In June 2006, USA Today ran an article comparing Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville. The story was so pro-Nashville that some folks in all three cities cynically wondered whether Music City civic boosters had paid the reporter to pen it.
The thrust of the article was that Nashville was booming and Atlanta had stalled.
No question, a less-than-savvy reader might have misguidedly concluded that Nashville was poised to overtake Atlanta as the New South’s No. 1 city. Overlooked in the article, however, was a sub-plot that is much more realistic: Charlotte and Nashville are competing to be the New South’s No. 2 city.
Four years later, that competition continues, with the “winner” — and it might be years, if ever, before either Charlotte or Nashville leaves the other in the dust — to reap the national prestige and accolades Atlanta has garnered the past 30 years.
Within what have long been considered the states of the Old South (Florida and Texas excluded for various reasons), Atlanta is the dominant top dog, a muscle-ripped 150-pound Rottweiler that no other Old South city would consider challenging for supremacy. Charlotte and Nashville are like mid-sized pit bulls, scrappy and hungry enough to evolve in the next, say, 20 years as major players on the national urban landscape.
Ask officials in the mayors’ offices, chambers of commerce and downtown associations in either Charlotte or Nashville and they might tell you — politely and discreetly, of course — that the two cities are in a long-distance boxing match of sorts. And both want to emerge from the bout as the undisputed “next Atlanta” of the Upper South.
No doubt, Old South powers Birmingham, Louisville, Memphis and Richmond all can flex some muscle and might. All four, compared with Charlotte and Nashville, showcase vastly better collections of vintage architecture and charming mixed-use neighborhoods. Likewise, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill is a worthy player, with its Research Triangle and trio of powerhouse universities (Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State).
But there is something about both Charlotte and Nashville that catches the attention of many place-making experts. Ask them which Southeastern city is the next Atlanta and you won’t hear, say, Richmond, Va. Call it attitude, “good demographics,” image, whatever. The Queen City and Music City have got it going on.
So which is the better city? And which has the brighter future? How might one judge that, and — ultimately — why?
For this article and its hypothetical approach, The City Paper decided not to compare Nashville to Florida cities or New Orleans — the former because the Sunshine State is a different demographic and cultural animal; the latter because of its uniqueness, population loss and uncertain future.
We decided to elicit opinions from national experts — people who know both Nashville and Charlotte but have no bias toward either. To supplement the views of the pros, the paper reviewed more than 25 “best of” city rankings. Lastly — and to eliminate opportunities for clichéd or biased boosterism — we opted not to interview political powerbrokers and civic leaders in either city.
As to criteria, we focused on four elements: education, progressive planning and development, employment opportunities (economy), and perception/branding. The national experts hammered on these elements in their comments (more so than, say, climate, crime and cultural offerings). Combined, these characteristics appear to determine the current status and future prospects of any American city.
Though an exercise seemingly no more objective than fans of heavy metal and gangsta rap debating the social merits of either musical genre, it was a fun exercise nonetheless. What we found is fascinating.
In 1970, Charlotte and Nashville were like many Sun Belt cities, poised to compete regionally for jobs, people and prestige. Forty years later, both cities have exploded as their metro areas race toward 2 million residents each. In other words, they are primed.
No doubt, positive public perception leans in Nashville’s favor, according to the experts interviewed for this story.
“Nashville has a much better [national] perception than Memphis, Louisville, Knoxville, St. Louis, etc.,” said David Savageau, editor of place-making bible Places Rated Almanac. “Charlotte hasn’t any better perception than Raleigh-Durham or Birmingham — other Atlanta wannabes.”
Crediting Charlotte for its many attributes, the Washington, D.C.-based Savageau nonetheless noted: “Ordinary citizens of Boston, where I lived for 24 years, have no perception of Charlotte, other than it’s where the great Celtic Cedric ‘Cornbread’ Maxwell played [at UNC Charlotte].”
Nashville has no NBA equivalent of Cornbread, but just about half the planet has a focused perception of Music City. Mention Nashville to the average American and you can wager your life savings on a response that includes “country music.” In fact, Nashville is one of maybe only 10 U.S. cities that has an internationally recognized brand. And that’s huge. Of course, that brand also carries negative stereotypes — think “shoelessness” and Hee Haw — that have saddled the city for years.
In contrast, utter “Charlotte” to a hog farmer in Iowa or a hipster in Brooklyn and, after some pause, expect a puzzled look. Or at best, a vaguely offered Isn’t that a banking city? Many might be hard-pressed to differentiate Charlotte and Charleston.
In a general sense, there’s no clear indication that having a brand renders one city superior to another. Most folks would prefer relatively brand-less yet wonderfully livable Portland to the hyper-defined and ghastly Las Vegas — or so we would hope for the sake of this great nation’s populace.
Maybe Charlotte’s brand is that of a “City on the Move.” Eye-catching skyscrapers are ubiquitous; the sleek light-rail system LYNX shuttles Charlotteans through the heart of the city; and newish mixed-used buildings abound. Clearly, the glistening Charlotte — much more so than Nashville — looks and functions like Atlanta.
“Since 2000, Charlotte has increasingly been a poster child as an example of the dynamic new South,” said Portland, Ore.-based Bert Sperling, the man behind Sperling’s Best Places, who is teaming with Brad Edmondson to compile the AARP Guide to Great Places, which is expected to debut on aarp.org later this year. “It’s begun to lose its mojo, but generally Charlotte [more than Nashville] has been getting all the attention lately since it’s the ‘bright new shiny thing.’ ”
And people, particularly city leaders, love such bright new shiny things. Possessed of vision and egos, such powerbrokers want to claim superiority of their city to another, often believing it can assist them in luring corporate relocations and young creative types, while simultaneously convincing their skeptical citizenry that, say, pro sports or a major convention center are needed.
“Clearly, cities compete against one another," said Carol Coletta, president/CEO for Chicago-based CEOs for Cities.
Coletta declined to compare Charlotte and Nashville directly, opting instead to focus on broad-based themes.
“Being a capital city clearly helps [Nashville] because it creates a well-paying, stable growth industry,” she said. “Clearly, cities with strong transit (Charlotte) have done [or will do] a better job of holding on to vibrant centers and neighborhoods and have positioned themselves well in a time of permanently high gas prices.”
So, is it preferable, for example, for a city to be a state capital (Nashville) or to deliver a vibrant, mixed-use, transit-efficient central core (Charlotte)?
Nashville has lots of cool stuff that Charlotte, by circumstances, simply can’t match: a prestigious and historic collection of colleges anchored by the world-class Vanderbilt University; a river with unlimited development potential; and a “popular culture brand” represented by both music and numerous celebrity residents. Perhaps most significant, Nashville is a state capital and government hub.
Charlotte counters with a mini-New York City downtown (locals call it Uptown) that makes downtown Nashville look and feel small-time. Uptown is composed of four wards and bustles with shops, restaurants, offices and residential space. The Queen City also boasts a top-notch (at least by Southern city standards) mass transportation system with bus-rapid transit and the LYNX; proximity to the Appalachian Mountains and Atlantic Ocean; and status as the dominant city in the country’s 10th most populated state.
All this might mean nothing to Joel Garreau, author of Edge City: Life of the New Frontier. Garreau looks at cities in very specific ways. He said, for example, that it’s helpful for cities to have vibrant mixed-used districts located outside their downtown cores. He cited Nashville’s Hillsboro Village as a prime example.
“I’m not sure Charlotte has [that type district on that level],” said Garreau, who serves as Lincoln professor of law, culture and values at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
Charlotteans likely would challenge Garreau by citing Elizabeth, NoDa, Plaza Midwood and South End/Dilworth (the latter being the rough equivalent of Nashville’s Midtown).
Challenging economic times have affected both Charlotte and Nashville.
“Right now, banking is tanking, so that’s a big problem for Charlotte,” Sperling said. “Today, cities are treading water, trying to stay afloat until this current economic crisis has run its course and growth returns. Charlotte, which had many plans in the works for continued growth, is facing more challenges than Nashville, which wasn’t subjected to the same pressures over the last decade.”
But it’s not all gloom and doom for the Queen City. In its 2009 Best Cities for Job Growth listing, NewGeography.com ranked Charlotte No. 18 and Nashville No. 25.
Ranally City Rating System places both Charlotte and Nashville in the 2-AA “major regional business centers” category with 46 other cities, including Birmingham, Columbia, S.C.; Jackson, Miss.; Knoxville, Lexington, Louisville, Memphis, Raleigh and Richmond. By contrast, Atlanta is in the 1-AA (third tier) “major national business centers” category.
Six cities that many Nashville leaders consider “peer cities” (and over which those leaders sometimes claim Music City’s superiority) are classified as 1-A “other national business centers.” These are Columbus, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
The Kiplinger’s Personal Finance 2010 list of Best Cities for the Next Decade has Nashville slightly superior to Charlotte in terms of cost of living index and percentage of creative class in the workforce, with Charlotte leading somewhat for income growth percentage and median annual income.
On the education theme, in 2009 and according to American FactFinder, Charlotte Mecklenberg Schools won the NAEP Awards (the Nation’s Report Card for urban school systems) with top honors among 18 city systems for fourth-grade math and second place among eighth-graders. Per Sperling and as of 2009, the Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord metro area public schools spend about $4,900 per student. The average school expenditure in the U.S. was approximately $6,000.
In contrast, Metro Nashville Public Schools has struggled so much that the state has been close to taking control of the system. Both cities have strong private primary school communities. Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro metro-area public schools spent about $4,200 per student.
On the collegiate level, Nashville offers a prestigious and well-established group of four-year institutions (Aquinas, Belmont, Fisk, Lipscomb, Tennessee State, Trevecca and Vanderbilt); two medical colleges (VUMC and Meharry); Watkins College of Art & Design; Nashville School of Law; and Nashville State Community College.
Experts stress that Charlotte trails significantly in this area. The city’s largest university, the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, has operated from its present location only since 1961 and is not nationally recognized. Other notables include four-year schools Davidson, Johnson C. Smith and Queens; culinary power Johnson & Wales; Charlotte School of Law; a Wake Forest satellite campus; and the massive Central Piedmont Community College.
Sperling said higher education is part of Nashville’s wealth and bright future. “Charlotte will need to develop world-class educational institutions to take it to the next level,” he said.
“Colleges and universities provide a rich incubator for new businesses and are a valuable resource for private industry,” he added. “One can’t establish a leading college or university as quickly as a commercial development, sports complex or medical center.”
John Norquist, president of the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism, in contrast, sees neither city with a higher-ed advantage.
“Nashville has university prestige, especially Vanderbilt,” he said. “Yet Charlotte draws grads from the NC Triangle. I see it as a wash.”
On the topic of health care, Edmondson said Nashville is “way ahead” of Charlotte in the number of physicians and hospitals per capita.
“Yet Nashville is much worse than Charlotte in the death rate from heart disease and cancer, and it has a much higher rate of the population with diabetes,” added Edmondson, former editor of American Demographics magazine and co-founder of ePodunk.com, a guide to 44,000 U.S. places. “Overall, Charlotte scores slightly better than Nashville on all health measures, since Nashville’s edge in health resources is outweighed by the worse health of its residents.”
Though both cities are in the obesity-plagued South, Nashville (18th) tops Charlotte (23rd) in a recently released, comprehensive Gallup-Healthways study based on more than 350,000 surveys completed in 2009. (Healthways, of course, is based in Nashville.)
Various sources, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Report statistics, show Nashville has suffered much more violent crime than Charlotte during the past few years.
In terms of architecture, planning, development and construction, the experts agree that Charlotte — after some stumbles — has zoomed past Nashville within the past 20 years.
Charlotte has about 25 skyscrapers of 250 feet or more. Nashville offers 17. A simple one-hour session with Google Street View will reveal that Charlotte’s urban core is filled with far more mixed-use buildings and attractive and functional streetscape infrastructure than Nashville’s.
“Charlotte tried too hard to modernize in the ’70s and ’80s, and did a lot of damage to its old neighborhoods, especially downtown,” Norquist said. “Now Charlotte is repairing some of the damage and is moving faster [than Nashville with] light rail and more street connectivity.”
Charlotte planners have incorporated a “complete streets” program, in which pedestrians, bikers, joggers and motorists of varying ages and physical abilities are able to safely and effectively navigate the city’s road network.
And more big buildings will likely loom as Charlotte continues to boom. The city has more people and is growing considerably faster than Nashville. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Charlotte’s 2009 metropolitan statistical area population stood at 1.75 million. Since 2000, it has experienced a
population growth of almost 19 percent.
In contrast, 2009 Census numbers had the Nashville MSA population at 1.59 million. Since 2000, the city has seen a population growth of almost 11 percent.
Still, Norquist said neither city offers a nationally significant profile with designers, who see excessive sprawl and bland buildings in both.
“Transit lovers cheer for Charlotte’s embrace of light rail,” Norquist said. “Coding experts like Nashville’s codes and permitting procedures.”
Related to environmental sustainability and growth, the Natural Resources Defense Council ranks Charlotte No. 38 of the nation’s 75 “smartest” large cities (populations of 250,000 or more). Nashville is ranked 46th.
Similarly, sustainlane.com — using indicators that assess “which cities’ public transit, renewable energy, local food and development approaches are most likely to either limit or intensify the negative economic and environmental impacts of fossil fuel dependence” — placed Charlotte 35th and Nashville 40th in a 2008 ranking.
No question, Charlotte tops Nashville in the manmade environment category. But urban Nashville, which contains a much more substantial and traditional street grid than Charlotte — potentially helpful for future connectivity and efficient development — may have hope on this front.
“In the current financial crisis, cities that have been exposed to extreme growth and development pressures are ones that are suffering the most,” Sperling said. “Nashville, seemingly left behind during the financial madness of the ’00 decade, may come out the winner as Charlotte looks for the ‘reset’ button to regain its momentum after an unsustainable growth spurt.”
City rankings flood the Internet, and they’re all debatable.
Charlotte tops Nashville in number of restaurants, median annual family income, primary school test scores and mild winters, according to Money.com. Nashville offers slightly cheaper auto insurance rates, more affordable homes on average and cooler summers.
Nashville ranks No. 7 (of 32 cities) for “America’s Best Cities for Singles,” per Travel + Leisure magazine. Charlotte is unranked.
Parenting.com’s “Best Cities for Families 2010” places Charlotte at No. 36 and Nashville at 65.
“Nashville is definitely ‘better’ if you’re crazy about bluegrass music,” Edmondson said. “Charlotte is ‘better’ if you love hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Charlotte has an edge in the quality of its urban planning, but Nashville is livelier at night.”
Both have growing immigrant populations (with Charlotte a bit more diverse overall). Charlotte-Douglas International Airport is the ninth-busiest in the world, as measured by traffic, and serves many countries and continents. Nashville counters with visitors from across the globe.
“Charlotte is much more an ‘international gateway’ — where you can come from and go to cities abroad — than Nashville,” Savageau said.
“Charlotte has Lufthansa and the Euro connect,” he said. “[Nashville] can’t catch Charlotte in the airport competition. Nashville needs high-speed rail to Atlanta. Get closer to Atlanta [and] Nashville wins.”
Demographically, Charlotte is “younger, richer and better-educated” than Nashville, Savageau said. Conversely, Nashville is more “authentic” and offers a cool creative class and fascinating history, which bolsters Music City’s captivating image, he added.
“I know Canadians like Nashville, but they can’t tell you where Charlotte is,” Savageau said. “Of course, Americans can’t tell you where Calgary is.”
Norquist said that when the economy improves, Charlotte is more likely to grow — at a quick pace.
“Nashville is relatively comfortable and secure with its huge state government payroll,” he said. “Charlotte will take risks that Nashville doesn’t need to take.”
Taking those risks could catapult Charlotte past Nashville in the 21st century race for greatness. Such a strategy could also backfire, allowing Music City to establish a commanding lead in a two-metropolis battle that will continue to stir debate.
So which city delivers the better national perception? Which has more effectively taken that perception, along with other elements, and molded itself into a present-day Southeastern metropolis with superior long-term potential?
“Personally, I don’t think it’s meaningful to say that one of these cities is ‘better’ than the other, because that depends on an individual’s taste,” Edmondson said.