Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, N. C. — What could be more characteristic of today's ''information age'' than a city whose basic industry is ideas?
And what could be more typical of the low-density urbanization some experts forecast for the United States than a city that isn't one city, but three?
Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, which make up North Carolina's Research Triangle, are an intersection of two trends in urban growth in America: information-based industry and small-city living conditions.
Indeed, out of America's old textile and tobacco heartland is springing up a tomorrow-oriented center of education, research, and culture. Its rise amid the majestic Southern pine and rolling Piedmont is underscored by the recent growth of the state in general.
In a recently released Fortune magazine survey, North Carolina came in second only to Texas as the state most favored for new industrial-plant sites. It was second to California as a preferred site for new research labs.
There are several good Sunbelt reasons for this: climate, little unionization , a ''pro-business'' tax structure, and a strong work ethic. And by fortune of geography, North Carolina offers these advantages just a day's drive from half the country's population.
The idea center of the three cities is Research Triangle Park, located in the middle of the three cities. A joint effort of the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, Duke University in Durham, and North Carolina State University in Raleigh, the park was intended as a place where national industrial firms would center their research operations. Research would then, it was hoped, lead to development of manufacturing. The industrial base of the triangle area and the rest of the state would benefit.
It is not always clear that research enterprise X has xv/ment.
Population of the metropolitan area, which consists of the counties of Wake (Raleigh), Durham (Durham) and Orange (Chapel Hill) grew 26 percent between 1970 and 1980, from 419,254 to 530,673. The national population grew by 10.5 percent during this period.
Growth in the civilian labor force over the period was even more dramatic, rising 48.3 percent rise. Manufacturing employment surged similarly, from 29, 000 to 43,400. Total personal income rose 143.1 percent from 1970 to 1978.
Recent federal figures put the Raleigh-Durham area's unemployment at 4.7 percent, the fifth-lowest rate of all metropolitan areas in the country. National recession has somewhat slowed the movement of new firms into the area. The rough spots in the triangle economy are pretty much the rough spots found anywhere else: auto sales, construction, real estate. The textile industry -- significant in the triangle, though less so than in other parts of the state -- is hurting, particularly in auto -- and housing-related applications.
Talking with triangle residents, one gets the feeling that it's valid to string the three cities together with hyphens and treat them as one only when taking a very long view.
Chapel Hillians in particular are noted for their wish to retain a distinct identity, even if it means cramping their neighbors' style. With a court challenge, they have blocked the extension of Interstate 40 through Orange County. This recalcitrance makes nearby Raleigh the only state capital in the contiguous US that is not connected to the interstate system.
Basically, the triangle consists of three very different cities connected by three universities that have decided to leave their traditional rivalries on the playing fields and work together to build a world-class research community. Even the telephone service in the area is indicative: Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill are all a toll call apart, yet Research Triangle Park is connected with all three by local service.
Raleigh is the vibrant capital city, with a more or less recession-proof economy. Not only is state government a stabilizing presence, but it tends to attract other industry.
''We like to be in capital cities,'' officials of the new Radisson Plaza Raleigh hotel told the local papers a few weeks ago as balloons were released for the grand opening.
Raleigh has a diverse economy, particularly strong in manufacturing and electronics. Another growth sector is regional service industries, such as its two credit-card processing centers. Unlike local service industries, these firms draw money from outside the area.
Durham has traditionally been the more blue-collar manufacturing town, heavily into tobacco and textiles. But that's changing. While two local tobacco firms still employ some 3,500 people, Duke University is now Durham's largest employer.
The health-care industry employs the largest sector of Durham's work force -- more than 20 percent -- and, in trying to attract new medical-related firms, the town is promoting itself as the ''City of Medicine.''
Durham has also been noted as a center of black capitalism. The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company is the largest black-managed business in the world.
Though Raleigh and Durham both have universities, Chapel Hill is the university town. Indeed, it's mentally still a village, says Mayor Joe Nassif, with really just one north-south axis and one east-west one. Which is not to say it lacks an identity. Far from it.
