By Michael S. Yoder, Ph.D*
Abstract. Small cities in Arkansas overall exhibit a lower density of commercial and residential land uses than the norm for American Sunbelt metropolitan areas. The results include highly inefficient traffic patterns that prioritize lengthy high-velocity roads over compact grids, linear real estate development along such thoroughfares, and an amplification of the segregation of citizens without the means to drive to jobs, retail outlets, and other places necessary for a comfortable way of life. This article, drawing on case studies of two small cities in Arkansas to illustrate the nature of the problem, concludes that “Smart Growth” policies, as outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are necessary to curb the perpetual cycle of sprawl, segregation and inefficient use of land and fuel. Such policies advocate higher density development, and a mixing of land uses that would foster sustainability, and better connect neighborhoods marginalized by automobile sprawl to enjoy enhanced proximity to the entire city such that they realize a higher standard of living.
I. INTRODUCTION AND STATEMENT OF THE RESEARCH QUESTION
In his book The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler (1993) includes a chapter, titled “How to Mess up a Town,” which quite effectively describes the deterioration of Saratoga Springs, New York through sprawl. The latter was spurred by urban planning policies geared toward accommodating motorists and the automobile at the expense of the city’s aesthetics, architecture and historic downtown. He discusses how post-1960s formulaic urban planning has resulted in a preponderance of standalone buildings surrounded by soulless parking lots arranged in a linear fashion that dominate the city’s commercial landscape. He laments the deterioration (and in some cases disappearance) of traditional downtown store fronts and other such streetscapes. He criticizes a landscape that above all sends the message that historically relevant architecture and the ability to move around by means other than automobiles do not matter. Indeed, a large number of academic and popular books and articles document the negative effects of the sprawling of post-World War II American cities. Kunstler’s case study is a rare example of an analysis of small-city sprawl. The overwhelming majority of treatises of suburbanization focus on metropolitan areas, yet suburban-style growth permeates even towns and the smallest of cities, especially in the Sunbelt. The present essay is an attempt to draw attention to the consequences of sprawl in small cities of Arkansas. While this essay utilizes two primary case studies, Morrilton and Stuttgart, a similar style of development can empirically be observed in virtually every small city throughout the Natural State.
The primary objective of this research is to describe, largely through insights derived from fieldwork carried out in Stuttgart and Morrilton, the main features of small-city sprawl, and to identify some of the problems it generates, including long commutes, hampered connectedness, automobile dependency, and segregation between different income groups within small cities. The spatial spreading out of small cities since the mid-twentieth century is necessary to study, given that smaller cities exhibit lower density rates, and therefore more sprawl-related problems per capita, than mid-sized and larger cities (Kim and Brownstone 2010). An additional objective is to review studies of the costs, whether monetary, health-related, and cultural, of the style of land use that dominates small cities of this and other states. Given that many small cities across the country are struggling to compete with more dynamic metropolitan areas that include such amenities as public transit and diverse economies, it is increasingly clear that the ways that people engage with small-city localities must be of high quality for small cities to realize positive economic development, and the persistence of a traditional, high-density downtown development style is crucial to that outcome (Smith 2007). Furthermore, citizen input in the process of ensuring small-city success hinges on the enhancement of connectivity and diminishing of segregation that would lead to more dialogue and community engagement across the populace of small cities.
The study relies on a review of relevant literature on the nature of land use in contemporary American cities, especially small ones, and on ways to go about improving it to contribute to development. To understand the origins, aesthetic characteristics, and problems of sprawl, the study draws heavily on direct observation by the author of land use patterns in Morrilton and Stuttgart, and it incorporates summaries of interviews with community leaders in the two case study cities. Information gleaned from physical observation and interviews is triangulated with published demographic and economic data, and with conclusions drawn from earlier published studies carried out by urban planners and urban geographers around the country. Triangulation of data in this way has been praised for its ability to not only provide insights from disparate sources, but to reconcile the different sources of data (Yin 2009).
The remainder of this essay is organized into four parts. First, I define sprawl, and provide a review of the literature on the costs of sprawl and the benefits of higher-density development. Second, I examine the style and history of sprawl, and the causes of its continuation in the case study small cities of Morrilton and Stuttgart. Third, I provide a recommendation of how these cities can mitigate some of the negative consequences of their low-density development while enhancing their chances of experiencing economic development in the process. The essay’s final section provides concluding remarks of use t planning officials in American small cities.
II. THE COSTS OF SPRAWL AND THE BENEFITS OF HIGHER-DENSITY DEVELOPMENT: A REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Ewing, Pendall and Chen (2002) define sprawl as “poorly managed expansion.” Burchell and Mukherji (2003) further elaborate on this definition by emphasizing the lower-density nature of sprawling development compared to traditional neighborhood development, and its tendency to be carried out in a “leapfrog” linear fashion that often appears unlimited, resulting in higher costs to residents and city governments. Thus, sprawl can be equated with the suburban land-use style that remains quite omnipresent across the American landscape. While early depictions of the suburban style of land use in cinema and in literature often portrayed its culture inaccurately as monolithic and generic, its aesthetic, physical character actually is quite standardized across the country, with differences equating more with the size of a given settlement than by region of the country. Such stretched, linear development, which represents a spreading out of functions traditionally found in downtowns and traditional neighborhoods, requires greater public investment in roads than traditional town grids (ICMA 2010).
Kim and Brownstone (2010) refer to a study of 26,000 households conducted in 2001 (the National Household Transportation Survey) concluding that a definitive inverse relationship exists between size of settlement and housing density. Their own study revealed increased per-capita mileage driven among residents of towns and small cities compared to those of mid-sized and large cities in the U.S. A seminal study by the Center for Environmental Quality (CEQ 1974) concluded that the costs of infrastructure investment in high-density neighborhoods close to downtowns ranged from 27 to 44 percent below those of lower-density suburban neighborhoods. More recently, Burchell and Mukherji (2003) estimated that costs of infrastructure associated with lower-density growth are seven to ten percent higher than growth that is managed, while infill development produces ten percent lower costs in provision and maintenance of road and utility infrastructure. Furthermore, households in small cities in Arkansas, and in most of the rest of the U.S., are more automobile-dependent on average than those in metropolitan areas where inner-city redevelopment is occurring (Burchell and Mukherji 2003).
Small-city sprawl in Arkansas is most appropriately viewed as a process that creates a largely generic pattern of segregated land uses growing outward from downtowns, which themselves were the extent of the original settlement that included a mix of land uses. Throughout Arkansas, similar patterns of small-city spatial growth exist, including segregated residential and commercial areas traversed by mid- and high-speed thoroughfares, whether or not these cities are growing slightly in population, as in Morrilton, or slowly declining, as in Stuttgart. Arkansas is about evenly divided between small cities that grow, and those that decline, yet the land-use patterns are quite similar. Every small standalone city in Arkansas contains linear retail development, separated by design from residential neighborhoods, and often obscuring the downtown.
While low-density development often enables buyers and renters to enjoy lower mortgage or rent payments than is the case in higher-density areas closer to urban core areas, such savings to individuals are offset by diseconomies and inefficiencies. According to the Congress for the New Urbanism (2010), over-borrowing and foreclosures have proven to be a problem in low-density areas. Automobile dependency increases as cities spread out, and the greater energy usage that results from the per-capita additional miles required to drive produces not only monetary costs, but greater exhaust emissions. Furthermore, automobile dependency discourages walking or bicycling, thereby contributing to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and a host of other health problems. Poorly managed growth is akin to a bicycle wheel in which the distance between spokes increases with radius; the longer per-capita length and consequent higher costs of roads that accompany sprawl are burdensome to local governments, and by extension, tax payers. Likewise, the higher quantity of utility infrastructure per capita that accompanies sprawl is expensive, and costs are passed on to consumers (Congress for the New Urbanism 2010). Furthermore, for cash-strapped municipal governments, higher-density development generally produces greater property tax revenues, because parking lots associated with lower-density development do not generate as much revenue per square foot than buildings, which tend to be more valuable on a per-square-foot basis in higher-density settings close to or within downtown areas (ICMA 2010; March 2013).
Studies of small-city downtowns and the impacts of their revitalizations on small-city economies are relatively scarce, making it difficult to identify exactly what such cities need to do to produce effective alternatives to poorly managed growth (Smith 2007; Otto 2007). Smith (2007) found that successful Main Street Programs in Kentucky depended on low vacancy rates of storefronts and other real estate, the proximity of a given small city to larger urban centers that could siphon business away, and the composition of a given committee or association promoting Main Street. Furthermore, she found that small-city downtowns tend to become too narrow in their offerings by emphasizing antiques and gift shops, which ultimately is not sustainable. Those that succeed tend to be county seats, and therefore are more economically diversified because of local and county governance functions, which attract a wider array of restaurants and other retail businesses, thereby enabling them to compete effectively with suburban strip development. Otto (2007) found that downtowns that are less successful at stemming the exodus of high-range (specialty) and high-threshold (department store, grocery) retailing to suburban strips nonetheless could reverse their fortunes through historic preservation and solidifying the downtown as an historic center of a small city, and a place that elicits a feeling of pride and patrimony on the part of citizens. Chambers of commerce are crucial to the success of such strategies.
