I still remember my first mountain bike. It got into my 12-year-old soul, gave me confidence and instilled a love of trails that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
This past week, the trails came alive across Northwest Arkansas when Bentonville hosted the International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit. Ten years ago, the odds we would join the ranks of hosts like Whistler, B.C., or Steamboat Springs, Colorado, were pretty long. But today, Northwest Arkansas has arrived as a major destination for mountain biking, and we have made trails an integral part of our urban fabric.
Tom Walton at 12 years old after a ride on his first mountain bike
I had the privilege of sharing the story of how we got from there to here with more than 500 conference attendees from around the world. My message was simple: While each region is different, every community can use trails to improve the quality of life for its residents.
By connecting singletrack, greenways and city streets across Northwest Arkansas, we have attracted new talent and businesses, created transportation alternatives and offered a healthy and vibrant lifestyle.
The Walton Family Foundation took a holistic approach, investing not only in trails but also in energizing our urban core with thriving culinary and art scenes.
We are also striving to help kids reap the benefits. We are reaching 27,000 students across our region by partnering with schools to redefine physical education through cycling.
We want to be a place where cycling—and getting out into nature—is a choice everyone can make, every day. And here’s the great thing: Through trails, we can preserve green spaces – even as the region continues to grow and attract more people.
We believe the approach that has worked for us can be replicated in communities across the country. Here are six insights from our experience in Northwest Arkansas:
1. To start a cycling movement quickly, gather a small band of warriors with diverse perspectives and open minds. They will make you better, and they will get things done.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask “What if?” It’s a powerful question that will alter your frame of reference and allow you to drive change on a larger scale than you thought possible.
3. Link trails to a vibrant urban core and a live-work-play lifestyle.
4. Make cycling a part of your urban fabric by designing safer streets.
5. Create an ecosystem of partners, where everyone has a stake in the future of trails.
6. Share the love of cycling with the next generation. Kids can be our greatest ambassadors because they open the minds of city planners.
We hope our story will inspire others. Whether we are business leaders, urban planners or simply passionate about biking, we can all be trail builders. We can all be community builders.