What makes a community feel like home? It’s a question we frequently ask our neighbors. While answers vary, most agree Northwest Arkansas’ strong sense of place helps this area be a great place to live.
This is how an email I received yesterday from the Walton Family Foundation began. The important words are “strong sense of place.” The best definition I’ve found for a sense of place is this: “A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, and environmental – that provide meaning to a location. Sense of place is what makes one city or town different from another, but sense of place is also what makes our physical surroundings worth caring about.” (https://www.planetizen.com/node/56165)
Northwest Arkansas cities have worked hard at creating a strong, positive sense of place as demonstrated by the video below. It could be said that Hot Springs, Arkansas has always had a strong sense of place, something they were on the verge of losing when the loss of the Majestic Hotel served as a wake-up call to the community. In Little Rock, what started with the River Market revitalization has now expanded up Main Street to SOMA and is beginning to extend east of I-30. North Little Rock is working to turn the Argenta area into the center of the city and Fort Smith has used artistic expression in the form of the Unexpected to jump-start the Garrison Avenue area and the US Marshalls Museum and the new bike/skateboard park are transforming downtown.
Connection to these places is very important in making them flourish. I’m not talking about 8 lane highways, I’m referring to connections that are themselves part of what gives an area sense of place. Multi-use (bike/pedestrian/scooter/rollerblade/etc.) trails are a major component, being part of the place as well as a conduit to the place. These trails are what allow a sense of place to go viral, physically. Trails like the Razorback Greenway and the Arkansas River Trail are key pieces in the inventory of these special places.
Connecting parks, residential areas, shopping, schools, medical care, employment centers, etc. through the use of greenspaces makes an area desirable. It’s been shown that having people out of their homes and cars and, instead, outdoors in their communities cuts down crime, it brings neighbors together. In these days of spending most of our days staring at video screens, talking through text and social media we need personal interactions with other people more than ever. We should be striving to create a sense of place throughout all of Arkansas.
I realize this takes money and Northwest Arkansas has benefited from major private sector investment but other communities can do this. It starts with a vision of what we want, It moves to investment by local citizens which could be in the form of specific, directed sales taxes or bond funding. It also takes smart moves, finding matching grants to get the most out of these programs. It can be done and has been in many communities across the country.
I leave you with the final words of the email I received from the Walton Family Foundation:
Trails, parks, vibrant downtowns – all work together to enhance our sense of community and the experiences that help define life in our home region.
Get inspired by this video: