What if Raleigh and Atlanta Just Merged?

City lights are pretty, but unchecked development isn't. By Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

For all the talk of new urbanism and walkable neighborhoods, you'd be forgiven for assuming that we're all going to live in Copenhagen-style small cities complete with bike paths, cute cafes and teeny-tiny refrigerators. But assumptions can be dangerous. As reported by the U.S. Geological Survey, a group of NC State University scientists are predicting something quite different, at least here in the Southeast. Using computer modeling to extrapolate trends seen in previous decades, the team suggests that we could be on the cusp of a massive urban expansion, eventually resulting in a "megalopolis" that stretches across much of the region:

“If we continue to develop urban areas in the Southeast the way we have for the past 60 years, we can expect natural areas will become increasingly fragmented,” said Adam Terando, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, adjunct assistant professor at NC State, and lead author of the study. “We could be looking at a seamless corridor of urban development running from Raleigh to Atlanta, and possibly as far as Birmingham, within the next 50 years.”

From an increase in the urban heat island effect to loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity, such a development pattern could have extremely serious consequences for the natural world. In fact Jennifer Costanza, a research associate at NC State and a co-author of the study, suggested that urbanization could have a larger ecological impact than climate change for many non-coastal areas of the Southeast.
All is not lost, however, because there's no reason that the past has to look anything like the future Indeed, here in Durham, N.C., there are plans afoot for a light rail system, kick-starting an impressive amount of dense, urban "in-fill" development and making the city center more vibrant, walkable and economically stable in the process. (Albeit with the challenges of gentrification and cultural change that go along with such development.) Whether such trends can effectively limit sprawl and reshape our cities remains to be seen, but there are plenty of people with ideas on how to try.

From encouraging transit ridership to promoting the economic benefits of bike lanes, there's much we can do to reduce the transportation footprint of cities. From pursuing "Goldilocks" density in urban development to remaining vigilant about preserving open space, we can choose to value nature and emphasize smart growth. And from green roofs to nature-friendly solar farms, we can promote new forms of development that take biodiversity into consideration. Above all, we can get serious about developing economic and policy incentives to transition away from development models based on cheap fossil fuels.

The future is not determined. But a vision of what it might be can help us make better decisions.