Cities Transportation

Happy Trails: An Inexpensive Way to Revive American Suburbs

shutterstock_456697009As people move more and more to cities, suburban America is in need of a facelift. City living is attractive to young people because they are aware of their energy consumption, they like the action there, and the cost of car and home ownership is often out of reach. Now a suburban region in Arkansas has found a way to become greener, more connected and less dependent upon traditional forms of transportation, even as it promotes a healthier lifestyle.

The Northwest Arkansas Metro Area corridor is comprised of six cities and small towns, ranging in size from about 5,000 to 80,000 people. It is bisected by Interstate 540, a dangerous and overcrowded highway that desperately needs to be widened. I grew up in this area, and for as long as I can remember, the various cities and towns had little to do with each other. Now a 36 mile trail system designed by a Techonomy alumnus connects the six major cities, and is bringing communities and people together in ways I never imagined possible.

When I was a young child, a little company called Walmart—headquartered about twenty minutes from where I lived—caused an economic boom that led to the rapid growth and development of my hometown. I used to live on a dirt road next to a 30-acre blueberry farm. Now my childhood house is surrounded by subdivisions on all sides. The farm was bulldozed, and a development called “The Berry Farm” took it’s place in only a couple of years.

The region’s infrastructure was pushed to its limits. Roads were widened, endless buildings and houses erected. Vendors moved in from all over the world in hopes of getting their products on the shelves of the biggest retailer in the world. This once-sleepy region nestled in the Ozarks was suddenly a boomtown. The dirt roads gave way to urban sprawl. Growth in the region was so rapid that, shortly before the recession in 2006, my hometown of Rogers, Arkansas was one of the fastest growing city in the U.S. Certainly the fastest growing one you’ve never heard of.

Walmart founder Sam Walton’s children, a gaggle of engaged and generally socially-responsible billionaires, have been pouring money into various projects throughout the region. They wanted to find a way to connect the various cities to create a more cohesive metropolitan area. Along came Techonomy speaker, Jeff Olson, who sat down with city planners, and representatives from the Walton Family Foundation to come up with a plan. At that time, Jeff was Principal Consultant at Alta Planning + Design. A company that works with city governments to plan and design bike and pedestrian-friendly trail systems.

Jeff worked with the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission to study existing trails in the area (there was no map). He realized that the existing trails could be leveraged to connect all six of the larger cities in the area via a state-of-the-art system that has now been named the Northwest Arkansas Razorback Regional Greenway.

Alta Planning + Design attacked the planning and acquisition process from multiple angles. “We used a combination of old fashioned field work, in-person meetings with community leaders, and mapping technologies including GIS and Google Earth,” Jeff explained when I asked him about the process. “The biggest challenge was understanding the wide range of land ownership along the 40 mile corridor. Using GIS and tax parcel data, we were able to identify more than 100 parcels and complete the right of way acquisition process in less than one year.”

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Jeff Olson speaking at Techonomy Detroit in 2014

Jeff also explained that greenways and trails became more attractive to cities across the country shortly after the recession due to the fact that as civic improvement projects go, they are relatively inexpensive. Cities and residents tend to support spending for projects like this that improve their hometown and quality of life, even when the economy isn’t doing so well. “It’s one of these 1% investments that yields 10% results,” Jeff commented at Techonomy Detroit in 2014. In some cases they can even serve as an alternative, inexpensive and greener method of practical transportation and commuting.

Northwest Arkansas isn’t the only region that has invested in new pedestrian and bike-friendly trail systems and greenways since the recession. The Carolina Thread Trail project—centered in Charlotte, North Carolina—uses the slogan: “Weaving Communities Together.” It also boasts that “weaving” existing trails together will connect 2.3 million people in two states, and may be the most ambitious project in the country.

The Coachella Valley Link system in California is promoting its trail system as an alternative to the congested Highway 111, and an opportunity to improve local air quality. The trail alliance in the area began advocating for a bike path right around the time of the recession. Construction will begin in 2017 and is being managed by Alta Planning + Design as well.

The official grand opening of the Razorback Regional Greenway took place May 2, 2015. Last year my father’s local law firm adopted a portion of the trail, and my family now has a tradition of passing out water to runners, bikers and cyclists every Labor Day. Bike races and an unofficial marathon have made use of the system. Retail stores, restaurants, bars and other businesses have popped up along its length, and people use it to commute to work. Thanks to the careful execution of a simple greenway an entire region will never be the same.

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