Thursday, October 31, 2013

Not a fork in the road as much as a spoon.

While it’s easy to derisively brand American suburbia as homogenous and essentially unchanging since it emerged as the preferred settlement pattern for the majority of Americans fifty years ago, we hardly need an intense study to see how much they’ve evolved since the postwar housing boom that began in the late 1940s.  In fact, this “study” glosses over it about as superficially as you can.  But it gets the point across, and it provides the backdrop for an interesting glimpse at what innovations (if that’s the right word) we typically see today.

Go back in history and take a look at the street pattern from subdivisions that sprouted across the purlieus of major metros in the 1950s and early 1960s—about the same time that the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 galvanized construction of limited-access expressways through the hearts of medium and large American cities.  By the time President Eisenhower authorized the Federal Interstate Highway System, this segment of Levittown, PA (outside Philadelphia) had already enjoyed several consecutive years of astronomical growth:
By today’s standards, Levittown’s homes are modestly sized, the lots small enough to force the homes close together, and the garages/driveways barely accommodate two cars.

But they still represent a remarkable achievement in enabling homeownership to an emergent middle-class that had never enjoyed such a luxury in the past, particularly when the crippling Great Depression brought virtually all housing construction (and ensuing growth in independent households) to a screeching halt.  Average people could afford these homes.

Now let’s do the time warp again thirty years more, by veering about 10 miles closer to central Philly.  Witness the change in the layout of the streets:

While everything contained in this Google Map rests within the municipal boundaries of Philadelphia (unlike anything from the previous Levittown map), the most appropriate description of the neighborhoods outlined here is “transitional”.  The street configurations to the west of the large, bisecting Pennypack Creek Park still mostly abide by the conventional street grid that Philadelphia and most American cities used as the basis for neighborhood design until around World War II.  However, the east side of Pennypack begins to display a mix of conventional grids along with the same carefully ordered curvilinear streets that dominate Levittown further to the north.  Housing developers after World War II, at the onset of the baby boom, began experimenting with street designs that boldly defied the four-way stop and quadrilateral.  These new subdivisions meandered and undulated, continuing uninterrupted without any intersections for much longer intervals than any grid would allow.  The William Levitts of the era gambled by speculating that Middle America would buy into sinuous streets that, though potentially more confusing and less suitable for navigation, helped break the visual monotony of a street that stretched to the horizon line.  Curvilinear streets seemed to work well in the prestigious pioneering streetcar suburbs designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, such as Riverside, Illinois (outside Chicago) or Shaker Heights, Ohio (outside Cleveland).  Why not export this typology to the middle classes?

The gamble paid off in spades, and first-time homeowners embraced the street design that all three of the major Levittowns employed.  Before long, virtually every major metro witnessed the development of communities that followed the Levittown model, with most proliferating at about the same time that the central cities endured the cataclysm of interstate highway construction right through the central neighborhoods.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that these 1950s suburbs nearly always stretch in close proximity to either their city’s major interstate highway, the circular beltways (with three-digit numbers instead of two) or both.

But this elegantly winding braid of streets still generally lacks something we associate with today’s suburbia: complete automobile dependency.  It might not be easy or particularly desirable, but usually Levittowns are still tightly organized enough that it is possible to walk to a few destinations.  Purely hierarchical street patterns—in which one “trunk” road provides access to “branches” and then still smaller sprouts—did not catch on until later, meaning we have to go back to the future (and much, much further out from the city center) to see the sort of development patterns that emerged in the late 1960s and 70s.  The map of upper Bucks County (north of Levittown) proves this.

By the time the overwhelming majority of households had at least one car, it became de rigueur for developers to build according to these expansive street configurations, resulting in subdivisions that emphasized homeowners’ privacy at the expense of any real walkability.  With homes spaced much further apart, yards were larger, and no amenities stood conveniently within walking distance, even back on the collector or arterial that provided access to the subdivisions.  Nobody who bought into these developments gave any consideration that they would get anywhere except by car. Quite a few developments built during the 60s and 70s didn’t have sidewalks.