The League of American Bicyclists often point out numerous ways that bicycling enhances local business and municipal revenues. Increased bicycle usage means less wear and tear on streets, and a savings to local governments, even when public funds are invested in bicycle lanes and other infrastructure. Those who cycle to work or to run errands have extra money to spend that car owners do not have, and the savings can translate to greater retail sales in non-automobile products. Consumers who live close to accessible shopping areas such as downtowns or neighborhood clusters contribute to retail sales of locally-owned businesses. Such bike-friendly neighborhoods tend to have higher property values, a boon to local governments (Flusche 2012). Rowe (2013) found that downtown areas and neighborhood business districts whose connections to nearby residential areas that are bicycle-friendly, can enjoy retail sales up to four times the automobile-oriented norm, even when parking spaces are reduced to accommodate cyclists.
Cost savings and expanded benefits of traffic-calming efforts in neighborhood business districts can be considerable. For example, pedestrian-automobile and bicycle-automobile collisions are greatly reduced from traffic calming efforts such as fewer lanes on a given street dedicated to automobiles, the addition of protected bicycle lanes and pedestrian islands, while retail sales in such districts are enhanced and vacancy rates of storefronts are reduced (New York City DOT 2012). Finally, healthy transit saves in health care expenses (Flusche 2012). A 2012 study in Oregon concluded that funds invested in bicycle infrastructure yield health-care savings of nearly three and a half times (March 2013). In fact, North Little Rock’s bicycle and pedestrian trail system played a definite role in the reduction of health care costs of Garver, an engineering and architecture firm headquartered there, and factored heavily in the company’s decision to locate its headquarters there (Parker 2015).
An alternative to poorly managed expansion is the concept of “smart growth.” Key to smart growth policies is a style of planning, referred to as form-based planning, that permits each block to be planned individually, and enables residences of different income levels to be mixed with retail and other commercial land uses. The result, compared to standardized planning, is a more walkable and cyclist-friendly neighborhood that maximizes social interaction, and connection to the historical sites of a city that elicit feelings of pride and a sense of place in the city. Community involvement in the design of such redevelopment of sprawl is crucial to its success (ICMA 2010). The two case-study cities contain historically-relevant sites that could serve as anchors for smart growth, potentially strengthen a sense of place, and serve as models for other small cities in the state that desire to replace poorly managed expansion with a less automobile-dependent, more traditional, historically-relevant land use style.
III. THE CASE STUDY SMALL CITIES: SPRAWL IN STUTTGART AND MORRILTON, ARKANSAS
Stuttgart is located 55 miles east-southeast of Little Rock, and Morrilton is 51 miles northwest of the state capital. Despite relatively close proximity and the fact that both cities are parts of rural areas outside the Greater Little Rock Metropolitan Area, there are some important differences in their respective settings. Stuttgart is located in the agricultural plains of eastern Arkansas, a region connected to the Arkansas Delta, and is accessible by two-lane highways. Morrilton is located in the Arkansas River Valley and adjacent to Petit Jean State Park along two-lane state highways and Interstate 40, one of the most heavily traveled sections of interstate in the country in terms of truck traffic. Each city is served by a class I railroad, an advantage in terms of economic development. Both cities have historically viable and healthy downtowns that used to host the types of businesses, such as grocery stores, department stores, hardware stores and pharmacies that subsequently have suburbanized in a spread-out fashion (Hanley and Hanley 2009). Both cities are above the state average in terms of manufacturing employment. Table 1 provides key demographic data of each city, and Table 2 includes relevant workforce data.
Table 1: Selected Demographic Data, Arkansas, Morrilton and Stuttgart
|2013 Population (est.)||2,958,765||6,799||9,241|
|% Change 2010-2013||+1.47||+0.5||-0.9|
|% White Alone 2013||79.9||77.1||58.7|
|% Black Alone 2013||15.6||15.8||36.5|
|% Hispanic or Latino 2013||6.9||6.5||3.5|
Source: Bureau of the Census (quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/05000.html, accessed 22 March 2015)
Table 2: Selected Workforce Data, Arkansas, Morrilton and Stuttgart (2008-2012 Average)
|Percentage of Male Workforce in Manufacturing||18||18||28|
|Percentage of Male Workforce in Construction||12||18.5||8|
|Percentage of Male Workforce in Retail Trade||12.5||13||11|
|Percentage of Female Workforce in Healthcare||22||20.5||16|
|Percentage of Female Workforce in Retail||15||10.5||18|
|Percentage of Female Workforce in Education||13.5||5.5||13|
|Percentage of Female Workforce in Manufacturing||9||15||19|
|Percentage of Unemployed Population, June 2014||6.5||6.4||5.0|
Source: City-data (www.city-data.com/city/Morrilton-Arkansas.html; www.city-data.com/city/Stuttgart-Arkansas.html, accessed 22 March 2015).
The International City/County Management Association (ICMA 2010) outlines five general categories of small cities. 1.) “Gateway communities” are close to natural amenities such as national or state parks. 2.) “Resource-dependent communities” rely on a single activity, such as farming, mining or forestry, resulting in a lack of economic diversity. 3.) “Edge communities” enjoy proximity to, and spillover from larger cities such that residents can have greater access to jobs and retail amenities. Such communities tend to grow the fastest of all small cities. 4.) Traditional Main Street communities are compact and contain historically relevant architecture that can generate business from residents and visitors alike. Such Main Streets, however, are often in competition with retail development along high-speed arteries entering and exiting such cities. 5.) “Second home” and retirement communities tend to exhibit standard suburban land-use patterns, such that automobile dependency is unavoidable (ICMA 2010). Morrilton and Stuttgart each show that small cities can fit into more than one category. Morrilton is a gateway community because of its proximity to Petit Jean State Park, and is an edge community because of its proximity to Conway and other parts of the Little Rock Metropolitan Area. Stuttgart is in part a resource-dependent community because of the dominance of rice farming in the area and processing in the city, and is in part a Main Street community because of its large annual downtown festival celebrating duck hunting that draws visitors from Arkansas and beyond (Maynard 2014). Both cities share the prototypical suburban land-use style, yet have reasonably attractive downtown areas that, with additional renovation, could attract much needed economic investment.
Stuttgart (population 9,241) is a major center for the farming, processing and distribution of rice. It is home to two major rice companies: Riceland, the most prominent rice-producing company in the United States, and Producers Rice (Figure 1). The city’s main thoroughfares see heavy truck traffic oriented toward rice distribution. The city also houses three different entities that conduct related agricultural research: The University of Arkansas Rice Research Center, the Dale Bumpers Rice Research Center, and Monsanto. Furthermore, Ag Pro, an agricultural machinery distributor, is headquartered in the city. However, Stuttgart is not strictly an agroindustrial small city devoted to a single activity, but is home to other manufacturing activities. Among the latter are a Lennox air conditioning plant that manufactures rooftop units for big box retail stores, and a facility that recycles parts from old aircraft, which was the basis for Stuttgart’s receipt of some $3 million in federal funds to modernize its airport. Union Pacific provides Class I rail service between St. Louis and Houston via Stuttgart and Riceland produces enough rice on average to make up one train per day. Highway connectivity, however, is limited to two-lane US and State highways, which appear not to be a limiting factor for workers in the rice-processing and other factories who live in rural areas away from the city. Two industrial parks, one on the city’s east side and one to the south, house six companies. Finally, Stuttgart relies heavily on tourism related to duck hunting and a related annual festival (Maynard 2015; Bell 2015; and Humphrey 2014).
Figure 1. Stuttgart’s Rice Manufacturing Landscape
Though somewhat hemmed in by the valuable rice farmland of the immediate area, Stuttgart nonetheless exhibits significant sprawl. The city has no full-time planner, so the Planning Commission has to rely on two engineers hired to manage water, street repairs, the airport, and sidewalks. Two major bond issues within the last fifteen years have generated the funds to repair some of the city’s streets and water infrastructure, and to install a modest amount of sidewalk infrastructure on 22nd Street, the city’s southernmost commercial strip. The downtown area is quite impressive for a small city, although its iconic hotel, the Riceland Hotel, has remained empty since the 1970s (Humphrey 2014). The downtown appears lively, and exhibits visible improvements from “Let’s Paint Stuttgart,” a community repainting program begun in 2011 to improve the city’s core (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Main Street, Stuttgart
Access to the downtown, however, is hampered in many cases by the poorly managed expansion of the city. Competing with downtown and siphoning many of the latter’s businesses is 22nd Street, which runs east-west on the city’s south side and is home to Walmart and several chain stores and fast-food restaurants. Along 22nd Street is the high school and the northern reaches of Phillips Community College. Sidewalk connections are generally good, though the spread-out nature of the thoroughfare makes walking and cycling less of a viable option than would be the case in a more compact city (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Suburban Commercial Sprawl in Stuttgart: 22nd Street
Two primary north-south thoroughfares connect the 22nd Street commercial strip with northerly parts of the city. Buerkle Street largely traverses residential areas on the city’s west side. It is a visible example of the worst facets of small-city sprawl as it has little to no sidewalk infrastructure, and is too narrow and filled with automobile traffic to be of much use to cyclists (Figure 4). The northern portion of Buerkle crosses Michigan Street (US Highway 165) and becomes US Highway 63 north of that intersection.
Figure 4. South Buerkle Street, Stuttgart
Michigan Street is another commercial strip that contains gas stations, motels, auto repair shops, and fast-food restaurants. Given that Buerkle and Michigan are important thoroughfares, and their intersection is an important suburban commercial core, it would be essential for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure to be present, though it is nonexistent (Figure 5). The crowdedness of that intersection from automobile and truck traffic serves to isolate downtown and the residential areas east and west of Buerkle.
Figure 5. Stuttgart Suburban Commercial District: Michigan Street and S. Buerkle
A second thoroughfare of importance is Park Avenue, which trends north-south on the city’s east side and serves as a bypass. The two rice factories are along Park Avenue, as is an elementary school without sidewalks (Figure 6). Main Street, a minor north-south thoroughfare between (and paralleling) Buerkle and Park Avenue, runs through downtown, and has the potential to become a viable example of a Complete Streets project.
Figure 6. Elementary School in East Stuttgart: Lack of Pedestrian Infrastructure
Morrilton (population 6,799), established in 1873 upon arrival of the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad, has a fairly diversified economy by the standards of similarly sized small cities of Arkansas (CCGA 2006). It has three industrial parks, all of which were developed by the Conway County Economic Development Corporation (CCEDC), a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Morrilton Chamber of Commerce and funded by memberships, appropriations from the city and county, and land sales (Smith 2015). One industrial park is located on the northwest side of the city close to the westernmost Interstate I-40 interchange, and one is on the northeast side adjacent to the eastern interchange. The third is located on the city’s southeast side along the Arkansas Highway 9 eastern bypass. Manufacturing is an important component of the city’s economy and contributor to employment (Table 2).
Morrilton is visibly spread out. Like Stuttgart, the city has no full-time urban planner, but relies on a Planning Commission and a code enforcement officer to carry out planning functions. The primary thoroughfares of this heavily automobile-dependent city include US Highway 64 (Broadway), which serves as the city’s Main Street. The downtown section of Broadway is picturesque, compact, walkable, and architecturally rich. The railroad depot, built in 1915 (Green 2015), and the five-story First National Bank are, along with the Conway County courthouse a block to the south, the most important visual and patrimonial markers of Morrilton (Figure 7). Downtown extends two blocks south and some four blocks north of Broadway.
Figure 7. Morrilton Rail Depot: Key to the Community’s Sense of Place
Low vacancy rates of storefronts throughout downtown, coupled with the existence of some unusual businesses, such as a winery and a scuba diving shop, indicate that downtown is valued by shop owners and other residents (Lipsmeyer 2015) (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Broadway Street, Downtown Morrilton
However, east and west of downtown, Broadway traverses neighborhoods marked by a lack of walkability, an unfriendly atmosphere for bicyclists, and clear signs of segregation from the downtown, owing to the stretching of the thoroughfare in tandem with automobile proliferation. These conditions strongly suggest that infill development and other smart-growth strategies ought to be considered by citizens.
The primary thoroughfare on the city’s north side, and the magnet for retail development since the opening in 1968 of the interstate (CCHS 1990), is Harding Street (Business 9), an example of the familiar automobile-oriented linear development of small cities throughout Arkansas. Sidewalks and bicycle lanes are nonexistent, despite the presence of two of the city’s four public schools located along the street’s western portion (Figure 9). Two shopping centers, a large standalone Walmart, and several fast-food and other automobile-oriented businesses surrounded by parking lots dominate Harding Street. The east end of Harding links to State Highway 9 and the easternmost interchange of I-40, which forms the northern boundary of Morrilton. The west end of Harding terminates at Oak Street, a north-south street that connects to the westernmost interchange of I-40. Many of the city’s residential neighborhoods lie west of Oak Street, and virtually none is walkable, rendering them quite segregated from commercial areas of the city (Figure 10). All of Morrilton’s public schools, including its two-year college, the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton (UACCM), are inadequately connected by sidewalks, if there are sidewalks at all (Figure 11).
Figure 9. The East Harding Street Commercial District, Morrilton
Figure 10. Low Income, Segregated Neighborhood in West Morrilton
Figure 11. Lack of Sidewalks: Morrilton High School
The north-south thoroughfare with the best potential for complete street development is St. Joseph Street, which has sidewalks from Broadway northward to a block south of Harding, and exhibits the most commercial development of any north-south street in the city. Unfortunately, most of the businesses cater to automobiles and are lacking in a form that is inviting to pedestrians or cyclists.
Immediately south of Broadway are the courthouse, the attractive public library founded in 1916 (CCGA 2006), a number of the city’s churches, and a neighborhood of large, attractive homes that offer some degree of walkability and an aesthetic that ought to appeal to cyclists. Financed by grants, most of the sidewalk infrastructure on this south side of downtown came about only in recent years (Figure 12). Prior to that development, pedestrians were required to walk in the streets of southern downtown to get to the library and points nearby (Green 2015). South of that neighborhood is a collection of widely separated homes of different socioeconomic levels along curving streets (owing to the hilly topography), and little potential for connectivity with downtown through walking or cycling. This is the location of historic Lewisburg, of which little visual evidence remains today. South of Lewisburg is the Arkansas River, the southern boundary of the city and county.
Figure 12. Church Street, Morrilton: A Walkable Street
Growth in manufacturing is expected in Morrilton. A Vietnamese company, Vinhlong Arkansas, has purchased a vacant building in the northwestern industrial park to produce cabinets for IKEA, the Swedish furniture company. Initially the company plans to hire between 40 and 70 employees, and to increase that number as the company grows (Smith 2015). Interestingly, the company represents the first example of Vietnamese foreign direct investment (FDI) in manufacturing in the United States (Lipsmeyer 2015; Smith 2015). Likewise, a trucking company and an additional manufacturing company are presently going through the motions of relocating to Morrilton (Smith 2015). City leaders expect that additional residential growth will come to the city because of its proximity to Conway and Little Rock, but without the traffic problems of those two cities (Lipsmeyer 2015). If that is indeed the case, the city should expect a growing need for road improvements, if not expansions, which could offer an opportunity to remake the main thoroughfares in accordance with Complete Streets principles, described below. Given that the city has a part-time Main Street program and has recently begun a citizen-based initiative, “Grow Morrilton,” to plan for future growth, improved quality of life, and improvement of transportation infrastructure, the prospects are good for sustainable planning to be carried out.
IV. RECOMMENDATIONS FOR DEVELOPMENT MOVING FORWARD: INFILL, COMPLETE STREETS
“Complete Streets” is a nationwide planning strategy that seeks to transform automobile-dependent commercial thoroughfares and other streets into places that accommodate all forms of transit, including walking and cycling, and creating places with a mix of residences and retail shops to which people want to travel and spend time. This requires form-based codes that allow each block to be designed in accordance with what already is there and how it could be improved. It also includes traffic calming, which turns out to produce efficient flows of vehicles (March 2013). Connecting residential areas with downtown areas and neighborhood commercial clusters should be the primary focus of the installation of non-automobile infrastructure that allows people to get there easily and safely. The wasted space of sprawl and/or abandonment of old factories or other brownfields can be viewed as a resource, if infill development is employed. Benefits of infill development that incorporates design elements of Complete Streets include walkability, a mix of residential, retail, and other commercial land uses within the same block, and an emphasis on parks and other civic spaces that collectively enable transit times and automobile dependency to be reduced (Congress for the New Urbanism 2010; ICMA 2010).
Stuttgart ought to consider several initiatives to promote infill development and non-automobile forms of transit. Bicycle lanes should be created and sidewalks installed in all residential areas, particularly on the more heavily traveled neighborhood streets. Multi-use (bicycle and pedestrian) paths could be quite pleasant and useful in connecting each residential sector of the city with downtown and other commercial clusters, including 22nd Street and Michigan Street. Incentives to promote mixed-use, infill development along those two commercial strips would be a positive step. Because of its importance in linking neighborhoods between Buerkle Street and Park Avenue, South Main Street between downtown and 22nd Street should be transformed in accordance with Complete Streets principles, by installing protected bicycle lanes and sidewalks on both sides of the street in the portions where they do not exist or only exist on one side. The same should be considered for North Main Street between downtown and Michigan Street, to connect nearby neighborhoods with downtown and with the Michigan Street commercial strip. For its part, Michigan Street badly needs sidewalk infrastructure, bicycle lanes, and infill development that includes a mix of residences and retail establishments in close proximity. Because it traverses several large, spatially spread-out neighborhoods of the city’s west side, both North Buerkle and South Buerkle badly need bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. There are portions of Buerkle (both North and South) that would be ripe for infill development involving mixed land uses.
When asked about whether there are plans for the City of Morrilton to annex any adjacent, unincorporated terrain, Mayor Lipsmeyer indicated that the city strongly prefers to pursue infill development of underutilized lands within the existing city limits (Lipsmeyer 2015). This policy should definitely be pursued, because it very well might enable infill development a fighting chance, and would keep costs of any new transportation infrastructure lower. Fortunately the grassroots “Grow Morrilton” includes at this early stage brief bullet points listing the need to beautify streets linking downtown with other parts of the city, in order to foster a pleasant transit experience along tree-lined streets. It also includes provisions for invigorating features of downtown, such as the Rialto Theater, to make it an even more welcoming destination. Those initiatives should be prioritized, and expanded to emphasize bicycle and pedestrian travel.
Harding Street needs considerable public works. There is plenty of empty, undeveloped land along the street that could benefit from infill development that includes a mix of residences, cafés, and restaurants. The street should be made within the Complete Streets framework, and include abundant pedestrian infrastructure, gardens and small plazas where people could spend time, and protected bicycle lanes. As in the case of Stuttgart, every public school in Morrilton should enjoy enhanced connectivity through safe and abundant bicycle infrastructure and sidewalks. The latter would make a positive contribution to the reworking of Harding Street.
St. Joseph Street is perhaps the best developed, and, therefore, the most cost-effective place in Morrilton to begin a project based on the Complete Streets strategy. The sidewalk infrastructure that already is there is quite pleasant; however, the addition of cycling lanes would enhance it even more. Most of the twelve blocks between Broadway and Harding are developed, though there are spots that could benefit from mixed-use infill development. Much of it is an attractive street by virtue of its terrain and gentle curve, though a fair amount of its architecture is automobile-oriented and could be improved upon.
Finally, the most southerly of the city’s residential areas, and those west of Division and Oak Streets, an important north-south thoroughfare, should rightfully have abundant sidewalk infrastructure and protected bicycle lanes installed, especially on the more heavily traveled streets, including Division and Oak. The priority should be to enhance the connectivity of low-density westside neighborhoods with the city’s downtown.
American small-city sprawl, including that of Arkansas, exhibits the irony that people are spread out and too often forced to travel long distances to access crowded arterial roads to commute to work, shopping, school, and other destinations. As a result, the aesthetics of small-city commercial thoroughfares are diminished, because buildings are separated from one another by hopscotch development and surrounded by parking lots necessary to accommodate the increased automobile traffic, which contributes to the stretching out of commercial strip development (Congress for the New Urbanism 2010). The funding necessary to build and maintain such thoroughfares means that too seldom are there enough resources available to remake such streets into places that are sustainable, and appropriate for walking or bicycling.
Fortunately, planners and other civic leaders across the country are increasingly becoming aware of the problem and are seeking ways to combat it. West Jefferson, NC is a corollary to the “messing up” of Saratoga Springs that Kunstler (1993) lamented. The small city (population 1,315), located in the mountainous northwest of North Carolina, began to decline economically in the 1980s upon the disappearance of its manufacturing base. Civic leaders sought citizen input as they attempted to turn the small city’s fortunes around. It was decided that downtown revitalization was key to the strategy. A Complete Streets approach was followed whereby the city removed the downtown’s two primary traffic lights, renovated the bicycle lanes, and refinement of pedestrian infrastructure (Penn 2014). The results were dramatic, and included an increase in tourism in West Jefferson, and growth in retail sales and the number of retail stores, including restaurants and art galleries (Dodds 2015).
Civic leaders in Morrilton and Stuttgart are keen to capitalize on the broad range of amenities of their respective historic downtowns. Likewise, they view their communities as appropriate for exurban growth as Arkansans tire of the crowdedness and other problems of sprawling urban areas in the state. They also view their cities as gateways to Petit Jean State Park in the case of Morrilton, and duck-hunting country in the case of Stuttgart, which, if promoted more broadly, could potentially attract even more tourism and retirement to their communities. Tourists, retirees, and exurbanites would be more attracted to these communities if walking and cycling were more pleasant experiences and were viable modes of transportation to restaurants and retail stores. Given that there is no “one size fits all” approach to infill development and making streets more complete, it is imperative that Stuttgart and Morrilton, and other small cities of Arkansas for that matter, involve citizens in the process of generating ideas favorable to sustainable urban planning.
*Dr. Michael S. Yoder is a professor of Geography at the University of Central Arkansas.
[Editor’s Note: The following citations conform to the Annals of the Association of American Geographers guidelines.]
Bell, Stephen 2014. Personal Interview 26 February. (Director, Stuttgart, AR Chamber of Commerce).
Burchell, Robert and Sahan Mukherji 2003. Conventional Development Versus Managed Growth: The Costs of Sprawl. American Journal of Public Health 93(9): 1534-1540.
CCGA 2006 (Conway County Genealogical Association). Conway County Heritage. Nashville, TN: Turner Publishing Company.
CCHS 1990 (Conway County Historical Society). Conway County: Our Land, Our Home, Our People. Little Rock: Historical Publications of Arkansas.
City-data 2015a. City-data.com/city/Morrilton-Arkansas.html. (Accessed 21 March 2015).
