Does Raleigh have an identity crisis, or a clear vision for its future?


Catching up with my friend Nick yesterday (who, as it happens, is also known as “the Skywalker of the #nonprofit South.” Geeks are the coolest do-gooders.), we got to talking about our fair city of Raleigh and its future. Cities traditionally develop an identity, a brand, a culture known throughout the country. New York City is where folks go to reach for big shiny dreams. New Orleans has been a renowned hub of culture and music.

I recently heard Raleigh personified as a youthful ’19-year old or 20-something’ – a city exploring its options, figuring out who it is, and who it wants to be when it grows up.

So what does Raleigh want to be when it grows up? How do Raleigh-ites think of Raleigh, and what do people outside the city and outside North Carolina think of us? Is Raleigh the: City of Innovation?  City for a creative class? City for startups and budding technology? For green spaces?

Raleigh skyline downtown Innovate Raleigh

This is not, of course, the first time such a question has been asked. 

It’s this question about Raleigh’s identity, in fact, that drives the creation of events and discussion forums like Innovate Raleigh. Despite the dialogue, however, it can feel challenging for the singular individual to understand what being a city of (insert identifier here) would mean for them. And with that lack of vision comes obstacles to accomplishing real change or progress for Raleigh.

That’s what Nick pointed out, citing a recent chat with another nonprofit rockstar friend of his. Sarah (this nonprofit rockstar friend) theorized that the problem is two-fold, that Raleigh can’t make true progress until:

a) The city has a clear vision of what it actually looks like – physically, practically, day-to-day – when you incorporate proposed changes (examples: implementation or improvements to mass transit, sustainability practices, or schools), and

b) The city and citizens at the forefront of this dialogue do a better job of relating the everyday meaning of this vision and these changes to the individual.

In the nonprofit realm, we are instructed to create our cause’s vision statement based on the question: What will the world look like if you’ve succeeded?

To figure out and successfully shape Raleigh’s identity, individuals – many of whom haven’t spoken up yet – must ponder what Raleigh will look like if it succeeds in becoming what we want it to be. Individuals can help the dialogue shift from beyond the macro level – Raleigh is a “City of ______” – to the more minute, detailed, but extremely important micro level:

  • “I wish there were a place in Raleigh where I could ___________.”
  • “I wish Raleigh did a better job of ______________.”
  • “In 10 years, as my family grows up here, I hope Raleigh will look like __________.”
  • “When I, Everydayjoe, step out of the house each morning in Raleigh, I want _______________.”

Raleigh’s evolving, blossoming identity could change the communities within it. Whatever the city becomes could impact its very culture, its very fabric and being.

But Raleigh is a big place, getting bigger every year. It’s a changing organism. So why should what Raleigh becomes matter to individual Raleigh citizens, living, working, everyday?

It does matter. It will matter – As long as the conversation includes what it means for Everydayjoe stepping out of his house every morning if Raleigh becomes a City of Innovation. Or creativity. Or of startups, technology, green spaces, or anything else it dreams.




  1. johnson h hoopscotch

    neither, you have to have awareness that you dont have an identity to have a crisis and you have to have an identity to have a clear vision of the future. raleigh is “that town where wachovia used to be”

  2. Keith Morris

    Raleigh, and generally the Triangle, seems to me to be the City of Refugees. So many people are moving here to take advantage of the low cost of living. The tech scene seems to be attracting folks too, with companies like Red Hat planting their flags firmly in Raleigh.

    It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, though. The people who are here will determine its culture, but the culture it becomes known for will likely attract more of the same people as well.

  3. Leo

    Great read. I could talk about this all day but in short, I think many years ago, people were throwing ideas around and talking about “Wouldn’t it be cool if….” Now, we’re starting to act on some of those things, at a very small scale however.

    I hope the momentum continues and as citizens continue to get involved with the political process, more and more people will band together behind larger causes and push the city in a direction that makes it’s identity.

    Park bonds typically get approved by citizens. Maybe we’ll be the city of parks and greenways.

    Or maybe we’ll push the arts further and further. First Friday can exist outside of downtown so why not make it city-wide. Will we be a city of arts?

    It’s a slow process I think cause it takes decades of doing those things to form that identity and build that reputation.

  4. Kareema Whitfield

    Interesting read! I can go on my never ending saga about this topic, if given the opportunity, but to spare you all boredom, I will keep my response to a minimal. Since relocating to Raleigh in 2002, it did not take too long to realize that the city lacks an “identity”. However, with that being said, this is true for most “capital cities” in America with the exception of a few – Denver, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Boston, & Nashville.

    Don’t know whether anyone has ever given this comment considerable thought, but, most capital cities in America are not known for being the entertainment city for their state. Here’s a perfect example. Think about New York (NY) state; the capital of NY is Albany; however, is Albany the first city that comes to mind when most people think of NY?…no, BUT Manhattan is the city that comes to mind; the same holds true for most other states, with exception of the ones listed previously.

    To this avail, I think Raleigh, will continue to lack an identity as do most capital cities in America. On that note, I’ll pose the question…why is it that most capital cities lack an identity. One of my immediate answers that come to mind – is that most capital cities of America lack “multiple professional sport teams”…just a thought.


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