"It feels crowded for no reason"
OK, but... did you go to Cookout?
I've lived in North Carolina for 17 years now, and you've done a great job describing something that I've felt as a vibe since I got here. One thing I'd add is that there are things that have been built to allow people to travel without using a car, but they feel fairly haphazard and impractical. In Charlotte, unprotected bike lanes and sidewalks stop and start with no rhyme or reason. There's an effort to build out greenways, but there are some fairly sizable gaps.
A few years back, I made a podcast episode where I walked the 14 mile distance from my home in Oak Ridge, NC to my (then) office in Greensboro, and very little of it was through places built to human scale: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-8-short-trip-long-walk/id1254488006?i=1000391951910&mt=2
I have been following you for a little while. Mostly agree, but on this case, I COMPLETELY agree. We moved to Raleigh in 1995 and while have found what we were looking for, namely a place to raise our kids, it is very spread out and vacant. I doubt most would agree, but we know humans like what they grow accustomed to. Also given up on any way to "fix it". Just trying to enjoy the best parts.
Thanks, keep us thinking.
Love this. I remember feeling similar feeling of claustrophobia coming back home to the Bay Area from a year in Korea where I lived in a highrise cluster… but next to undeveloped land in a small city that was compact enough to walk across.
I moved to Chapel Hill last year to start my masters in city and regional planning and wow... this is exactly how I feel about the area. There are no places in Chapel Hill, just roads and parking lots.
Reading this is so interesting because it kind of shows me the degree to which so many of our preferences are completely beyond our control. So for reference, I loved living in NoVa for many of the same reasons you've described in past posts. I also really dislike the Richmond suburbs (where I am now) for pretty much all the reasons you disliked Raleigh/Durham. But here's the kicker: I kinda love Raleigh/Durham. Why? 100% pure nostalgia, nothing more. As a kid, I used to spend weeks every summer visiting family there, so there's something about it that just gives me an intuitive good feeling. I think this helps me empathize with NIMBYs a little more, as I can kind of grok why someone might get territorial about keeping a place the way it is, even if it objectively could be much better from a quality of life standpoint. You might appreciate this: the last time I visited Raleigh, I was jogging around Lynn Lake (nice area) and I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that said, "Keep Raleigh Boring." At the time, I remember thinking how strongly I disagreed with that sentiment. I still do, but I can almost understand it now. Extremely fascinating to me.
Raleigh is a place. Durham is a place. Raleigh/Durham is an airport. Damning Raleigh and Durham because someone doesn’t like Chapel Hill seems obtuse. This area has a lot to offer. Hope you get to enjoy it more when you come back to visit.
Agree about places, crowded and false sense of space. My theory from living north of Raleigh, working in Knightdale (ultimate suburb, not sure what's there besides neighborhoods and shopping) is that the difference between the Charlotte suburbs and "Triangle" suburbs in my estimation is water ways and old trading/manufacturing/train routes.
So, Raleigh has Falls Lake that people don't live on, Durham and Apex, Lake Jordan, no one lives on. Charlotte has Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake and Lake Wylie all very recreational and tons of residential drawn to the water. The towns around Raleigh are mainly loose areas, Apex, Cary, Wake Forest are newer and very much sprawl heavy. Charlotte, Mooresville, Huntersville etc the 77 coridoor, old manufacturing,train lines from way back, manufacturing, textiles. Same with the 85 coridoor, Kannapolis, Gastonia, even as far as Salisbury, manufacturing and trains. So I want to call them anchors? The triangle, a bit newer and more artificial.
I've tried to put my finger on it for years so thank you for the basis for me to think it out, I think? Haha
The Triangle area has good jobs in tech, but not much else in my opinion. There is little in the way of natural beauty/landscapes. No real urban centers. Not a lot of culture. I miss upstate New York. Downtown Raleigh is hostile to pedestrians. Dangerous 4 lane one-ways to cross with speedy drivers. Cameron Village is glorified strip mall. North Hills is supposed to be the next cool urban area, but it's as sterile as a doctor's office. Chapel Hill is probably the closest thing to quaint and walkable in the area.
As a NoVa native, this seems crazy to me. First of all, Chapel Hill is distinct from both Raleigh and Durham, and comparing them would be like trying to draw conclusions about Vienna by driving around Haymarket. In my suburban home in Cary, I'm within walking distance of several grocery stores and restaurants, something I never had growing up in Oakton. If you're going to evaluate the suburbs, you should come to some real suburbs! Come to downtown Cary, go see downtown Apex! Heck, if you're seeing Chapel Hill, go check out Carrboro (with its strong hippie/art vibe)!
This is spot on. I'm from Dallas, used to live in Durham, and now live in Oakland. I completely agree with the "lack of place" sensation along 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Durham -- it truly is Kunstler's "Geography of Nowhere."