_____2015b. City-data.com/city/Stuttgart-Arkansas.html. (Accessed 21 March 2015).
Congress for the New Urbanism 2010. The unbearable costs of sprawl. http://www.cnu.org/sites/www.cnu.org/files/whitepaper-unbearablecostofsprawl.pdf (Accessed 18 March 2013).
Council on Environmental Quality 1974. The Costs of Sprawl: Executive Summary. Washington, DC: Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Dodds, Alex 2015. A transportation engineer on what convinced him to use a Complete Streets approach. Washington, DC: Smart Growth America. http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2015/03/26/a-transportation-engineer-on-what-convinced-him-to-use-a-complete-streets-approach/ (Accessed 31 March 2015).
EPA 2013. Our Built and Natural Environments: A Technical Review of the Interactions Among Land Use, Transportation, and Environmental Quality, 2nd edition. Washington: Environmental Protection Agency.
Ewing, Reid, Rolf Pendall and Don Chen 2002. Measuring Sprawl and its Impact. Washington, DC: Smart Growth America. http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/documents/MeasuringSprawl.PDF (Accessed 21 March 2015).
Flusche, Darren 2012. Bicycling Means Business: The Economic Benefits of Bicycle Infrastructure. League of American Bicyclists.
http://bikeleague.org/sites/default/files/Bicycling_and_the_Economy-Econ_Impact_Studies_web.pdf (Accessed 16 March 2015).
Green, Linda 2015. Personal interview 25 March (Director of Outreach Services, Conway County Public Library.)
Hanley, Ray and Steven Hanley 2009. Main Street Arkansas: The Hearts of Arkansas Cities and Towns as Portrayed in Postcards and Photographs. Little Rock: Butler Center Books.
Humphrey, Carl 2014. Personal Interview February 26. (Director, Arkansas County Economic Development Corporation).
ICMA 2010. Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities. Washington, DC: International City/County Management Association (ICMA).
Kim, Jinwon and David Brownstone 2010. The impact of residential density on vehicle usage and fuel consumption. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Economics, University of California Irvine.
Kunstler, James H. 1993. The Geography of Nowhere. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Lipsmeyer, Allen 2015. Personal Interview 25 March (Mayor, City of Morrilton, Arkansas).
March, Lynne 2013. Economic Impacts of Walking & Bicycling in Sonoma County. Sonoma County, CA Transportation Authority (SCTA). http://ci.sebastopol.ca.us/sites/default/files/suekelly/economic_impacts_of_walking_and_bicycling_in_sonoma_county_january_2013_scta.pdf (Accessed 17 March 2015).
Maynard, Marianne 2014. Personal Interview 26 February (Mayor, City of Stuttgart, AR).
New Hampshire OEP 2012 (New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning). Evaluating the Fiscal Impacts of Development.
http://www.costofsprawl.org/Evaluating-Fiscal-Impacts-of-Development-Part-I.pdf (Accessed 18 March 2015).
New York City DOT 2012. Measuring the Street: New Metrics for 21st Century Streets. New York: New York City Department of Transportation. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/2012-10-measuring-the-street.pdf (Accessed 17 March 2015).
Otto, Andreas 2007. Downtown Retailing and ‘Revitalization of Small Cities: Lessons from Chillicothe and Mount Vernon, Ohio. In: Beyond the Metropolis, ed. Ofori-Amoah, Benjamin, 245-268. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Parker, Herbert J. 2015. Personal Communication 30 March (Senior Vice President, Garver, North Little Rock, AR).
Penn, Josh 2014. West Jefferson Streetscape Project. Raleigh: Complete Streets NC http://www.completestreetsnc.org/project-examples/ex-westjefferson/ (Accessed 31 March 2015).
Philipsen, Klaus 2014. What is Urban Design? Community Architect. http://archplanbaltimore.blogspot.com/2014/11/what-is-urban-design.html?q=Philipsen+November+28,+2014 (Accessed 19 March 2015).
Rowe, Kyle 2013. Bikenomics: Measuring the Economic Impact of Bicycle Facilities on Neighborhood Business Districts. http://cep.be.washington.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/bikenomics_v2.pdf (Accessed 18 March 2015).
Smith, Christa 2007. Managing Downtown Revitalization Projects in Small Cities: Lessons from Kentucky’s Main Street Program. In: Beyond the Metropolis, ed. Ofori-Amoah, Benjamin, 269-292. Lanahm, MD: University Press of America.
Smith, Jerry 2015. Personal Interview 26 March (President and CEO, Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce and Conway County Economic Development Corporation).
Yin, Robert K. 2009. Case Study Research: Design and Methods, fourth edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.