Raleigh in 2038

In Feature Stories, September 2018 by Raleigh Magazine1 Comment

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Raleigh’s come a long way. In the past 20 years, this erstwhile sleepy Southern capital has become a vibrant, bustling city, an emerging tech hub and a destination for transplants of all ages. It’s grown by nearly double and it’s topping lists for affordability, job opportunities, good schools and overall quality of life. That growth isn’t expected to slow any time soon. But where will the city be—and what will it look like—20 years in the future?

We went to the experts in the fields of demographics, housing, education, transportation and technology to give us a sense of what Raleigh will be like in 2038. Much will be different—think smart buildings, tiny homes, self-driving cars and first responder drones. On the other hand, much will remain the same; we’ll still ride buses and fly on airplanes, our children will still learn in traditional classrooms in Wake County’s public schools.

We’ll look quite a bit different and there will be a whole lot more of us; shifts in Raleigh’s demographics will mirror wider U.S. population trends, with more diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, family composition and age.

For all the changes, though, what makes Raleigh Raleigh—its talented and highly educated residents, its innovative spirit and its commitment to green, open spaces—will remain. The city’s future, as you’ll find in these pages, is economical and heterogenous, multi-modal and efficient, technological and bright. We hope to see you there.

Population predictions

In 20 years, Raleigh’s population will exceed 661,000 people living within the city limits. It’s an increase of more than 40 percent over our current population of 464,758, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimate. In keeping with national trends, this growing population will be older and more ethnically, racially and culturally diverse. Residents will be more educated than the national average and unemployment rates will be lower.

More Diversity

As America grows ever more diverse, so will Raleigh. From 2010 to 2014, the city’s Hispanic population increased from 7 to 12 percent; from 2010 to 2016, Wake County’s Asian population grew by 44 percent. This trend toward diversity will continue. In 2038, the nation will be just a few years shy of the projected majority-minority crossover, when the non-Hispanic white population will comprise less than 50 percent of the United States’ total population.

Movement to cities is also increasing, meaning Raleigh’s population will likely cross over sooner. In 2017, migration, largely from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well as internationally from India, China and Mexico, accounted for 68 percent of Wake County’s population growth. This push toward urban centers might mean better public transportation and increased development; strip malls and other low-functioning properties might be redesigned in favor of mixed-use developments, such as North Hills.

No Brain Drain

Forbes recently called Raleigh the second most educated city in the country, with persons over 25 holding high school diplomas at a rate of 90.9 percent and bachelors and advanced degrees at a rate of 49.2 percent. Graduates from the area’s top universities and technical schools tend to stay here, creating a talent pipeline for businesses. Raleigh’s proximity to the Research Triangle Park means the city will continue to attract leading companies and offer more opportunities for high-paying tech-related and pharmaceutical jobs.

Better Income Outlook

The percentage of Raleigh residents unemployed or living below the poverty line has fallen, a trend that shows no sign of stopping as major employers eye the Raleigh area for expansion. Encouraging statistics show that, from 2000 to 2014, unemployment in the city decreased from 7.8 percent to 4.6 percent as poverty dropped from 18.4 percent to 16.6 percent.

Older and Wiser

By 2038, more than one in five North Carolina residents will be aged 65 or older. Baby Boomers are a growing segment of Raleigh’s population, and a trend toward multi-generational living means housing built with that in mind.

— Cameron Walker

The Future of Housing

By Tracy Jones

There’s no doubt Raleigh’s housing market has changed over the last 20 years. Gentrification, mixed use developments, a continual rise in population and other factors have shaped our city into what it is today. But what about tomorrow?

With rising land costs forcing developers to “go downstream” to smaller cities nearby, the future of housing in Raleigh can seem a bit hazy. Dr. Robin Fran Abrams, professor of architecture at North Carolina State University, predicts a continuation of cookie cutter development projects with minimum investor risk, except at the highest end of the market.

Other changes in the market could prioritize economy over all else.

“We might see someone experiment with a ‘we work’ type of development given the number of university graduates and early-20s workers in the area, with shared kitchens kind of like dorms for Millennials post-graduation,” Abrams says. “There is interest in this form of housing among retirees, particularly those on limited incomes.”

Housing units will likely get smaller to remain affordable, and, because the average family size is shrinking, the demand for huge houses won’t be as great. There’s also the proliferation of the tiny house movement and the trend toward “less is more” downsizing to consider.

