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City planners and policy makers in North Carolina have a new tool to prepare for future growth across the state. According to housing data created by the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, that future could look like an urbanized megalopolis.

“This is one potential look at the future,” said Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography, the unit at the Carolina Population Center that produced the data. “Where and how development occurs is very responsive to policy and planning, and I hope this sparks conversations about what we might want North Carolina to look like in 2050.”

Using historical census data and demographic techniques to project future numbers, Carolina Demography developed a picture of the North Carolina housing landscape spanning 110 years, from 1940 to 2050. The data illuminate historic development patterns and can be used by businesses, local government and the public to understand potential future needs for schools or health clinics or transportation routes.

Tippett notes that if current patterns continue, the housing landscape of North Carolina could begin to look like an urbanized corridor like the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, ranging from Charlotte to north in the Triad and then east to the Triangle. The potential emergence of a Triangle-Triad-Charlotte megaregion or megalopolis, she said, not only reflects the economic vitality of North Carolina, but also highlights new planning challenges.

For example, the new housing data highlight potential infrastructure investments, such as roadways or water lines.

In 1940, there were fewer than one million housing units in North Carolina. In 2050, housing units are expected to top seven million. However, Tippett cautions that housing growth does not necessarily mean population growth. “Housing units can grow even when population remains relatively stable,” she said.

While the data look at the state as a whole, Carolina Demography can also help individual cities and counties and with customized projections. “We’re here to help,” said Tippett. “Understanding housing changes and what they mean for the future is necessary and important for effective planning and informed policy.”

Carolina Demography has made these projections available to the public for free download.

See more detailed information on the methodology and the full block group data set for 1940 through 2050.

Published November 22, 2013.