CONNECT Our Future’s objective was to take the county’s preferred growth scenario and weave them together into a larger, cohesive map, balancing local needs with the needs of the entire region.
The final preferred growth scenario supports a range of needs throughout the region including:
- More vibrant downtowns
- More mixed-use activity centers
- More walkable and bikeable neighborhoods
- Major transit options
- More compact development patterns to increase housing choices and preserve open space
- More land preserved as rural or working farms
Based on the collective input of over 8,400 participants, CONNECT Our Future delivered a final regional growth framework.
In addition to the regional priorities and preferred growth map, the final piece of the regional framework was a suite of over 70 tools developed to help communities implement parts of the framework.
A Living Framework
This project successfully cemented regional partnerships, opening doors to future collaborative efforts and giving local governments a suite of tools that continue to be used today. CONNECT Our Future revealed the highest priorities and opportunities within our region. As a result, it prompted numerous other initiatives, including the Regional Freight Mobility Plan, the Regional Transit Plan (CONNECT Beyond), Healthy Communities, Career Headlight and an enhanced Prosperity for Greater Charlotte economic strategy, supplying a vast amount of community data for each. It also led to the development of an annual training program for local government staff, Centralina Learns, regarding these needs. Additional CONNECT Our Future implementation measures include:
- Metropolitan Planning Organizations are using the CONNECT Our Future community plans scenario and place types to model population and employment growth forecasts as part of the Metropolitan Transportation Plans.
- Local governments using CONNECT Our Future:
- Scenario planning place types in local comprehensive planning documents
- Public engagement techniques and technologies to support local buy-in and dialogue on local growth issues
- Housing strategies to produce local analysis and recommendations for housing that addresses the needs of current and future populations and employers
- Mixed-use and downtown development tools to support strong community cores
In 2013, CONNECT Our Future, in partnership with the Centralina Economic Development District, won a National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) award. This was a result of a collaborative effort to create a component within the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy that focused on developing, retaining and attracting talent. Centralina was a leading region in the U.S. to adopt this kind of integrated collaboration. In 2016, CONNECT Our Future won a second NADO award for the extensive outreach and cross-sector collaboration it exhibited, specifically with its use of public engagement during the CONNECT Our Future phases. Additional awards for this effort include a 2015 Sustainable Economy Award from Sustain Charlotte and a 2015 Outstanding Planning Award from the North Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association.