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Land Use per Capita and Change

Land Use per Capita

Western North Carolina is not getting any larger, and our population will continue to grow. The pressures of population growth can be compounded by inefficient uses of land. In recent years, we have taken to converting a bigger piece of mountain forest and farmland to development for each person living in our region. In 1976, only .06 acres of land were developed for each Western North Carolina resident. In 2006, we had developed .37 acres of land per resident. By 2030, we are projected to develop .5 acres of land for each resident of the mountains, a 900% increase from the 1976 number.

While more development creates the potential for more economic opportunities, we must be mindful that buildable land is not in limitless supply in order to manage our mountain lands for long-term prosperity. Furthermore, sprawling development of land can have a disproportionate impact on the mountain environment as compared to more concentrated, efficient development patterns.

Land Use Change

The term Land Use refers to the economic use to which land is put. For example, is the land being used for commercial purposes (stores, office buildings, apartments, etc.) or for industrial purposes (factories, assembly plants)? Land Use Change is the conversion of forest into agricultural or developed land. Land use change can be a factor in carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere, and is thus a contributor to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that land-use change contributes a net 1.6 ± 0.8 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon per year to the atmosphere. For comparison, the major source of carbon dioxide – emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production – amount to 6.3 ± 0.6 Gt carbon per year. In addition, the extent and type of land use directly affects wildlife habitat and thereby impacts local and global biodiversity.

Historical Perspective
1976 Land Use MapSince humans arrived in this region, they have disturbed the land – sometimes lightly, and at other times severely. Human impacts have included the utilization of natural resources, the introduction of exotic plants and disease, extinction of species, and urban development. These impacts raise concern because their long-term consequences are often unknown. Also, the human process of disturbance is often much greater in magnitude than typical natural disturbances. Land conversion is a significant threat to biodiversity in Western North Carolina. As the landscape becomes more developed, areas that were once forest or other natural systems are cleared for houses and infrastructure. With habitats removed and natural systems fundamentally altered, many native plants and animals cannot survive. These plant and animal species must move to other suitable areas – which may or may not exist nearby. 

Land use patterns have changed dramatically over the past few decades. The map shown at right, constructed from satellite imagery collected in 1976, includes 25 of the 27 counties in the Mountain Resources Commission region (data for this study has not been completed for Surry and Yadkin Counties). The map shows four primary land use categories: developed, undeveloped, water, and protected. Developed land is defined as land that has large amounts of paved (impervious) surfaces. This includes major roads, subdivisions, towns, and shopping areas. Undeveloped land includes forests and farms with minor roads and farm buildings. Protected land is owned or managed by entities that strive to limit the amount of land use conversion, such as national and state forests and parks and land conservancies. By comparing past and present land use, assumptions can be made about future land use trends. If these trends are inconsistent with our desired future condition, we can attempt to identify and implement alternate outcomes that sustain natural systems while still providing services for a growing population and maintaining economic development.

The land use in 1976 did not vary greatly from land use for the preceding 50 years. There are a few urban centers, connected by interstates, and large regions of connected green space. The map shows initial pressure from development along secondary roads, but on average less than one percent of the land is truly developed. Per capita land consumption, which can be thought of as a “human footprint,” stood on average at less than .06 acres per person.

Current Picture
2006 Land Use MapIn Western North Carolina, land use in the early 1970s did not vary greatly from land use over the preceding 50 years. In the late 1970s, however, the region experienced a drastic change in land use patterns. The completion of Interstate 40, a strong domestic economy, and a desire to travel reopened Western North Carolina to tourism and to seasonal home markets. Low energy costs allowed residents to commute long distances to work, making it easier to live in a rural area and work in an urban center. Furthermore, land values in most of Western North Carolina were relatively inexpensive compared to the rest of the U.S. These factors, coupled with an ideal mountain climate compared to the surrounding southeastern U.S., gained the attention of a national audience.

The 2006 land use map for 25 of the 27 counties in the Western North Carolina region (excluding Surry and Yadkin Counties) demonstrates some astonishing changes from land use in the early- to mid-1970s. Not only was there a rapid conversion from rural to developed land, but each individual also came to occupy more land. Per capita land consumption – or the “human footprint” – increased from an average of .06 acres per person in 1976 to an average of .42 acres per person in 2006. While an average of less than one percent of the land was developed in 1976, 6.3 percent of the land was developed by 2006.

Few natural systems can withstand this rapid rate of change, and Western North Carolina is no different. While many new residents to the region settled on old farms and in valleys, there has also been a move “up the mountain.” In the pursuit of better views and perceived quality of life, many new homes are built on land that had been forested for generations. This trend displaces wildlife and exposes the forest to a wide range of threats. Fortunately, many forward-looking individuals and groups recognize the need to protect important natural systems and have added to the amount of protected lands in the region.

One Possible Future
Projected 2030 Land Use MapAs the region’s population grows (a 20.3 percent increase is projected from 2006 to 2030), the rate at which rural land is converted to urban use will also increase. The map shown at right projects land use change by 2030 for 25 of the 27 counties in the region (excluding Surry and Yadkin Counties). The projection is based on a statistical model that incorporates factors such as distance to roads, attraction of employment centers, percent slope, and “pressure” exerted by already developed areas. A separate factor is the millions of acres of national and state forest- and parklands that annually attract well over 10 million visitors to the region. It is likely that some small percentage of these visitors will relocate to the area. It is hard to know whether the high rate of development that occurred during the previous 30 years will continue; however, this map shows one likely future scenario. Based on this model, by 2030 an additional 418,364 acres will be developed in these 25 counties.

For more information on the study from which this data is taken, including profile data by individual county, visit the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute website.


Vogler, John B., Douglas A. Shoemaker, Monica Dorning, and Ross K. Meentemeyer. 2010. Mapping Historical Development Patterns and Forecasting Urban Growth in Western North Carolina 1976-2030. Charlotte, NC: The Center for Applied GIScience at UNC Charlotte. Accessed from:

Population estimates for 1976-1996 were taken from The population was taken in July 1975, 1985, and 1995. Population estimates for July 2006 were taken from Population estimates for July 2030 were taken from

"Vital Climate Graphics | UNEP/GRID-Arendal - Publications - Vital Climate Graphics". Accessed from: