Photo of Chatham Mill in Elkin NC

Introducing #Elkin2050 – The Urban Core District

Introducing Elkin and #Elkin2050

What is #Elkin2050?  It’s the name (and hashtag) I’ve chosen to identify a dynamic “urban core district” development plan (and planning process) for my hometown Elkin as we move closer to the year 2050.  Why 2050?  That’s when population scientists have projected we’ll hit nearly 10 billion people in the global population.1

Where is Elkin? Elkin is in North Carolina in the United States of America, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains – just below the escarpment.

Map of the United States of America highlighting Elkin, North Carolina
Map of the United States of America highlighting the location of Elkin, North Carolina
Map of North Carolina highlighting the Town of Elkin
Map of North Carolina highlighting the location of the Town of Elkin

Understanding The Urban Core District

Chatham Manufacturing was a textile company started in Elkin, North Carolina in the 1860s as Elkin Mills.2  Between Chatham and the Vaughan-Bassett furniture3 factory, I’ve identified several adjacent sections of property in Elkin that could be included in our local plan for an Urban Core District.

Conceptual Area Map of Elkin Urban Core District
Conceptual Area Map of Elkin Urban Core District

The Urban Core District (UCD) concept is focused on human population density, with a relatively small population of humans living in a high density community: a few thousand people, perhaps more.  Elkin’s UCD can exist within easy walking and bicycling distance of the current Historic Downtown Elkin district.  The Elkin UCD is conceptualized as an ecologically sustainable, permaculture-focused, locally-oriented, mixed-use district.  This UCD will be developed and maintained as one integral node in regional, national, and global transportation and communication networks, espousing an alternative non-corporate, local-first, sharing-based circular economy with a future-focused, dynamic appreciation of and flexibility for ever changing manifestations of industry.

Hopefully all UCDs in all areas of the world will be conceptualized in this fashion.

Potential Components of a UCD

UCDs are, of course, intended to be mixed use, with a variety of potential components, including high-rise residential structures, open natural recreation spaces, dynamic commercial areas and hackerspaces4 or makerspaces, local food access systems (new concepts of grocery shopping through subscription-driven CSA-style relationships with local farmers and foodmakers) — and a shared economy system that includes things such as tool banks and workspaces, collaborative and individual co-working spaces, bike shares, car shares, etc.

The Elkin UCD could be designed in way that connects into the existing Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation (PART)5 system, as well as an expansion of local efforts to increase public transit systems, such as the transition of Bridge Street to a single lane of car traffic in each direction, adding large bike lanes each direction, and a set of dedicated bus rapid transit (BRT)6 or light rail lines up and down the middle. This transit connection could also run from Bridge Street down Hwy 268 to the eastern edge of the UCD. The PART-connected regional transit hub on this eastern area of the Elkin UCD could also serve as a pickup and dropoff for a dedicated airport shuttle service linking the Elkin UCD (and perhaps several other UCDs) to the Greensboro and Charlotte airports.

There’s no reason not to plan for connections from this regional transit hub to other light rail and commuter rail systems currently planned for other regions nearby, as well as Amtrak and any future high-speed (perhaps maglev7) train networks that should be built across the United States. And why stop there? Let’s plan for the possible construction of a Hyperloop8 network and commercial spaceports!

In fact, at the north end of Bridge Street, this BRT or light rail system could connect into a regional transit hub housed in another UCD — let’s call it the North Elkin UCD — at the site of the shopping center that was anchored by the original Wal-Mart built in Elkin.

Conceptual Area Map of North Elkin Urban Core District
Conceptual Area Map of North Elkin Urban Core District
Map showing current travel pathways between proposed Elkin and North Elkin Urban Core Districts
Map showing current travel pathways between proposed Elkin and North Elkin Urban Core Districts

And, on the subject of transit and mobility, both the Elkin UCD and North Elkin UCD are within walking distance of the local trail system9 currently under development in the Elkin Valley.  This trail system connects into the NC Mountains-to-Sea Trail10 — and thus the Appalachian Trail11.  This means residents and visitors in both of these UCDs could walk from the front door to Cape Hatteras or Clingman’s Dome and Springer Mountain in Georgia or Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Why Is #Elkin2050 Important?


Knowing that the global population is projected to top out near 10 billion humans in 2050, let’s plan for the high likelihood that a substantial portion of these people are going to end up on this continent, whether we like it or not. Let’s plan on the premise that we should be ready to provide equitable access to food and shelter for this substantially increased population. There are several excellent resources and organizations focused on human population trends.121314

Ecology Trumps Economy

As we consider the future of global and local economies, however they may transform over time, we must always remember that these economies manifest within the boundaries and limitations of the ecosystem of this planet and its surrounding atmosphere.  We are finite beings on a finite planet; we invented and perpetuate these economies in a finite manner.

