Macon as a case study of the exurban population shift

Exurbanites are invading Macon County, and the rest of Appalachia for that matter. Don’t be alarmed, they’re generally docile, but the ramifications of their settlement could mark, and to an extent already have marked, a permanent change in the region’s social, natural and ecology landscape.

The exurbanites — a name coined by former Playboy editor A.C. Spectorsky and used as a title for his book — are a group of people who choose not to settle in the city but rather in the country.


Yet, unlike those who historically settled in the countryside, populating its valleys for the purposes of agriculture, the exurbanites are not farmers and choose to place their homes on the hillsides.

The topic of exurbanization was discussed at a recent summer symposium hosted at the Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory in Macon County, but for those studying its effects, it has been a cause for concern for some time.

“You can see it,” said Ted Gragson, professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia. “It’s as if you were filling up the land — first valleys, then mid-slopes, then high-elevation areas.”

He said there are two general processes taking place on the landscape: the settlement of more people in the mountainous regions of the Southeast, chewing up uninhabited zones, and, simultaneously, the subdividing of existing properties to higher density housing developments.

United States Census data indicates that roughly 40 percent of the country’s population resided in the urban-rural interface described “exurbia.” Social and technological developments such as the willingness and ability to commute longer distances to reach urban centers, a more mobile and active class of retirees and the draw of homebuyers to natural, rural settings have played into the population shift to the mountain slopes.

The trend of exurbanization is one of the latest topics to join the suite of long-term research conducted in collaboration with the Coweeta Laboratory, a U.S. Forest Service research station.

He said this region of Western North Carolina is especially susceptible to the new development patterns because of its close proximity to urban centers. And, to compound its potential speed of development, a larger percentage of land in the eastern United States, compared to out West, is in private hands, allowing for more rapid exurbanization.

Macon County, in particular, has been identified by Gragson and fellow researchers in their studies as: “a rural area with relatively low population density, but it is increasingly subject to exurbanization pressures from surrounding metropolitan areas including Atlanta, Charlotte, Greenville, Asheville and Knoxville.”

Gragson said the introduction of exurban zones to the mountainous regions of Appalachia can have impacts on stream quality, affecting the composition of the water, and the fabric of ecosystems, in some cases facilitating the proliferation of invasive species and disturbance of naturally-occurring plants and animals.

And much like exurbanization is a blending of the urban and rural, so too are its consequences a blending of the good and bad. Gragson, speaking from the perspective of an anthropologist, said although the stakes could be high for the environment that doesn’t mean people will choose to develop zoning laws that would oppose this type of development. He said it’s a value judgment the community has to make.

“Certainly the natural systems are being impacted, and rather dramatically in some cases,” Gragson said. “But, by the same token, if you think large houses on steep slopes with dramatic vistas are value added, you might not see the effects on the natural environment as negative.”

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