As Louis Rubin, a University of North Carolina professor and local columnist, has written: ''People in Chapel Hill don't go around bragging loudly about the virtues of the town. They simply assume it. If Queen Elizabeth II of England decided to turn over Buckingham Palace to young Charles and move into Carol Woods (a local retirement community) it would never occur to anyone in town to question why she decided to do it.''
The three points on the triangle combine to support such amenities as the Raleigh-Durham Airport, which provides much more extensive service than any of the cities could justify alone. Yet not one is a large city. Raleigh has roughly 150,000 people; Durham, 100,000; Chapel Hill, 32,000 (plus 20,000 students).
''There's still a lot of land, a lot of open space here,'' says an economist with a planning agency based in the park. ''I have a 15-minute commute to work - with no stoplights.''
And as virtually everyone points out, right after mentioning the North Carolina Symphony and other cultural attractions, ''We're just a few hours' drive from the mountains, and a few hours from the beach.''
There is also a feeling here of openness, of receptivity to newcomers, and a willingness to take people on their own merits, which is not found everywhere in the tradition-oriented South.
A professor - himself a newcomer -- cites the case of a corporate executive transferred into the triangle who was right away named to the board of a local organization.
''If it had been South Carolina, say, it might have been the man's grandson that got the appointment.''
Part of the area's appeal lies in things it doesn't have: chronic traffic congestion, air pollution, and overpriced housing. Important to the triangle's chemistry is the fact that its active ingredients - the universities and the Research Triangle Park -- are not overwhelmed by sheer mass of population.
''Lots of places have three universities,'' as Dr. William F. Little of UNC-Chapel Hill observes. ''Look at Los Angeles, for example. There you've got UCLA, Southern Cal, and Caltech. But they're lost in a metropolitan area of - how many millions?''
In a similar vein, Dr. George Herbert, president of the Research Triangle Institute, points out that the community of researchers in the park is all the more cohesive because they all live in relatively small cities around the park. Chemists and engineers know other chemists and engineers down the block.
There are drawbacks, however. The spread-out living pattern forces heavy reliance on the automobile, even for a relatively short trip. Providing municipal services is also difficult over such a wide expanse.
Then there's the subtler matter of urban identity. One researcher, talking about the triangle area, alluded to Gertrude Stein's comment on Oakland: ''Once you get there, there's no there there.
Low population density isn't unique to the triangle, but reflects a statewide pattern. Ironically, it may be North Carolina's rural past that has put it in the forefront of the new wave of urban development. Small farms and the well-maintained rural highway system have tended to scatter people fairly evenly across the state.
Local officials point out quietly to a visitor from Boston that their state has just outstripped Massachusetts as the 10th most populous state. And yet the state's largest city, Charlotte, has only 300,000 inhabitants. Most North Carolinians are in communities much, much smaller.
For all the interest in elbow room, however, the triangle cities have not forgotten the value of downtowns -- and competition. Durhamites cast envious eyes at Raleigh's new civic center and brand-new Radisson Plaza Raleigh, expected to generate considerable convention business. These anchor Fayetteville Street Mall, a pedestrian walkway decorated with flowers, modern sculpture, splashing fountains, and lots of people.
Durham's business community is eager to see residents pass a bond issue for a construction will begin ''the next day,'' says Robert Booth of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce. A builder stands ready to put up a 300-room hotel and an eight-story office building -- a $40 million investment.
One theme that comes through is that it is still early in the development of the triangle, and most of the important growth has occurred within the working lives of the men who still run the place.
At one point in her stay, for instance, this writer left the George Watts Hill Building in Research Triangle Park to have lunch with -- George Watts Hill.
People like Mr. Hill, chairman of the Central Carolina Bank of the Research Triangle Institute and of just about everything else in the area at some time or other, remain a presence here.
So is Archie K. Davis, former president of Wachovia Bank and Trust, who raised $1.5 million in 60 days to launch Research Triangle Park in 1958. A few years later he raised $1.5 million in 30 days for the National Humanities Center.
Yet the area is facing challenges, such as the need for highway improvements, a better water supply, and more sewers. But, as UNC President William C. Friday points out, these are problems of growth, rather than age and decay.