Rural/Urban Development

What is the story?

Most developed countries that have many people and too little land now have laws about where development can take place and where agricultural and wild landscapes are protected from urban changes.

In the past, as far back as the Middle Ages, communities in Europe lived within the walls of a town for protection. Compact towns also made it easier to get goods, services, and help.

When Europeans came to America, land appeared to be endless. Europeans wanted land so badly and they didn’t want anyone telling them what could be done with their land.

Where are we now?

Today, North Carolinians are seeing more and more people move here. Now, 8.5 million people call North Carolina their home, yet by 2050 there may be up to 13 million North Carolinians. With so many people, many things that you do with your piece of land will affect your neighbors.

Many people think we should plan our communities more. Community-based planning looks at what is best for the community as a whole. Without this kind of planning, we could lose valuable natural resources that will hurt our economy.

What does it all mean?

How could community-based planning help us? People want easier access to services like schools, shops, fire departments, medical care, and police. People want attractive streets and buildings.

Although people want tighter and more carefully planned development, some people still want a rural home and three acres out in the woods far beyond the community. Unfortunately, letting this happen often can drive up many hidden costs to the community. The further away these suburban and rural homes are from the services (water, sewer, emergency services, power, cable TV, schools and so on), the greater the cost to the community.

Existing North Carolina towns could provide space for housing twice our population. For this, we need to plan residential communities largely within city limits and design them better to attract interested buyers. In fact, recent North Carolina home developments, built to be more accessible to services but also well designed, now attract lots of potential buyers.

How does this affect me?

Development, such as roads, commercial buildings, and residential areas, cover about 11% of North Carolina. Large scale development, without careful planning, could impact food production, economic prosperity, and wildlife habitats. Let’s look at these issues.

First, development is beginning to affect our ability to grow the local food that we will need as the population grows.

Secondly, these developments often make our vacation areas less attractive. Vacationers then go elsewhere. Just like a domino effect, this, in turn, reduces the number of jobs needed to support tourism at our North Carolina vacation spots.

Thirdly, development around lakes, on mountain sides, and along our coasts damages important wildlife habitats. Many developments on the coast could be damaged in the coming years from rising sea water levels and more violent storms caused by global warming.

Random development causes the loss of a variety of plants and animals. Until recently, for example, planners thought wetlands and other wilderness areas were useless spaces. They thought wetlands should be available to anyone who wanted to develop them for housing, agriculture, or commercial use. 

We now know that wetlands especially are important in helping to regulate water flow.  They act like giant sponges and water reservoirs. Wetlands play an important role in maintaining life support systems for both humans and other living things, particularly in the cleanliness of fresh water and by supporting some of our rarest plants and animals. In fact, North Carolina has lost about 50% of its wetlands in the last century!

Did you know?

North Carolina supports a huge variety of plants and animals. These have evolved due to our special geology (soils) and a climate bordering the warm South and the cooler North. These plants and animals, together with our attractive landscapes in the mountains, Piedmont, and coastal areas, have huge economic potential for scientific discovery, recreation, and tourism. 

Our state’s unique features are vital for our future. We must maintain this diversity of plants and animals as much as we can.

Well-planned communities:

  • Support and use local services efficiently,

  • Promote continued quality of life and tourism, and

  • Maintain our precious and unique wildlife and habitats.

What can I do?

  • Participate in community discussions about the impact of development on farming and other land use. Join the local Land Trust (see section on Resources).
  • Encourage city and county leadership to evaluate tax benefits and disadvantages of development. Services (such as fire, schools, and police) for homes outside planned communities increase service costs.
  • Before buying property, do the math. Determine whether the cost of services exceeds the community’s financial or resource ability to provide them. Very often the cost of providing services to homes distant from the main community exceeds the gain in tax base.
  • Evaluate the design of your home (house and yard) and your community. Does the design add value and improve the quality of life for you and your neighbors?
  • As a class, offer to plant and maintain a year-round flower or butterfly garden at your school.  Choose a spot with some shade and select plants that will survive during hot summers. 

Think about:

  • Careful water use. Just enough to promote plant growth.
  • Whether the fertilizers that you choose will be safe, as well as sanitary, for the garden. Make sure they are not overused and running into local drainage channels and creeks.
  • How you might carefully use pesticides or organic control methods to protect your plants.

Keep a weekly journal about the plants and soil around your home. 

  • Can you suggest ways to prevent soil erosion by planting small shrubs or through some other method?
  • Can you suggest ways to maintain existing plants by protecting them from damage from dry summers or bugs? 
  • Can you suggest ways to protect these plants without using chemicals?
  • Share your journal with someone who works at a local plant nursery.  Does that person have further suggestions about how to care for the plants and the soil?

Read labels for pesticides, insecticides, and household cleaning products:

  • Labels tell you how to use a product safely, tell you how to store it safely, provide first aid instructions, and provide telephone numbers or web sites for more information.  It is very important to keep the labels.  Don’t store these products in soda or juice bottles as toddlers might think they are something to drink. 
  • If you find your little cousin drinking from a juice bottle with a pesticide in it, what are the first steps you would take?  How could this situation be prevented? How could having the original container help you?
  • Pesticides, insecticides, and cleaning products can damage the water supply.  They can kill fish and birds and make the water dangerous to drink.  They can come into contact with the local water supply when used in a place where they could run into a creek or are poured down the drain in your home.
  • If your mother asks you to dump some water that has been used to clean the carpet, where will you dump it?  Where in your community could you call to decide the best way to dump the unhealthy water?  How can having the original container help you?
  • If you are using fertilizers, insecticides or fungicides and other garden chemicals, stick strictly with the instructions, do not use excess. Some of these materials have long lasting impacts if larger quantities than necessary are used.
  • The same is true of chemicals in the house. Read the instructions carefully and stick with them.


Print the photographs that we provide for you and discuss how each one might impact the major regions of North Carolina: the Mountains, the Piedmont, and the Coastal Plains.

  • Bulldozer moving a lot of dirt with much demolished forest in the background.
  • Power plant on a river.
  • Huge mansion and grounds on a coastal sound.