A Game Changer for the Suburbs


Crystal Bridge Art Museum: Paid for by heiress Alice Walton
Source: flickr rapidtravelchai

A proposed neighborhood adjacent to downtown Rogers.

Source: Downtown Rogers Initiative

The coolest coffee shop in Bentonville.

 Source: The Washington Post


The Washington Post recently published an article “Why Wal-Mart, an icon of suburbia, had to urbanize its hometown: Younger recruits want city-style amenities.”

Walmart’s need to urbanize its hometown is the shot that will be heard in suburbs across this land.

Without urban amenities, Northwest Arkansas is failing to attract the kind of talent that will enable the regional economy to grow in the 21st Century. Walmart (based in Bentonville), two other Fortune 500 companies (Tyson Foods and JB Hunt), and 1,300 suppliers are located in a region that is predominantly rural and suburban.

In the middle of the 20th Century, Northwest Arkansas consisted of a few sleepy towns on a railroad line. Now it has half a million residents in disconnected subdivisions.

The area must urbanize to move forward economically, and the implications of that necessity will turn suburbs on their heads. The needs of Bentonville and Walmart will reverberate coast to coast.

Says the Post: “Historically, the company has done alright selling its quiet, family-friendly image to those considering jobs at the supercenter-sized Home Office. … But that strategy isn’t working anymore. Wal-Mart needs to attract the Jerome Lynches of the world, who might not have a car and are not thinking yet about kids, from large cities that have lots more to offer. There are typically more than 1,000 jobs open at the Home Office, and most successful applicants would have to move.” (The article profiles Lynch, 23, and other millennials, who view urban culture as a nonnegotiable requirement).

Walmart, the Walton Family Foundation, and local leaders are investing heavily in art museums and other cultural attractions, bicycle trails, and mixed-use infill development that brings restaurants and brew pubs.

Nearby Rogers, Springdale, and Fayetteville (home of the University of Arkansas) are moving in the same direction. Urban amenities have gained status in the land of Walmart—arguably the largest, most suburban-oriented enterprise in the world.

A recent master plan for Rogers by the urbanists Gateway Planning Group shows the kind of transformation that is needed. Cultural amenities are only the beginning.

The existing Rogers downtown comprises only a handful of blocks of walkable urban place. Go any further and the city becomes increasingly suburban, underutilized, and car-oriented. To gain appeal today, the walkable downtown must grow in all directions. That requires civic leaders who invest in the infrastructure of community—creating “opportunities for investment and enhancement,” notes Scott Polikov of Gateway Planning. In other words: The plan offers landowners and developers a chance to make money while helping the region move forward.

For Northwest Arkansas and regions nationwide, progress centers on urban placemaking.