A Region on the Move

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A Region on the Move

Author Karen Minkel
Karen Minkel

Home Region Program Director

I recently had the chance to travel to Seattle to share our home region’s unfolding story at the 25th Congress for the New Urbanism. Standing in front of urban design leaders from the most iconic cities in the country was an amazing opportunity to share the exciting—and for some surprising—transformation underway in our region 

While our journey started with greenways and trail systems, it’s become a story of partners joining together for the greater good of the region. What we’ve learned here in Northwest Arkansas is that philanthropy can forge a strong ecosystem of public and private collaboration. 

Our foundation’s grantmaking can jumpstart municipal investments, and by funding higher risk projects, philanthropy frees up public partners to test innovative ideas without burning precious political capital. More importantly, these projects ignite dialogue and big thinking. In a way that not many institutions can, philanthropy can convene partners beyond sectors, city limits and ideology to get out in front of rapid growth and into a vibrant future.

"What we’ve learned here in Northwest Arkansas is that philanthropy can forge a strong ecosystem of public and private collaboration."

Over the last 25 years, the population in Northwest Arkansas has doubled, with many people moving to the region because of the opportunities it offers. But like other areas across the country, the benefits of unprecedented growth also present challenges.

Throughout the region, we have had pockets of forward-thinking city leaders and urban planners. But there wasn't anything connecting these pockets together. We saw an opportunity to unify regional leaders around a shared vision.

One of the first collaborations back in 2009 was ambitious – to develop a trail system connecting the major metro areas in the region. This trail would literally and figuratively connect the region by building on existing trail infrastructure that was fragmented by city. We saw an opportunity to use a greenway as the cornerstone of a livable region that enables a healthier lifestyle, offers an alternative transportation route and that spurs economic development along the route.

Smaller cities began to join the movement.  We built partnerships with mayors, regional economic development organizations, bike advocacy groups and public schools in the area to connect greenways to soft-surface trails and city streets.

Last year, we convened our partners once again and traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark to study its 220-mile network of bike paths. Our goal was to understand how to create a transportation culture where bicycles are a practical, safe and environmentally friendly staple of the daily commute. Upon our return, we took immediate action as a region and started a movement to test new on-street cycling infrastructure that made commuting by bike a safe alternative.

We keep asking – how can we scale up good ideas? How do we take advantage of collaborative momentum to tackle something even bigger?

Exploring regional public transit is the next big chapter in our story. We reunited our partners in Seattle to learn about the city’s mass transit system, learning about best practices but also seeing theories in action. We looked closely at bus rapid transit and witnessed how human behavior can change when mass transit is the most efficient option.

The Congress defines urbanism as “building places people love,” and that is exactly what we are doing together in Northwest Arkansas. In our region, we’ve learned that we can do much more and move faster by forming thoughtful partnerships—even unexpected ones. With strong partners, we can make the ripples of change go so much farther, defining a sense of place and possibility.

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