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Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership - 2013-03-12

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Demographics and destiny

By Jim Hawhee, APNEP Policy and Engagement Manager
March 12, 2013

Satellite imagery of downtown Raleigh

Satellite imagery of downtown Raleigh

Demographics are destiny, according to the old saw. Demography is the statistical study of human populations, and it informs nearly every area of public policy.

Environmental policy and management are no different. While we spend much of our time considering the impacts of various local activities on the environment or the structure of our ecosystems, the distribution of people throughout the Albemarle-Pamlico watershed is an omnipresent consideration in the way we approach our work.

As Dr. Tom Crawford notes in the Albemarle-Pamlico Ecosystem Assessment, each of us consumes natural resources, produces waste, and leaves a footprint that alters the natural environment. These can be direct impacts, like clearing a natural lot for a suburban home, or they can be indirect, resulting from the products and services we consume. Generally speaking, more people living in an area present a larger environmental challenge.

From a demographic perspective, the Albemarle-Pamlico system provides an interesting case study. Our urban population is booming in inland areas, yet the population of many rural counties is declining.

The region as a whole is showing significant growth. According to 2010 census information, 3.8 million people live in the Albemarle-Pamlico watershed. One million people have come to the region over the past 20 years, an increase of 36%. With 1.2 million current residents, the Upper Neuse sub-basin (home to Raleigh and Durham) increased at a rate of 86.3%.

However, many rural counties throughout the Albemarle-Pamlico region have stagnant or declining populations. According to the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, six APNEP counties in North Carolina had a declining population from 2000-2010, and 17 (of 36) showed declines between 2010 and 2011. Most other counties showed growth rates of less than 1.5%. This trend is mirrored in Virginia, with Suffolk gaining significantly in population but rural areas showing low or declining growth rates.

What does this mean for Albemarle-Pamlico region? In urban and suburban areas with rapidly increasing populations, we must become increasingly efficient and effective to hold the line when it comes to protecting conservation lands and water supplies. Municipalities in the Research Triangle and elsewhere have made significant progress in implementing low-impact development practices, which are designed to reduce the environmental impact of buildings, homes, streets, and other effects of modern living.

In rural areas, populations are declining in part due to a lack of social and economic opportunity. By area, 56% of the Albemarle-Pamlico region is characterized as low-income by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. On its face, this might signify declining environmental impacts. However, the low tax base means that resources to combat pollution are limited at the local level. Also, because the working farms and forests of the region feed and supply a growing global economy, the challenges of curbing nonpoint source pollution from these areas remain.

In 2005, Senator Jon Kyle noted that "basic human principles don't change, but demographics and other circumstances do, and so should our responses to them." While his comment was a reflection on our national security approach, it also rings true in the environmental policy arena. Ecosystem-based management principles give us the tools to continually adapt to evolving environmental pressures, including those related to demographic change.

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