A story I wrote for Public Affairs Reporting at UNC-Chapel Hill.
In Seaside, Fla., pastel houses line ruler-straight roads decorated with trimmed trees. Sidewalks lead from the houses to the beach and restaurants and galleries. Everything anyone could need—all within 80 acres on the Panhandle.
Seaside was built from scratch in 1981— a grand experiment of “New Urbanism,” a movement that called for a return to walkability, town centers and connectivity.
The movement was once relegated to new developments like Seaside or large urban areas.
Hillsborough is neither. The town of 7,000 has been around 260 years. There are ages-old brick buildings, farms and none of the pristine streets you’d see in Seaside.
Yet Hillsborough is part of a growing movement of small towns using the principles of New Urbanism to revitalize their economic centers and build community.
But as interest in connectivity, walkability and creating a “sense of place” grow within small towns, funding for these interests is increasingly difficult to secure.
“There is a growing recognition that the fundamental principles of New Urbanism do apply in rural towns and that they (towns) need to do something to keep their identity,” said Gary Toth, senior director at the Project for Public Spaces, a planning and community education nonprofit.
Hillsborough’s Connectivity Plan
In 2009, Hillsborough adopted a community connectivity plan, with goals of enhancing local and regional connectivity and strengthening safety for pedestrians and bikers.
Since then, Hillsborough has built sidewalks, created bicycle lanes and connected neighborhoods through trails and greenways.
In October, Riverwalk, a 1.8-mile urban greenway on the Eno River corridor, opened to the public. Riverwalk connected Gold Park, built in 2010, with Hillsborough’s historic downtown.
“It’s been an immense change,” Hillsborough planner Stephanie Trueblood said. “It seemed to have created this vein to bring people into downtown that might have seen Hillsborough as a traffic jam before.”
The town’s emphasis on connectivity has strengthened the sense of community in Hillsborough, said Neil Stutzer, chair of Hillsborough Arts Council.
“Hillsborough has really emphasized tourism on a local level,” he said. “People of the community are getting very involved in their community.”
The town was built with a pedestrian network leading to a core downtown, Trueblood said.
That original walkability was threatened as the town grew and neighborhoods grew out of the town center. There were other barriers to connectivity as well: the Eno River and a rail line run through Hillsborough.
But the biggest barrier was cost.
Nearby towns were building trails and greenways, like the American Tobacco Trail in Durham, and Hillsborough wanted to start similar projects, Trueblood said. But resources are limited for small towns.
“The trick was making sure we could make the strategic connections we needed with such limited resources,” Trueblood said.
There was little state funding for bike paths, one of the key goals in the plan, Hillsborough Commissioner Jenn Weaver said. And the estimated cost for a 3-mile sidewalk project in 2010 was $1.4 million.
Across the country, towns are facing lack of expertise and resources when they try to implement similar projects.
“There is a lack of resources, lack of savvy and lack of understanding where that funding is,” Toth said.
Toth recently helped towns in Idaho and Colorado find funding, including some money through the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Some of these unfortunate communities in Idaho barely have money to pay for lighting,” he said. “They don’t know what to do.”
Grants have gotten more competitive, Trueblood said. But Hillsborough was successful in receiving grant money by aligning projects with state goals, like decreasing vehicle trips or connecting children to schools.
Riverwalk is part of the Mountain to Sea Trail, which allowed Hillsborough to receive funding from the state parks and recreation department.
“We’ve been very lucky,” Trueblood said.
For small and rural towns, grant money is available through N.C. Rural Economic Development Center.
But since the recession, the “pot of money has gotten smaller,” said Darren Rhodes, chief planner for the center.
Towns often start with the funding question, but identifying a town’s unique assets must come first, Rhodes said.
“Funding is important, but first and foremost you have to get the towns and its leadership behind some goals,” Rhodes said.
Hillsborough had community support for connectivity and walkability before the town even wrote a connectivity plan, Trueblood said.
“If people weren’t dedicated: It would have been a lot more challenging,” Trueblood said. “People have been in support of projects like these for many years.”
Walkable Hillsborough Coalition, an advocacy group dedicated to promoting a “pedestrian way of life” in Hillsborough, pushed for walkability before the plan was written.
Chimney Rock, a town of 113 as of 2010, also gathered community support.
In 1996, the town was selected by Handmade in America, a community development nonprofit, to be part of its “Rural Small Towns Revitalization Project.”
To help secure grant funding, Chimney Rock started a volunteer-led community development association. Using grant funding from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center and N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the town built a riverwalk along the Rocky Broad River, which runs through downtown.
Like Hillsborough, the town acquired land along the river, and several hundred volunteers helped build the riverwalk.
As of 2007, the community development association used $620,000 of public money to secure more than $3.7 million in private investments.
Mayor Barbara Meliski said that the last grant the town was received was five years ago, and that state funding has been reduced since the town started revitalization projects.
“The riverwalk has changed Chimney Rock by way of economic development,” Meliski said. “Tourism is our only industry and the riverwalk is another draw for people to come here.”
A Sense of Place
Placemaking is another facet of New Urbanism. Placemaking works on a simple premise: if you want people to walk, there must be somewhere to go.
As more people drove out of town to shop or eat, and economic development moved out of town centers, the former city centers lost their way.
“It’s like you couldn’t tell a main street in Montana from one in New Jersey,” he said.
Towns must position themselves as having unique characteristics and activities, Toth said. In Hillsborough, a large artist and writer population and historic downtown helped the town build a strong identity.
Riverwalk has also brought an increased appreciation of the town’s natural environment, Trueblood said.
“People are realizing the vast natural resources in Hillsborough,” Trueblood said. “It’s not just a historic downtown.”
Hillsborough’s connectivity projects and riverwalk have done more than connect place to place, said Sarah DeGennaro, executive director for The Alliance for Historic Hillsborough.
“Walkable communities are more people friendly,” she said.
Community organizations are growing and revenues for restaurants and bars have increased, she said.
“We’ve seen more traffic in here with people walking the riverwalk,” said Greg Christo, who works at Weaver Street Market in Hillsborough.
Creating a bustling downtown, with shops and restaurants connected to neighborhoods, will attract more residents and visitors, Toth said.
“People are getting tired of suburbs,” he said. “There is a movement back to these small towns.”
A 2013 study by the National Association for Realtors showed 60 percent of those surveyed preferred walkable neighborhoods with a mix of houses, stores and businesses over neighborhoods where driving was necessary.
Hillsborough might not be a small town forever. Hillsborough’s population grew 9.47 percent from 2000 to 2010, and new development will mean even more growth.
One development project, Waterstone Estates and Terraces, will add 134 single-family homes and up to 399 multi-family units.
“We know it’s (Waterstone) going to bring a lot of change, we don’t know what that will be yet,” Weaver said. “Who knows who those people will be and what they will find important.”
Trueblood said the town hopes to add Waterstone to its greenway network leading downtown.
And in the meantime, the town is working on improving sidewalks on Churton Street and outlining budget priorities for the next three years.
Increased walkability and access to Churton Street corridor is still needed, DeGennaro said.
“Any way we can include preservation and the unique character of Hillsborough while also helping it grow,” she said.