The Raleigh of 2000 bears little resemblance to the Raleigh of today. Over the last two decades, Raleigh has grown from a sleepy capital town into a bustling big city with big-city amenities—and big-city problems. Here, we ask five residents—the mayor, a former mayor, and community advocates—to explore what the future holds.

Mary-Ann Baldwin 

It’s 2040. Raleigh (and the Triangle) is one of the top metro regions in the country. 

What did we do right? 

In Raleigh, we acted with urgency on housing affordability before it became a crisis. We teamed with Lyft on a first-in-the-nation transit experiment. And we partnered with our universities and colleges to create an unrivaled center of innovation and entrepreneurship. But most important, twenty years ago, our city leaders, county commissioners, and school board decided to work together to address poverty. No easy task.

What happened? 

The city decided to be bold. It changed its zoning policies to accommodate housing choices—divisive at the time but now common across the country. Raleigh now has several thousand accessory dwelling units that comfortably fit in neighborhoods, requiring no new infrastructure. We partnered with Lyft to pilot a bus service that focused on moving people in a whole different way, from hub to hub. It’s automated, with dedicated lanes across the city; most trips take fewer than fifteen minutes. It also connects to commuter rail, created through partnerships with neighboring counties. We’ve made it so easy to travel that many people age forty and up don’t own cars. (They started the revolution, including our now-famous cycle tracks). 

Even better, the city recently sold off some of its downtown parking decks for redevelopment due to the rise in autonomous vehicles and the reduced demand for parking.

We also have this incredible park in the center of the city that is visited by people from around the world. Once a mental health hospital, it now houses a world-class research facility where N.C. State, Duke University, and UNC researchers have discovered a cure for schizophrenia. While paying homage to its history this way, the park also serves the community with play, preservation, nature, and connection. It’s a model for the world with twenty more years of future buildout. 

And by the way, did I mention it’s connected to downtown by a gondola?

Although the city of Raleigh now has 750,000 residents, it doesn’t feel crowded. It feels vibrant. The downtown core has grown south with new hockey and soccer stadiums, in an area focused on entertainment and music. It’s one of the most diverse areas of the city. There’s a new greenway trail that connects from Downtown South to Umstead State Park, where people travel on e-bikes with amenities along the way. It’s pretty cool.

Remember when I mentioned the city, county, and schools working together? They identified underutilized properties and offered them to developers to build a spectrum of housing—creating mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable communities for all. They carved out space for amenities that create equity. These include day-care centers and early childhood education centers located (get this) next to senior housing. Seniors volunteer at the centers, helping young children see all they can be. Tech companies also created a give-back to the community, in which investments were made in workforce training to expose children living in poverty to new opportunities.

Our mayor twenty years ago, known as Notorious, started this thing with a young city council that dreamed big and demonstrated political will. They lobbied the federal government to revise its housing policies and invest in infrastructure. They worked with the legislature to connect rural and urban communities, providing jobs and technology. They sought out partnerships with developers and corporations to do good. 

They set the tone for the next twenty years.

Ten years ago, we got our first forty-story tower. And yes, that made us smile. But what really made us smile was that poverty was reduced by 30 percent over twenty years because our government entities, business community, and wealthiest individuals worked together to reach and teach our kids, to inspire them, to show them who they could be. 

Looking back, we smile because our community made the decision to invest in what was most important—our people.

Mary-Ann Baldwin was elected Raleigh mayor in 2019. She previously served on the city council from 2007–17.

Octavia Rainey

As I look into the future of Raleigh, I have to first talk about the past. 

In 1974, Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act, which required cities receiving Community Development Block Grants to further fair housing and undergo an analysis of their regulations and policies affecting the location, availability, and accessibility of housing before receiving money. It was supposed to ensure that black people who had faced discrimination for a century could access quality public and private housing. 

And yet, today, there is no affordable housing in high-opportunity areas in Raleigh, not for those who earn 30 percent or less of the area median income. This statistic disproportionately affects members of the protected class—i.e., racial or ethnic minorities. The city pushed out people living in the inner city starting in 1960 with Smoky Hollow, in the 1970s with Fort Ward, and in the 1980s through today with Thompson Hunter I, Thompson Hunter II, Downtown East, the Moore Square area, South Park, Idlewild, and College Park. 

