Restructuring the Bull City: Urban Form Change in Downtown Durham, North Carolina from 1914 to 2020

By Rahi Patel


The City of Durham is growing. Over the last decade, Durham’s population grew by 22%.[1] With the continued migration of technology firms, biotech startups, and other businesses to the Triangle, Durham is poised to continue its rapid growth for the foreseeable future. As cities like Durham continue growing, governments and citizens will have to contend with changes to the built environment. An analysis of Durham’s historic urban form can help us understand why Durham looks the way it does today and what lessons we should take about the creation, destruction, and revitalization of our cities as we move forward.

Measuring Urban Form

For my senior honors thesis, I sought to measure Durham’s urban form from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. I used four metrics of urban form for this analysis: direct building frontage, block area, block frontage, and off-street parking. Direct building frontage is the percentage of a block’s perimeter that has buildings abutting the property line. More direct building frontage is desirable because it creates a stronger relationship between buildings and people walking on sidewalks compared to buildings set back from the sidewalk.

Figure 1: Direct building frontage measurement. Source: Rahi Patel

Smaller block sizes and greater amounts of street frontage are desirable because they increase the permeability of the urban fabric, making it easier for people outside vehicles to access destinations throughout downtown.

A limited amount of off-street parking is desirable because off-street parking tends to degrade the experience of street life, creating lots and parking structures that do not encourage people to linger. The space required by off-street parking also pushes homes, businesses, parks, and other destinations further away from each other, eliminating the churn of people that makes urban street life engaging.

Figure 2: Parking decks in downtown Durham, 2020. Source: Rahi Patel

To analyze the historic urban fabric, I used historic maps and satellite images imported into AutoCAD to recreate and measure the buildings, blocks, and streets of Durham throughout the 20th century.

How Durham’s Urban Fabric Changed

The results of the urban form analysis revealed a loss of cohesive, dense, permeable urban fabric from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. Most of the change occurred from the 1950s through the 1970s. Average block size increased by 45% between 1950 and 1972. Total street frontage decreased by 10%.

Figures 3 and 4: Building footprints and streets of downtown Durham, 1950 vs. 1972. Source: Rahi Patel

The total amount of land area used for off-street parking increased from just 5 acres in 1950 to 111 acres in 1972. Direct building frontage only decreased slightly, though maps of downtown Durham reveal swaths of building demolition in some areas of downtown.

Figure 5: Change in land area used for off-street parking in downtown Durham, 1914-2020. Source: Rahi Patel

Planning documents published between 1950 and 1972 point us to the causes of these large-scale changes in downtown Durham. The federal government funneled money to American cities to acquire, demolish, and redevelop areas considered to be “blighted” under a program known as urban renewal. In reality, urban renewal programs across the U.S. targeted communities of color for demolition and displacement. Black communities situated close to central business districts were specifically targeted because of their valuable proximity to downtown. Durham was no exception. The Durham Redevelopment Commission displaced 4,057 homes and 502 businesses in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Hayti during the period of urban renewal (not included in the study area but located just southeast of downtown Durham). Plans drawn up by graduate students from UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning in 1957 reveal the policy and design decisions that planners believed would help revitalize “blighted” areas. These included disconnected and hierarchical roads, separated land uses, building setbacks, and vast open spaces. In Hayti, little redevelopment followed the large-scale demolition of homes and businesses. Downtown also experienced demolition from urban renewal, and much of the destruction was not replaced with new development by 1972.

Figure 6: Existing and proposed land use maps for Hayti, 1957. Source: Durham City Planning Department

In addition to urban renewal, federal homeownership policies pushed planners to substantially restructure the form of downtown Durham’s streets and public spaces. Federal mortgage subsidies allowed white city dwellers to purchase homes in the suburbs. The spread of indoor shopping malls further enticed white suburbanites to avoid downtown businesses. This development pattern impacted Durham’s finances, because significant levels of tax revenue was generated by commercial buildings in downtown. City planners responded to the pressures of suburbanization by attempting to lure suburban shoppers back to downtown businesses. Planners proposed street widenings and the creation of a loop road through downtown to increase ease of access for suburban shoppers. Planners were also concerned with providing large amounts of clearly visible parking throughout downtown to assure suburban shoppers that they would have a place to park. However, it is not clear that any amount of road widening, parking construction, or urban renewal demolition could have competed with the larger political and economic forces that threatened downtown Durham’s future.

Tomorrow’s Bull City

Looking ahead, we have much to learn from the restructuring of Durham’s downtown. The decisions made by a complex web of planners, public officials, and private interests still shape the downtown we know today. 88 acres of downtown Durham’s land area is still devoted to off-street parking (decreased from 111 acres in 1972). A study conducted in 2018 found an excess parking capacity of over 5,000 parking spaces throughout downtown. The Downtown Loop cuts through Durham, creating a hazardous and uninviting environment for people outside vehicles. The Durham Freeway funnels pollution and noise through downtown and Hayti.

Figure 7: A pedestrian crosses Roxbury St. in downtown Durham, 2020. Source: Rahi Patel
Figure 8: Five lanes of one-way traffic converge on Roxbury St. in downtown Durham, 2020. Source: Rahi Patel

As the Bull City’s growth continues to provide new opportunities for redevelopment, Durham residents, city officials, and other stakeholders must decide how, where, when, and for whom that redevelopment will occur. The questions of urban form ultimately influence the daily lives of all a city’s residents: where we live, work, shop, play, relax, and celebrate. Hopefully, an understanding of how we got here will give us the tools to continue moving forward.

[1] Durham City-County Planning Department.

Rahi Patel graduated from UNC in May 2021 with majors in Urban Planning (through the Interdisciplinary Studies Program) and Economics. He has interests in sustainable transportation, urban design, and architecture. He is currently a planner in the Transportation Planning Division at the U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

Edited by Eve Lettau

Featured image: Ground Diagram of Downtown Durham, 1950. Courtesy of Rahi Patel.