This sort of emptiness seems like the logical conclusion of car-dependent, big-box chain store development. Traffic engineers only caring about Level Of Service. Bankers only lending to "safe" cookie-cutter projects (i.e., nothing "weird" and mixed-used). Walmarts/Best Buys/etc. maxing out parking lot size. And what you get is emptiness. Just sprawl in between the actual places of Durham and Chapel Hill.
I do wonder if you could quantify that feeling of "placelessness." Perhaps some ratio of big-box chain stores to local mom and pops? Or some index of local "events" (farmers markets, concerts, festivals) given the population size?
My partner and I lived in Durham for three years -- I worked in RTP and she worked in Chapel Hill -- but we decided downtown Durham had the best sense of place. It was always interesting how our friends in Chapel Hill and Raleigh always balked at the "long drive" to hang out with us in Durham (who knows, maybe we were bad company! ;) even though with wide stroads and highways it's a15-20 min trip -- basically the standard Point A to B trip in the same area of Houston or Dallas. But the sensation is right: It does feel like it takes longer when you're zooming past nothing!
So much of the NC/RTP area was built during the zenith of the sun belt, it is really hard to put back in the bottle.
Especially with increasing global warming, it really risks not being ideal and possibly becoming worthless. Some of the areas that were very stylish in the 70s-present may essentially become worthless in the future.
Those parking lots may become even more toxic as the South heats up. Even a few degrees makes it much less viable. Crazy.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro have a two mile rural buffer around them which prevents suburban expansion in that area. This buffer causes the Chapel Hill area to have lots of amenities accessible by walking and bus, and spurs the development of walkable areas, but means that bigger box stores are more of a trip.
I used to live in downtown Carrboro and honestly it was a dream, literally everything I needed was available in walking distance. There are other communities with walkable amenities in Chapel Hill too, like Southern Village and Meadowmont. Living in Chapel Hill is not as bleak as it seems when driving to the box stores. But yeah, if I needed to go to Target or Petsmart, it would be a deliberate trip. However there would generally be more than one errand I would need to run for those trips and most of those big box stores are near each other.
The areas in the Triangle that are not walk-friendly are extremely not walk-friendly, though. I once lived in an apartment complex off the highway and there was literally nowhere to walk to since there was no sidewalk next to the highway. I had to drive to go for a run.
Yes. I spent a week there with a friend in the fall. The only two places I felt had some sense of human scale and charm were at a Christian study center near campus (frat row sort of street) and in Carrboro that has narrow streets and some sidewalk life. Also, the bike paths all around Raleigh were a relief but utterly unnecessary if they'd just planned the region more like a town. My friend is not oblivious to its "artificial distance," but he just goes with the flow and drives his Yaris at breakneck speeds with everyone else going hither and thither. It's an exhausting lifestyle that, as you say, is likely one most residents just endure (or defend).
It's a concrete jungle with nothing but stores restaurants apartment complexes and homes. Nothing attractive. There's a high rise in North Hills renting for $14,000 a month overlooking beautiful 440
I grew up right in the middle of all of this, about 5 minutes from the Witherspoon shopping center (that Home Depot) and live about 12 mins from there now. I work in real estate albeit more in Wake County now. Long story short, that type of low density commercial was built where it was when land was cheaper and by traffic corridors as a way to compensate for the fact that there wasn't residential all around it. It started as basically just the Wal Mart, Best Buy and a few other things and the Home Depot across 15-501. All of the rest of that took 20+ years to develop, minus the old stuff on 15-501 and/or dotting a few spots.
In fairness, part of your negative impression was mostly that of Chapel Hill. Getting in and out of Chapel Hill from any direction has always been particularly brutal. That specific area, at least if you ask me, is a result of what I said above about how it was previously developed, plus the incredibly rapid growth of this area in the last 10 years in particular reacting to what is already there, which includes the nearby low density single family residential.
Im agnostic about what usually consists of urbanism but my impression of my hometown is that the gigantic growth is due to the concentration of the two main, large public and one elite private university in the state along with the state capital all being within a 35ish mile radius of one another. Research Triangle Park and the planned technological business development around here is to what to which it is typically attributed but RTP is here because of its proximity to the big universities and the state capital, at least in my opinion. That isn't a value judgement as to if that is good or bad. For example, towns used to emerge around rivers and bodies of water and then eventually ended up emerging around rail stations. Durham as a city emerged from its needing rail service in the mid 19th century with what is now Duke University being more or less an afterthought. Chapel Hill and Raleigh were both established in the late 18th century for different reasons (UNC/planned capital) and them all growing together now is kind of happening ostensibly by accident. You have the suburbs of Raleigh and Durham (Briar Creek is technically part of both but really is its own town for all intents and purposes by the airport/RTP/all the traffic corridors) developing as smaller enclaves but will likely never centralize to a significant degree when it comes to planning, and given the speed of change around here I dont think that's necessarily bad. I do personally call the recent development here a mixed bag, for what its worth.