Last month, I attended a workshop in Wilson, focused on creative placemaking here in the Delta. The workshop highlighted stories of success and challenge in towns similar to Lonoke and provided an opportunity to hear firsthand from the volunteers and leaders who are doing the hard work of reviving their own communities. This creative placemaking workshop was one of several being facilitated by the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) throughout the year. DRA is a federal economic development authority that works cooperatively with partner entities such as Lonoke-based Central Arkansas Planning & Development District (CAPDD) to facilitate special projects in our area.
This workshop in Wilson also provided an opportunity to have numerous conversations about the progress and work that the people of Lonoke have recently initiated. I am struck by the realization that our story is spreading across the region, and for the first time in quite a while, people around around state are again taking a look at Lonoke.
One fact long recognized by the workshop attendees is that rural communities have experienced a phenomenon resulting in the abandonment of place over the last five decades. The statistics of population loss here in the Delta are widely published and studied by economic developers and leaders. The effects of “rural brain drain” are clear, both on paper and visibly, as you drive through the small communities of our region.
Interestingly, medium-sized and large cities have also experienced a shift during this same time period. In studying the causes and consequences of urban and suburban development patterns, we find complex and extensive contributing factors. As people of mobility found their own reasons to leave urban centers behind decades ago, our nation’s great cities were left with gaping holes in population and built fabric. Among the compounded results of this sequence of decisions are cities with empty downtown parking lots where grand buildings once stood and the expansion of congested suburbs with generic forms and unfamiliar faces. A person need only consider the amount of time spent on a daily commute to realize that we live with a different set of priorities than our grandparents.
While many factors differ between the rural and urban plights, a common thread exists: the baggage of one place is exchanged for the perceived “cleanliness” of a new location. In both scenarios, mobility enables exodus. There is a demonstrated tendency to gravitate toward the “new” and leave behind the complicated and the messy. While “new” is seen as an opportunity to claim a “clean” environment for ourselves, we often forget to consider the people and places that are left behind when we pursue our new personal ideal. Sadly, one real reason we see populations abandon their former neighbors and neighborhoods is, quite simply, the pursuit of isolation and separation.
So, the patterns of the past have left a landscape of places with rich history and character exchanged for locations with no story and no distinction. Yet, even with this reality, it seems the future is promising for our left behind places. Research is revealing that the next generation of homebuyers and business owners have a strong preference to invest in locations with a story and potential—places just like Lonoke. A recently released survey by the National Trust for Historic Preservation indicates that 44 percent of respondents who were born between 1981 and 1998 prefer living in a neighborhood with historic character. Additionally, when traveling, 71 percent of the upcoming generation enjoys exploring the history of an area, and over two-thirds have an interest in staying at an historic hotel. Perhaps most importantly, the survey indicates that 53 percent of millennials personally believe that buildings, architecture, neighborhoods, and communities must be preserved, conserved, and protected in order to keep a community culturally rich and diverse.
In response to trends demonstrated by such data, much of the focus of the planning and design professions today is oriented around a correction of the entrenched development patterns and mindsets of recent decades. Often, these design solutions emphasize traditional forms and densities found in historic neighborhoods and towns. We may look no further than our own state to find exemplary communities, both small and large, rural and urban, which have embraced their existing built fabric and historic downtowns, bringing new ideas to life in old buildings. A collection of these success stories has been assembled in an annual publication entitled Block, Street, & Building: The Best of New Urbanism in Arkansas, edited by Daniel Hintz. In this year’s edition, architects, landscape architects, and planners around the state have contributed case studies and perspectives on the power of good design to create experiences which make attractive and sustainable places. In Hintz’s publication, I contributed a short written piece entitled “Planting Roots,” writing, “I am learning that placemaking in a rural context embodies a promise of redemption for our overlooked locations.”
That promise may be realized in celebrating the arts and recognizing the creative talents that exist right here in our home town. I recently heard Mickey Howley, Director of the Main Street Association in Water Valley, Miss., remind a crowd that, “Small towns don’t have to be cultural vacuums — they can be home to interesting stuff!” This current movement of investment in authentic places and experiences gives me reason to believe that Lonoke’s existing historic fabric can also become a vessel for new dreams. As neighbors who appreciate the blessing of proximity that we share here, Lonoke is already becoming the visible, attractive, and connected community that we envision and which the next generation is seeking. It is entirely possible that the very mobility which once propelled young families, students, and entrepreneurs from their places of origin may now be the vehicle that compels them to return. When they do, may Lonoke be a place in which they invest and invite others to join as neighbors.
Ryan Biles is an architect who recently concluded his service on the Lonoke Planning & Zoning Commission. His contribution to the Block, Street, and Building publication is linked at the new website www.LookAtLonoke.com.