Urban Laboratory: Building Community Through Research

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A lasting legacy. This story is part of a series demonstrating the achievement, impact and growth of UNC Charlotte under the leadership of Chancellor Philip L. Dubois.

In his 2006 installation address, Chancellor Philip L. Dubois established his research and discovery expectations for UNC Charlotte, which at the time had been founded only 60 years earlier.

“We should be one of North Carolina’s most significant public research universities, drawing focus and strength from the region we serve,” Dubois said. “And in working within our region … we should be partners, not preachers.”

Since then, collaboration has continued to be a constant factor with respect to research at UNC Charlotte, and new knowledge has moved forward the issues that define it as North Carolina’s urban research university. Whether it’s engineering researchers collaborating with regional healthcare providers to examine the effectiveness of knee replacements, marine biologists partnering with Discovery Place to unlock clues to how organisms respond to climate change, or faculty helping to shape the state’s emerging solar energy industry.

Through community engagement, active learning and industry partnerships, the University strives to advance the quality, diversity and growth of research at UNC Charlotte and places special value on the translation of research results that impact social, cultural and economic communities.


Charlotte’s Optimist Park neighborhood, a community with a rich history, is undergoing changes as the city’s rapid growth trajectory continues. Due to its proximity to Uptown, the LYNX Blue Line (Parkwood Station in Optimist Park), and other completed and planned amenities, gentrification has accelerated throughout the neighborhood leaving many residents with more questions than answers about how to adapt to their new reality.

UNC Charlotte Bonner Leaders Program students have been working with the Optimist Park community. The Bonner Leaders Program aims to develop civic leaders by embedding students in Charlotte-area organizations to conduct community-based research. In working with the Optimist Park neighborhood, the students—representing majors across the University—are striving to address critical social issues facing the community, while gaining a deeper knowledge and awareness of the changing dynamics through intentional engagement with residents, community leaders and existing assets within the community.

The Charlotte Business Journal highlighted the research being done by the students in Optimist Park to investigate many of the underlying reasons long-term, lower-income residents continue to move out of the neighborhood despite growing opportunities and improved quality-of-life indicators, such as access to public transportation and other amenities.


Founded in 1969, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute has been at the forefront of the University’s efforts to connect its research enterprise to addressing the social, economic and environmental challenges facing our communities.

Recently, the Urban Institute chronicled its 50-year history through a five-part series, underscoring its role in UNC Charlotte’s emergence as the region’s urban research university.

Part 1: Urban studies on a rural campus

Part 2: How the Urban Institute changed Charlotte

Part 3: Burnishing the Urban Institute’s reputation, one plan at a time

Part 4: Connecting urban policy to the community

Part 5: Big Data, big goals as the Urban Institute turns 50 and looks to the future

Building on 50 years of regional research and relationships, the Urban Institute just capped off a two-year project focused on exploring the urban-rural divide across the region. The Carolinas Urban-Rural Connection Project aimed to examine the economic and cultural ties that once flourished between Charlotte and surrounding communities, and explore whether those foundations are strong enough to build a new chapter of regional prosperity.

As a result, researchers were able to outline five strategies rooted in research that could point the way to greater regional vitality.

Pictured above: A patient, who recently underwent knee replacement surgery, visits the Biomechanics and Motion Analysis Lab at UNC Charlotte to perform exercises to examine the effectiveness of knee implants. Photo by Jared Moon

The Don Gibson Theatre in Shelby, North Carolina. Photo by Nancy Pierce