All of these developments used CDBG dollars to displace black people. All of these neighborhoods were black, and now they are 80 percent white and higher-income areas.   

The poor black folks who were displaced will never come back. People the city displaced had average incomes between $10,000 and $20,000 per year. The city moved them out to create a higher tax base. 

Is this something to be proud of? And the bus rapid transit line coming down New Bern Avenue will amount to the biggest displacement you have ever seen—with no affordable housing at all. 

When the city announces its affordable rental housing program, it often neglects to say whether it’s targeted at those earning 30 percent of AMI, 40 or 50 percent of AMI, or 60 or 80 percent of AMI. Just saying it’s “affordable housing” isn’t good enough. The city has a real problem with housing for those in the 30 percent bracket, especially in high-opportunity areas. 

Segregation is very high in Raleigh. Opportunity Housing Areas are located all over the city in areas with very high incomes. Yet we are building limited housing for those at or below 30 percent of the AMI. We have forty-two hundred children who have been identified as homeless. These children are a part of a protected class. The city is not protecting the protected class. 

The city is a long way from economic prosperity and equity for the have-nots. It is expanding housing choices for higher-income families, managing growth for higher-income families, and coordinating land use and transportation only for higher-density developments while excluding black communities.  

So I believe that no blacks will live in the city by 2040. There will no longer be black businesses nor a black voting bloc. Instead, all blacks will live deep in Wake County.

I have lived in Raleigh all my life, in the same neighborhood, and never have I seen poor black folks left behind at this rate. Forced out, priced out, and shut out. There is no room in Raleigh for the black poor.

Octavia Rainey has been a community and fair housing advocate since 1973.

Charles Meeker

The pace of Raleigh’s change will increase over the next twenty years. This change will include our vehicles, which will become electric and autonomous. Downtown parking decks will be considered for conversion to housing—mainly affordable—since most residents will no longer own cars.

The trend toward density downtown and in other focus areas will accelerate, often with apartments and shops. Office space will see less demand since there will be multiple users for each office.

Bus rapid transit and electric mini-vehicles will be prominent alternatives to cars. There will often be separate lanes, not just striping, for each. There will be no charge for buses. One-way streets will be gone downtown. Roadways will be more pedestrian-friendly, with a renewed emphasis on trees due to the increased length of the summer season.

The city will have several farmers markets, with fresh produce grown nearby in greenhouses and warehouses.  

Raleigh’s reputation as a center of innovation will be enhanced. Technologies developed on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus will be the basis for many companies, large and small.

Raleigh will be an increasingly desirable city, in part because so many young and educated people want to live here. Lifestyle and cost will be more than competitive with larger cities.  Many university graduates will take jobs here instead of going home.  

Raleigh’s problems will not disappear. Many workers will not be paid enough to live in the city, and affordable housing will remain a major problem. In a city of over six hundred thousand people by 2040, traffic congestion in the suburbs will become an increasing complaint. Heavy rains from large storms will deepen our creek beds.

Though facing evolving challenges as 2040 arrives, Raleigh will remain one of our country’s top twenty-first-century cities.  

Charles Meeker was Raleigh mayor from 2001–11. His brother Richard Meeker owns the INDY

Carly P. Jones

What defines a city? The expression of its people. This is why arts communities and the creative workforce are the souls of a city. 

Raleigh is not the same sleepy city I grew up in. When I graduated from high school in the early 2000s, I left North Carolina with a music scholarship, hoping to find more artistically and culturally diverse adventures. After graduating during the Great Recession, I came home, as many millennials did. I planned to save money before making my next move to a bigger, bustling city that would appreciate my fine-arts education. 

Upon my return, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find a thriving and vibrant city with a growing arts community. Now that I am rooted in Raleigh, I look forward to the future and being a part of this dynamic metropolis as it experiences a pivotal time of growth and change. 

As we tackle issues in our burgeoning city—public housing, transportation, food deserts, environmental problems—it is important to recognize the creative workforce as a crucial partner in building equitable and expressive communities. Often, planning for urban transformation focuses on improving a city’s image instead of the quality of life of its residents. Quality of life includes not only food, shelter, a clean environment, and economic opportunity but also ways to experience art and expression.

An example of this expression is Raleigh’s festival culture. Festivals create exciting spaces to immerse people in music, dance, film, and art. Raleigh is already a melting pot of nationally acclaimed musical festivals—e.g., Hopscotch, World of Bluegrass, and Dreamville. I see festivals also responding to community needs and establishing ways of thinking about heritage in communities that have been overlooked. Festivals not only cause an economic boost but can also make spaces that empower, expose, and unite. 

In 2040, I visualize Raleigh as an incubator of creativity, bridging a shining business community with a creative workforce. Our city realizes that arts and culture are not just amenities that come with a rich civic life but are also important economic and tourism drivers. I envision a city where artists and arts leaders collaborate on panels and boards for community projects, as they have with Dix Park, with local leaders, business owners, and institutions to design creative solutions. These collaborations can meaningfully empower communities to articulate their experiences of the city on their own terms. 

Raleigh in 2040? I see culturally vibrant arts communities celebrating their heritage; I hear music on street corners and melodies drifting out of living performance venues; I see the work of local artists hanging in our nationally renowned restaurants and colorful murals on the sides of buildings illustrating the rich history of our city and the stories of black and brown community leaders; I smell barbecue on one corner and curry on the next. 

I see Raleigh as a mosaic of arts and culture.

In 2040, Raleigh will not only be the warm, beautiful city I’ve always known and loved. It will also be on the cutting edge in creativity, innovation, and artistic collaboration, embracing all who call it home. 

Carly P. Jones is a singer, theater artist, and arts advocate. 

Harry Johnson

For our family, this Christmas was a little different. And by a little different, I mean oceanic-sea-change different. It was our first Christmas with our son George, a three-month-old boy whose primary items on his Christmas list included warm bottles of milk (check), fresh diapers (check), and tubs of Desitin cream (check). (Don’t worry, he also got some nice toys.) But for me—a new parent filled with the universal hopes and fears experienced by all new parents—a larger, long-term Christmas wish list for George is in order.  

Call it a wish list for Raleigh—the city where I want to help my son learn, grow, and develop into a man and someday, hopefully, decide to make home.

So what’s on this wish list? 

Well, it’s infinite, as is appropriate for a parent’s hopes and wishes for their child. But the long and short of it is that I want George to be able to enter into adulthood in a city, state, nation, and world that is more charitable, more equitable, and more sustainable than the one we live in now. That can mean any number of things—ensuring that a young boy growing up one zip code over from us has the same educational opportunity that George will, recognizing housing as a human right and not just an outcome of market forces, or (Dad’s favorite soapbox) reducing an omnipresent dependence on cars in a way that allows for a healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable community. 

Over the next year or two, our city has a great opportunity to make significant gains toward these goals and others, and I’m excited to see what a young and energetic city council brings to the table. 

But I also recognize that, in many ways, this important work still inevitably treats only some of the symptoms present in a country that has, over the past few years, proven to be very susceptible to the lesser angels of our nature. In other words, in order for these “laundry list” items to be obtainable, Raleigh must also, to use one of the favorite words of our new mayor, act with compassion. I’d go further: In the season in which a significant number of Raleighites, including our family, celebrate the birth of Christ, we must work to ensure that the distilled Christmas message—to love our neighbors as ourselves—permeates our community work. We have to start with an effort to see ourselves in others, and our children in the children of others.

So that’s my Christmas wish for George. That, in 2040, when George comes home to Raleigh, he comes home to a community that has taken the lead in both the concrete policy actions necessary to allow anyone who calls Raleigh home the opportunity to lead a prosperous, abundant, and sustainable life, and to take on the challenge with a hearty dose of joy and compassion that informs the direction of our city in every decision it makes.

Harry Johnson, an attorney and local franchise specialist for Google Fiber, is the former political chair of the North Carolina Sierra Club. 

Comment on this story at Click here to read the rest of our 2040 predictions. 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.