As has been stated many times over, there are limits to growth.15161718

At least one organization is working toward economic prosperity19 without growth.20

Perhaps William Catton, in the parlance of his time, stated it best in his seminal work Overshoot21:

“Ecology is concerned with far more fundamental ideas than food fads, returnable bottles, or even the banning of aerosols. It is dangerous and unnecessary to remain preoccupied with the peripheral, the particular, or the superficial. The basic principles of this science are so important to man’s effort to comprehend what is happening to him and to his hopes that they need to be made a part of everyone’s common knowledge.” (p. 97)

Energy Transitions

Predictions of Peak Oil are quite varied22, but, we have statistical confidence that the tipping point will occur, regardless of when, and it will be relatively soon (i.e., before most people alive today are dead) — and many predictive models indicate that it has already occurred.  Regardless, we need to stay ahead of the curve and realize that all extraction — not production, it’s never production, it’s always extraction — of any carbon-based energy source will come to an end sooner rather than later.

Actually: considering energy and economies, Vaclav Smil proposes that energy is the only true currency.23

The good news is, we’ve had the Transition Network24 growing for some time now, also known as the Transition Town movement. If, like Elkin, you’re currently located in the United States, we’ve got Transition United States on our side.25

Thanks to the work of Arjun Makhijani and the rest of the team at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, we have a roadmap for carbon-free and nuclear-free energy policy in the United States of America.26

Understanding Boundaries

As we continue to consider the future of small towns as networked within the context of regions, states, and nations, we must consider the nature of boundaries.  Throughout recorded history, we’ve been drawing boundaries on maps and in our minds across the spectrum of arbitrariness.

If we take ourselves out of the equation of boundary formation, what are boundaries that exist beyond our control?  One set of boundaries beyond our control are those created by the flow of water across the surface of the planet: watersheds.272829

Elkin lies within the Yadkin-Pee Dee River Basin3031, and we are lucky to have local and regional organizations3233 working diligently to protect the watersheds we inhabit.

Speaking of boundaries, perhaps the United States of America might actually benefit from dissolution; it could divide into smaller factions based on identified patterns of culture.3435 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Klaus Schwab,36 Founder of the World Economic Forum, has introduced us to the fourth industrial revolution, fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds.37  From the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in 2016:

“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society.”38

In The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Schwab provides numerous lucid observations based on his understanding of trends evident in what seem to be enormous datasets available to the WEF, including these two following points I think are quite relevant an immediate #Elkin2050 perspective of industry:

“My sense is that successful organizations will increasingly shift from hierarchical structures to more networked and collaborative models.  Motivation will be increasingly intrinsic, driven by the collaborative desire of employees and management for mastery, independence and meaning.  This suggests that business will become increasingly organized around distributed teams, remote workers and dynamic collectives, with a continuous exchange of data and insights about the things or tasks being worked on.” (p. 60)

“…on the basis of raised awareness and shared narratives, we must embark on restructuring our economic, social and political systems to take full advantage of the opportunities presented.  It is clear that our current decision-making systems and dominant models of wealth creation were designed and incrementally evolved throughout the first three industrial revolutions.  These systems, however, are no longer equipped to deliver on the current, and more to the point, the future generational need in the context of the fourth industrial revolution.  This will clearly require systemic innovation and not small-scale adjustments or reforms at the margin.” (p. 113)

Schwab concludes his text with an articulation of twenty-one deep shifts in industry expected to occur in the near future (previously published in PDF form).39  I’ll elaborate upon many of these shifts as relevant to #Elkin2050 in future posts.

For the convenience of folks that live in proximity to the Elkin Public Library, I’ve ordered an extra copy of Schwab’s Fourth Industrial Revolution book to donate to its collection, which means the book will also be (as of this post) a second copy available through the NC Cardinal interlibrary loan system40, for anyone else living anywhere in North Carolina.  Please feel free to check it out.

Systems Wisdom

What is systems wisdom?  It’s a set of principles to help us understand how we can behave collectively and individually in the face of uncertainty and complexity, especially when trying to solve problems.

Dana Meadows — who also was one of the authors of Limits to Growth — came up with the phrase, and her book Thinking In Systems41 is literally a primer on the subject.  Meadows identifies several systems wisdoms that she collected over her years of working with systems models and conversing with other systems modelers.  She summarizes these systems wisdoms:

“These are the take home lessons, the concepts and practices that penetrate the discipline of systems so deeply that one begins, however imperfectly, to practice them not just in one’s profession, but in all of life.  They are the behavioral consequences of a worldview based on the ideas of feedback, nonlinearity, and systems responsible for their own behavior.” (p. 170)

There are fifteen systems wisdoms, which I will explore in detail in future articles.  Two that I think are most important and prescient in the context of this current article are: making feedback policies for feedback systems expanding time horizons.

Make Feedback Policies for Feedback Systems

Feedback policies are designed as learning policies: policies which can adapt based on feedback exhibited by the system for which the policy was written.

When he was President of the United States, Jimmy Carter attempted to pass a gasoline tax proportional to the fraction of oil consumption based on imported oil.  Essentially, this tax would rise as import percentage of consumption would rise, eventually leading to gas prices that would force alternatives and thus reduce the amount of oil imported from elsewhere.  This is one example of a feedback policy for a feedback system.

Meadows explains this concept of feedback policies quite clearly:

“It’s easier, more effective, and usually much cheaper to design policies that change depending on the state of the system.  Especially where there are great uncertainties, the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops — loops that alter, correct, and expand loops.  These are policies that design learning into the management process.” (p. 177)

Expand Time Horizons

The further you expand your time horizon (both forward and backward across time), the more you increase your capacity for adaptivity.  This helps us to consider the longer-term consequences of our actions.

Meadows uses an excellent metaphor to explain the importance (and complexity) of this systems wisdom:

“When you’re walking along a tricky, curving, unknown, surprising, obstacle strewn path, you’d be a fool to keep your head down and look just at the next step in front of you.  You’d be equally a fool just to peer far ahead and never notice what’s immediately under your feet.  You need to be watching both the short and the long term — the whole system.” (p. 183)

This is a key point to understanding the nature of expanding our time horizons: we should be paying close attention to both the short and the long term potential effects of our actions.

Design, Planning, and Resources

As we consider the #Elkin2050 issues we face from the standpoint of problem solving, we need to consider strategies for designing and planning those solutions.  One set of strategies involves permaculture, sustainable urbanism, and human-centered design.  Based on the ecological and boundaries arguments made above, we should definitely consider the importance of permaculture and sustainable urbanism as we plan for the future, with or without including UCDs in the solution.


What is permaculture?

“Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered on simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.” 42

David Holmgren, one of the two originators of the permaculture concept, has published the definitive textbook on the subject.43  As an alternative, Permaculture Principles is a good place to start before you dive into the book. 44  There are also several free online permaculture resources at the Permaculture Institute.45

Sustainable Urbanism

Sustainable urbanism, is basically, the application of sustainability to development and maintenance of cities — or in this case, UCDs.  The defining elements of sustainable urbanism are: compactness (density), biophilia, sustainable corridors, high performance buildings, and high performance infrastructure.46  Douglas Farr has written what is considered by many to be the definitive text on the subject.47  UN-HABITAT provides a three-volume guidebook series on Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Development Planning, available to download for free in PDF format.48

Human-Centered Design (IDEO)

It would be wise for us to take a human-centered design approach to be inclusive to what needs current and future residents of Elkin, the potential UCDs (and networked locations) may have.  By defining the target audience in terms of inclusion and diversity, we can then invite them to the planning table in a transparent fashion that should be quite motivating.  Essentially, we can use the design process as one mechanism to motivate young people (with and without families already) to move to Elkin and literally help shape the future of this region.

IDEO’s Design Kit offers a variety of free resources for those interested in learning how to do human-centered design, as well as an online course in partnership with Acumen. 49

We can conduct this collaborative, inclusive design process in a way that embraces the ideals of population, ecology, energy, boundaries, industry, and systems wisdom.  We can design for innovation.

Innovation: Subverting The Dominant Paradigm Of Inhibitive Traditions


What is a paradigm?  Essentially, a paradigm is a deeply entrenched thought pattern.  A paradigm is a worldview:50

“Another use of the word paradigm is in the sense of ‘worldview’. For example, in social science, the term is used to describe the set of experiences, beliefs and values that affect the way an individual perceives reality and responds to that perception. Social scientists have adopted the Kuhnian phrase ‘paradigm shift’ to denote a change in how a given society goes about organizing and understanding reality. A ‘dominant paradigm’ refers to the values, or system of thought, in a society that are most standard and widely held at a given time. Dominant paradigms are shaped both by the community’s cultural background and by the context of the historical moment.” 

In Thinking in Systems, Meadows discusses paradigms as leverage points in systems:

“Paradigms are the sources of systems.  From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, come systems goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows, and everything else about systems….So how do you change paradigms?…You keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm.  You keep speaking and acting, loudly and with assurance, from the new one.  You insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power.  You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather, you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.” (pp. 163-164)


Another way to conceptualize paradigms is as tradition.

Tradition can be good, and tradition can be bad.  For example, traditions associated with seasonal preparations for planting, growing, harvesting, storing, and consuming local foods are good.  Traditions associated with and promoting atrocities such as war, bigotry, misogyny, anthropocentrism, and pollution are bad.

What is tradition?  Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition:51

1. a :  an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)
1. b :  a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable

2. the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction

3. cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions

4. characteristic manner, method, or style <in the best liberal tradition>

Moving Forward

Based on established paradigms and traditions here and elsewhere, one of the biggest challenges to progress we face is inertia.  Overcoming inertia means we get the ball rolling, and an even bigger challenge we have to take into consideration is that, once we get the ball rolling, we need to manage (as best as we can) the potential paths the ball may take, since we can’t really control it.  That’s why designing with expanded time horizons in mind is so important.

We can entice young people and families from across the United States (and, frankly, across the world) to move here and work together to invest time, money, energy in this new blank slate we’re establishing in post-industrial #Elkin2050.

We can build new traditions — especially along the lines of cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions — based on the foundations I’ve outlined above.

We can serve as a model for all other post-industrial small towns in the United States of America.

What Comes Next?

For many of the elements I’ve initially described above — along with many more ideas that come up as the discussion continues — I’ll write follow-up articles that present data and real potential scenarios.  I welcome others to join me in writing these articles as well.

Additionally, here are some exemplar questions to fuel some of these follow-up articles, as well as the discussions I hope we can start and maintain as we move toward #Elkin2050:

What is the capacity of the separate sewer system licensed for the Chatham campus?

What is the total acreage of the combined properties in each of the two proposed UCDs?

What is the square footage and infrastructure capacity for buildings that will be salvageable on these campuses?

Geographically, how far out should we collaborate with others on planning for this local area?

Let’s focus on regional networks for connectivity amongst these two and other potential UCD nodes.

Let’s start and continue the discussion in a transparent and positive fashion.  Please comment on this post, and elsewhere on social media using the #Elkin2050 hashtag.

  1. World Population Growth
  2. Wikipedia: Chatham Manufacturing
  3. Vaughan-Bassett Furniture website
  5. Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation (PART)
  9. Elkin Valley Trails Association
  10. Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail
  11. Appalachian Trail Conservancy
  12. The World Population Project
  13. Population Matters
  14. Population Institute
  15. The Limits To Growth
  16. Smithsonian: Looking Back On The Limits To Growth
  17. Limits To Growth: The 30-Year Update
  18. The Guardian: Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we’re nearing collapse
  19. Prosperity Without Growth
  20. Post Growth Institute
  21. Overshoot
  22. Peak Oil predictions
  23. Energy and Civilization: A History
  24. Transition Network
  25. Transition United States: Transition 101
  26. Carbon Free Nuclear Free
  27. What is a watershed? 
  28. USGS Watershed Boundary Dataset
  29. The Interactive Watershed Map
  30. Yadkin-Pee Dee River Basin (Watershed)
  31. USGS Yadkin-Pee Dee 
  32. Watershed now (Elkin, NC) 
  33. Yadkin Riverkeeper 
  34. American Nations 
  35. Business Insider: The 11 Nations of the United States 
  36. Klaus Schwab
  37. The Fourth Industrial Revolution 
  38. The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond 
  39. Deep Shift: Technology Tipping Points and Societal Impact 
  40. NC Cardinal 
  41. Thinking In Systems 
  42. Permaculture 
  43. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability 
  44. Permaculture Principles 
  45. Permaculture Institute 
  46. Sustainable Urbanism 
  47. Sustainable Urbanism 
  48. Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Development Planning: A guide for Municipalities 
  49. HCD for Social Innovation 
  50. Paradigm 
  51. Tradition, defined 

2 thoughts on “Introducing #Elkin2050 – The Urban Core District”

  1. The concepts presented are intriguing. Some of it reminds me of books I read to prepare for cutting edge futurist concepts and theoretical constructs for NCGS units.

    1. Susan, I’d be interested to know some of those titles and authors, if you can point me in the right direction, thanks!

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