By on 3.31.21 in Lessons Learned

Demographic data is useful to a wide variety of organizations, ranging from nonprofits to businesses to government. Knowing the statistical characteristics of a population is key to future planning, making public policy decisions, and for organizations to know how to best reach and serve their intended audience(s).

Through my work at Carolina Demography, I have become interested in how different industries use demographic data in their daily work. I recently had the pleasure of getting to know landscape architect Susan Hatchell through our joint presentations to the architecture students at NC State. Her focus is on public projects throughout the state, including parks, greenways, and transit. Her projects have included Bethesda Park in Durham and the grounds outside of NC State’s James B. Hunt Jr Library.

Landscape architects are concerned with the intersection of the natural and built environments. They may oversee projects such as parks, campuses, trails, or other outdoor recreation centers. Their work may be public or private and may serve a small subset of people or the larger community.

I asked Hatchell if she could share how she uses demographic data to make key decisions.

What do landscape architects need to know?

When developing the plans for a new project – say a new greenspace or park —  Hatchell and other landscape architects first use population data to demonstrate how a population will be served by the outdoor space. She begins by asking questions like:

  • Is the area growing? Can we expect the project to have a good return on investment, meaning will there be a population to sustain its use in the future?
  • What is the age breakdown of the community? Will this be a park primarily used for youth sports by younger families, or will it be a more passive park geared toward the needs and preferences of older adults?
  • Are there any hardships in the community, such as poverty, health issues, or environmental concerns like flooding or pollution? This will be useful to apply for grants in communities that may not be able to afford a new greenspace without some help.

Hatchell uses sources including population, economic, health, and transit data to inform her work, much like Carolina Demography’s own Orange County Community Databook helps to inform stakeholders in the Chapel Hill area. She and her team may also use crowd-sourced data from bike share companies or exercise apps like Strava to better understand how the population interacts with their outdoor spaces.

Understanding the demography ensures that her projects will be the right fit for the community she is serving.

How demography will guide the future of the profession

Landscape architects – as well as other professions tasked with urban development – face new challenges in the future. The South in general and North Carolina in particular are fast-growing, due in large part to individuals relocating from the Northeast and Midwest.

As metropolitan areas continue to swell, landscape architects will need to consider how to maintain green spaces in increasingly dense urban centers. Additionally, demands are increasing for better public transit, more walkways and greenspaces, and other public works works to support active living. Of course, these may be unique for different segments of the population. For example, younger adults might want more dog parks, while active seniors may focus more on walking trails and outdoor recreation.

“When designing in the public realm, it’s essential to hear first hand from the community as to what they want and need for improvements,” says Hatchell. “Demographic data is so useful to add to their story to get the broader picture. The data also shows if there are underrepresented segments of the community who aren’t being heard.  Equity and diversity are best served when demographic data is part of the equation.”

It is a fact that the face of our population is changing, as well as our natural environment. North Carolina is becoming older, more diverse, and increasingly urban, while we face new challenges with regards to  pollution, rising temperatures in cities, and decreasing natural land area.

Demographic data may not solve these issues, but it is a tool to drive future planning and design choices. It ensures that the project will serve the community of tomorrow, with the knowledge that it will likely look different than the community today.

Thank you to Susan Hatchell for sharing your work with Carolina Demography.

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