Mary Ann Meagher, an agent at Fonville Morisey Realty, has seen an uptick in requests for smaller, easier to maintain homes.

“I see it with both younger buyers and retirees,” Meagher says. “They’re more interested in quality rather than quantity. Along with buying smaller houses, many buyers are looking for the convenience of walkability, so we see buyers wanting to be closer to major amenities. This is challenging in our area as land is more and more scarce, forcing developers to move further out for large subdivisions or utilize infill land for smaller pop-up neighborhoods. Over time, the only way to increase living space in these popular areas it to build ‘up,’ with multi-story, multi-family buildings.”

If the city legalizes accessory dwelling units, also known as granny flats or backyard cottages, Raleigh will most likely see a growth in those—small, fully functional houses built in homeowners’ backyards—as well.

“This is an easy way to allow for multi-generational families to have their own space, yet be close for health care needs,” Meager says. “The ability to have an investment right in your backyard could gain momentum too, whether with VRBO or Airbnb type rentals, or longer-term tenants to help property owners pay their mortgages, fund vacations, or increase their savings.”

Generating onsite income might become a necessity for many residents if mortgage rates increase. If rates climb back into double digits, purchasing power will decrease dramatically. And if housing prices outpace income, we’ll see more people opting to rent instead of buy, as well as adult children living with their parents longer, according to Meagher.

In individual homes, common spaces will most likely grow; just look at the transformation of kitchens over the years, where a once secluded room is now open to the rest of the house, allowing families to interact from all angles. More space may be devoted to exercise, meditation or relaxation. And, as more people work from home, in-home offices may also become more popular.

Cross-purpose living space may become the norm as houses shrink. We could see laundry rooms move into kitchens and other rooms transform as needed, with tables that fold out of the way and Murphy Beds tucked into common areas, for example.

Ultimately, technology will undoubtedly play a role in our future homes. Smart houses and driverless cars will dictate how willing people will be to leave their homes for long and short periods.

“The ability to ‘manage’ your home from afar will become more and more important,” says Meagher. “People will want the efficiency and security of a controllable house. And I do think homeowners would be willing to live further away from conveniences and pay less for housing when driverless cars are more prolific.”

Future Times at Raleigh High

What will Raleigh schools look like in 20 years?

By Mandy Howard

In May of 2017, the Wake County Board of Education approved a 7-year building funding plan. The plan includes $2.191 billion for 18 projected new schools (11 elementary, 3 middle and 4 high schools) and major renovations to 16 existing schools (10 elementary, 4 middle and 2 high schools). Of course, if we’re trying to predict what the school landscape in Raleigh and Wake will be like in 20 years, we have to remember that local government plans build upon one another year after year and that their scope and timing are constantly subject to change.

Each year, the Wake County Public School System has to be prepared to update plans according to changes in population, budget, leadership and technology. These factors are just a few examples of the many variables school officials must consider in predicting the Raleigh school landscape for the next generation.

Christine Kushner, a member of the Wake County Board of Education, says this is why the school board and community must make plans but must also be willing to make adjustments.

“In 2014, a community task force adopted a visionary strategic plan for WCPSS, Vision 2020,” Kushner explains. “I would like us to update that plan in three- to five-year increments, continuously working for improvement.”

And though the board relies heavily upon population trend and household migration forecasts for budgeting and planning decisions, Dr. Terry Stoops, the director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Raleigh, says it’s more complex than just predicting the numbers.

“Even the best data can’t capture the diversity of ideas, opinions and experiences that people bring with them,” Stoops says. “As the share of native-born North Carolinians continues to shrink, the educational landscape will be informed by out-of-towners who have different, and in some cases competing, ideas about schooling.”

Acknowledging that there is more that’s unknown than known, Stoops and Kushner agree that schools 20 years from now will most likely continue to integrate technology and online instruction as tools and educational resources. Outside of that, and despite current students predictions (see sidebar),
the experts agree that the overall model of the classroom will still be recognizable.

“I hope one consistent thing 20 years from now is that our classrooms will have skilled teachers engaging all students, and students who enjoy being at school and learning in up-to-date, welcoming school buildings,” Kushner continues. “Nothing can replace the need students have for relationships with gifted teachers.”

“The traditional model of public schooling has not changed for more than a century,” Stoops notes. “On the other hand, if, in 1988, I had speculated that cell phones would be a classroom management issue for teachers in 2018, I would have been told to go back to listening to Cheap Trick.”

Check out Wake County Schools strategic plan, Vision 2020, at wcpss.net/strategic-plan

The Future of Dix

By Sean Malone

What will Dorothea Dix Park look like in 2038? That’s what readers like you are deciding right now. The vision that the City of Raleigh, the master planning team and citizens throughout the Triangle and beyond are forming together is exciting and inspirational. For over a year now, huge numbers of diverse individuals have been participating in online and in-person planning activities to create Dorothea Dix Park as a place for everyone— a transformative public space for community, health and celebration that will enrich the quality of life in our city and state.

Adrian Benepe, the longtime New York City Parks commissioner and director of the Urban Parks for the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit, said recently “Dorothea Dix Park is the most important and exciting park project in America today.”

With that quote in mind, and as we all work together to shape what the park itself will look like, it’s pretty exciting to think about what our community can look like in 2038 because of Dorothea Dix Park.

We, as a community, will have far better physical health than we do today—including fewer heart attacks, less obesity, longer lifespans and far fewer health inequalities across demographic and economic indicators.

• We will have far better mental health as a community—including lower stress levels, fewer mental health disorders and higher self-reported life satisfaction.

We will have far better environmental health than we do today—including lower air temperatures, better air quality, a lower carbon footprint and better storm water management.

• We will have record levels of tourism dollars coming into and serving our community. Our region will have dramatically increased business retention and attraction. Companies will have dramatically increased talent retention and attraction. And the enormous economic impact generated by all this will benefit everyone.

• We will have far stronger community health—greater feelings of cohesiveness and empathy, greater safety, increased civic pride and much more. We will have effectively and intentionally managed the significant (inevitable) population growth of this 20-year period, ensuring a livable and sustainable region for everyone, for generations to come.

• Dorothea Dix Park will be touted as the ideal model of a new, world-class, community-focused urban park— a transformative public space that made its community and region healthier, wealthier, happier and more connected. A wing in the Raleigh Municipal Building will have a sampling of the many national and international awards that the project received. Other cities across the country will visit to learn how we did it.

All of this is what our community could look like in 20 years specifically because of Dorothea Dix Park.

If… If we have bold vision. If we choose to do something truly great. If we, as a community, rise to this unparalleled moment of opportunity.

Personally, I think we will. And I can’t wait.

Sean Malone is the President/CEO of the nonprofit Dorthea Dix Park Conservancy.

Raleigh in 20: Transportation

By Cameron Walker

As the first suburbs sprung up around Raleigh around the turn of the century, the local power company built a trolley system to carry workers to their jobs in town. The car ran straight up Glenwood Avenue, turned around at The Circle and trundled back downtown, with a stop at what was once the city’s very own amusement park. You can still ride a piece of this history, but it won’t get you anywhere—the park’s ancient carousel is now the star attraction at Pullen Park.

Raleigh is growing again, and our transit needs are ever evolving. With a 10-year, $2.3 billion transit plan in place, Wake County and its municipal governments are planning for a prosperous future in which we travel more broadly, share more communal commuting space and relinquish some control to artificial intelligence.


Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) serves about 30,000 passengers every day on 400 daily flights to more than 55 destinations. Delta Air Lines counts the Triangle as one of three “focus cities”— mini-hubs for the airline—and plans to add more flights and destinations and renew some of its fleet here, replacing smaller jets with newer, larger aircraft.

RDU has drawn up a plan for the next 20 years, including expanding economy parking, rehabilitating taxiways and creating a ground transportation center for shuttles and other transportation providers to reduce congestion. Its most ambitious proposal is to replace and relocate the most heavily-used runway and use the extra space to add new gates and amenities to Terminal 2.

Over the past year, the airport has seen a 25 percent increase in international flights; just last year, 230,000 passengers traveled between RDU and Asia. As the area continues to add tech jobs, the airport may add direct flights to cities in China and India.

Wake County

The county predicts a surge in demand for transit in the next two decades. With funding and plans for light rail in limbo, local government is thinking of other ways to address traffic as we continue to add 60 people a day to our population. The transit plan proposes improving and expanding existing bus service, implementing commuter rail transit on 37 miles of extant railroad tracks, and putting into place bus rapid transit (BRT).

BRT works much like light rail, but instead of dedicated tracks, buses travel in exclusive bus lanes. GoTriangle, GoRaleigh and GoCary are planning a system with accessible stops and stations with roofs, platforms and kiosks along four lines fanning out from downtown Raleigh. Similar systems have been successfully implemented in growing cities around the world. 

