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To Address Regional Housing Challenges, Northwest Arkansas Cities Collaborate on Lasting Solutions

August 3, 2022
The Urban Land Institute is building a “community of practice” among regional city planners

When Springdale, Arkansas, City Planner Sharon Tromburg takes a walk around her city’s downtown, she sees a different community than the one she was raised in.

“Everything has changed. There are more people living downtown in walkable neighborhoods, with widened sidewalks, lighting, landscaping and great community spaces, like Shiloh Square. It’s all very interconnected.”

Sharon credits many of these improvements to the city’s downtown form-based code, a type of modern zoning code intentionally designed to encourage a diverse swath of mixed-use housing, commercial and community space that can evolve within the heart of Springdale, one of the region’s most diverse cities.

In Northwest Arkansas, Springdale’s code updates are an example of some of the recent changes municipalities have made that seek to remove obstacles to mixed-use, walkable development.

At a Policy and Practice Seminar hosted by the Urban Land Institute, participants from Northwest Arkansas discussed types of zoning in the region, considered the value of form-based coding and identified opportunities to lead policy change in their own cities.

It’s important work. A recent study by Smart Growth America on Northwest Arkansas found that inefficient city policies and exclusionary development rules in the region are making it harder for many residents – including critical workers like teachers, firefighters and nurses – to live here.

Restrictions on what can be built are also driving prices up – rising 44% over the last five years. Residents who can’t afford to live in the cities’ cores are driven further out, often making them disconnected from mobility options, economic opportunity, recreational amenities – and each other.

Now, many cities in the region are taking a closer look at their zoning codes – local land use regulations that dictate things like building spacing and height, lot sizes and parking – to see if there are ways to make it easier for developers to build walkable, mixed-use projects. These types of zoning updates could make it easier for many residents to find and retain housing.

Wes Craiglow, a city planner from Conway, Arkansas, who now leads the Northwest Arkansas chapter of the Urban Land Institute, understands the challenge.

“Right now, our quality of place is as good as anywhere in the country. It’s a place informed by the natural world – with a million and a half acres of Ozarks, streams, lakes and trails. As for the built environment, you have access to Rockwell-esque towns, great schools, fantastic restaurants and world-class American Art. Its special and it’s a place people want to live.”

By not allowing different types of housing at varying price points, “We are artificially constraining the best places to live,” says Wes. “That means the only people who can enjoy our great quality of place are those who can afford to live downtown. The things that make Northwest Arkansas special are eroding. If we aren’t careful, in 30 years, the suburban sprawl now underway could turn us into Anytown, U.S.A.”

Housing is also married to mobility, and as families seek less expensive housing in sprawling developments far outside the city, they are trading one cost for another, with the average Northwest Arkansas household now spending $9,100 a year on transportation.

“Mobility is critical to equity,” says Wes. “There are a lot of community members – both young and old, those living with disabilities and low-income – who don’t have access to a car and are being left out of the planning equation. Where do they live if they can’t get to work … to school?”

The Urban Land Institute hosted a "Developer Fishbowl" with city planners from Northwest Arkansas. The development industry professionals described their observations about regional housing affordability and shared stories of the production challenges they often face.

Wes sees Springdale’s zoning code as a model for other cities to emulate and, with support from the Walton Family Foundation, is working to build what he calls “a community of practice” among city planners in the region.

The year-long program is helping to establish a baseline of knowledge, best practices and deeper collaboration among planners from seven different communities.

Through the Urban Land Institute, each city planner has access to a vast network of experts and resources. There are also regular educational seminars and networking opportunities with developers and elected officials who ultimately decide what gets built, and where.

Downtown Springdale, Arkansas is a bustling area featuring widened sidewalks, lighting and landscaping. City planners credit the city’s downtown form-based code, which is designed to encourage a diverse swath of mixed-use housing, commercial and community space.

“When we get together as a ULI chapter, we can actually compare the very detailed processes that go into city planning,” says Sharon. “If there is something working better in another city, maybe we need to take that into account.”

At the end of the program, the NWA Planner Community of Practice − with support from ULI NWA − will release a local government policy and practice toolkit that provides specific recommendations to increase housing options that enhance quality of place within Northwest Arkansas neighborhoods.

City planners in Springdale, Arkansas, believe residents want more high-quality, walkable neighborhoods in the community.

In Springdale, Sharon and her colleagues are confident residents want more high-quality, walkable neighborhoods – something that the market has not provided in the same quantity as large single-family home developments, which are easier to get permitted and sometimes easier to finance. This data has come up time and again in visual preference surveys.

“Our challenge now is – how do we let private development know that this is what the market demands? How do we convince the City Council to get on board? This is where ULI has been really helpful. It’s keeping us tuned in to best practices so that we make the smartest possible decisions. It’s letting our stakeholders know that when we give a recommendation on planning, it’s the gold standard.”

“By the end of this process, I hope we’ve built something lasting,” says Wes. “A group of already-exceptional city planners that have found a community they can rely on for support and advice, on their way to achieving meaningful policy reforms for the cities they serve.”

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