Future Transport

Raleigh’s transportation scheme is designed for a future based on current technology. But with the swift acceleration of transportation tech, the city might experience some growing pains as it tries to fold self-driving cars, personal rapid transit systems and more into its plan. The lightning-quick adoption of Uber and Lyft, LimeBike and Bird electric scooters show there is much potential for growth in the transportation space.

“Consider where we were with cell phones 20 years ago,” says Dr. Seth Hollar, an engineering professor at NC State and the co-founder of EcoPRT, which proposes an economical, autonomous rapid transit system that operates on a dedicated electric railway—similar to trams, but lighter, faster and more efficient. “I don’t think a whole lot of people pictured what we see today in terms of how much our phones can do for us.” Hollar predicts that, as the urban population grows, fewer people will own cars— perhaps even altering the cityscape as obsolete parking lots are replaced with residences or parks.

Hollar also envisions widespread use of autonomous vehicles, including delivery bots and self-driving buses and taxis. Recently, an Italian company built a full-scale working model of a new transportation concept a sort of Uber/bus hybrid. Via an app, you summon an autonomous electric pod to you, which then couples up with other modules in motion to get you to your destination.

As cell phones changed the way we communicate, emerging transportation technology has the potential to drastically change the way we get around in the future. We may not have self-piloting planes in 2038, but it’s a good bet that our transit will be cleaner, greener and leaner, making room for a growing population while eliminating most waste and human error.

Tech Talk

By Laura Drake, Ph.D.

Technologists and city planners in Raleigh have a vision for the future. They are leveraging the latest wave of information technology to make Raleigh into not only a smart city, but a model for other smart cities, too.  A new category of technologies known as the Internet of Things (IoT) is leading the way.

IoT technology is a “system of systems” technology that works by embedding sensors and wireless connections into everyday objects and infrastructure, enabling them to exchange data with their physical surroundings. People will also share data with this infrastructure through some future successor to the smartphone.

With technology evolving so fast, and dominating so many other industries, the changes coming to Raleigh are likely to be “massive,” in the words of Tom Snyder, the executive director of RIoT (Raleigh IoT) Labs. “IoT will affect every market sector,” he says, and “Raleigh is in the front” of smart city development nationwide.

That’s because IoT development requires many different industries and disciplines to work together. “We’re not dominated by any industry,” Snyder continues. “We have a good balance of disciplines. Raleigh has uniqueness in that there’s a good balance in skill sets to deploy these solutions.”

By 2038, IoT will likely become the new normal. People won’t even call it that any more. It’ll just be the background of Raleigh’s urban life.

One of its biggest effects will be to get people back to living in a more “person to person” mode. Instead of “always having to look at a screen or an app to do anything,” Snyder says, “they can just enjoy their lives.”

In a smart city, everything around us will become a networked device. Cars, buildings, traffic signals, streetlights and delivery and first responder drones will all be able monitor one another’s real-time status over the network and automatically adjust their own activities based on incoming data.

For example, if an IoT roadway or building detects a car accident during rush hour, it will “notify” the network, which will dispatch an ambulance and automatically guide GPS-enabled connected cars carrying commuters through alternate routes to avoid the site.

Derrick Minor, the innovation and entrepreneurship manager at the City of Raleigh’s Office of Economic Development and Innovation predicts an increase in “smart buildings” around Raleigh. They will “help building owners cut costs by automating systems, such as when to turn off lights and AC,” and they will “troubleshoot systems before anyone has to think about troubleshooting,” he says. But he thinks transportation will likely be the first sector to see the new technology.

In addition to automating transportation, IoT offers a solution to the “first mile last mile” commuter problem, or how to move people easily and affordably between their homes and offices to transit stations and back again.

To this end, researchers at NC State are working on the design and deployment of a commuter pod called EcoPRT, which will debut as a way to shuttle students around campus. Tomorrow, it could be used all over Raleigh. This two-passenger, 500-pound smart pod is prominently featured in the city’s official SmartRaleigh traffic plan as a means of carrying large numbers of people across short distances easily and affordably, either on the ground or on elevated track.

The pods, as networked devices, will also be “roving data collectors,” connected to the city’s future IoT infrastructure, according to developer Seth Hollar, the associate director of the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program at NC State. Hollar says the pods will be equipped with sensors capable of sending data back and forth to the city.

“How we move around in the downtown area, it’s a great fit,” Hollar says.

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  1. Raleigh mayor needs to address light rail in the city soon !!!!!

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