Housing from this time period isn’t as abundant as are the examples from the 1950s, because fewer households were organizing into families.  A moderate baby bust followed the boom.  Interestingly, home sizes grew even as the birth rate plunged; thus, individual households had more space to their own than any time in history—both inside and outside the house. Demand for shared green space reached a nadir.  Public parks in these regions are particularly scarce, since private yards typically sufficed.  The few parks in Upper Bucks County must devote a significant amount of space to parking lots, because they are inevitably unreachable by foot.

It was this time period that the cul-de-sac evolved from a suburban novelty to a sine qua non in subdivision development; families soon specifically sought them out.  The early 1960s developments often didn’t even bother with the circular patch of pavement that allowed vehicles to turn around; the roads just terminated in dead ends, particularly when these new suburbs were pushing into unincorporated areas well beyond the inner-ring suburbs.  Most municipalities eventually required roads to end in cul-de-sacs.  While the curvilinear configuration of the 1950s remained popular, by this point many of the streets in a subdivision terminated in a court.  The lack of a thruway discouraged all cars except for those belonging to people who lived on that cul-de-sac, dramatically lowering traffic volume, increasing privacy and giving the suburban subdivision a quiet, low-density settlement pattern that almost resembled rural living. 

I’m not sure when the next subtle generation in subdivision design truly emerged, but it would probably correlate to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the now-adult Baby Boomers began starting their own families—the echo boom.  Household formation picked up pace, and these young families generally sought new construction just as their parents had.  While some of the new developments took on an expansive form—particularly the luxury ones or those where land was cheap and abundant—quite a few homebuilders tightened the design.  In many cases, average lot sizes retreated slightly, even while square footage to the homes continued a steady growth.  Perhaps recognizing that they had renounced too many neighborhood essentials (or perhaps because more municipalities began mandating them), the developers of suburbs from the 1980s and onward regularly featured amenities such as storm sewers, curbs, and sidewalks (at least on one side of the street).  As a compensation for the slightly smaller yards, these subdivisions (particularly the larger ones) would often include some shared open space in the form of greenery around a decorative retention pond, a community clubhouse, or a soccer field.

Why did this happen? Why did subdivisions return to a slightly higher, more urban density than the decades prior?  My own suspicion is that some of it was prescriptive: through ordinances, municipalities started requiring culs-de-sac instead of dead ends, or storm sewers instead of drainage ditches, which drove up development costs.  Also, formerly unincorporated lands began incorporating and immediately raising the minimum standards for subdivision design.  Developers, in turn, couldn’t necessarily pass these imposed costs directly to the consumer, so instead they found a trade-off with smaller lot sizes, squeezing more homes into a newly platted piece of land.  The result looks something like the quintessential 1980s/90s suburb below:

If this photo looks unusually flat for something in Pennsylvania, that’s because it isn’t Pennsylvania.  The subdivision pictured above is in the outskirts of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  While such a shift in location may seem eccentric or even unexplainable, Baton Rouge offers much more abundant examples of the 1980s subdivisions, having grown considerably at a time when the more mature metro of Philadelphia was fairly stagnant.

This subdivision also demonstrates another, subtler evolution in street design: the 90-degree cul-de-sac.  Notice the shift in the street from the photo below, as well as the parallel sidewalk.

The buffer strip between the sidewalk and the street seems a bit larger than normal, but other than that, nothing is likely to catch the eye as out of the ordinary.  But then, upon entering the bend in the road, the sidewalk takes a more generous cut into people’s front yards, veering strangely close to their front porches. 

Why would they have done this?  It almost appears to me that authorities approved the site plan without thoroughly vetting it.  While there’s nothing wrong per say about having a sidewalk so close to a house, it’s also hard to see why the average buyer would prefer it to a parcel where the sidewalk is much closer to the street.

Elsewhere, in a similar neighborhood down the road, one can witness another insertion of the cul-de-sac into a 90-degree-turn.  Though the homes are more modest, the design of the sidewalk seems a bit more conventional, and, as a result, more effective.

But look at the grassy island in the middle.  The lawn is poorly maintained, and the absence of any other landscaping makes it seem like an afterthought—like some sort of padding.

In neither of the two above examples is the execution as effective as it should be, which makes me suspect that the developers really didn’t know what they were doing.  Or they didn’t care.  It’s not a tough concept, though if these worm’s-eye photographs don’t convey it, this bird’s-eye Google Map should, taken from a subdivision of similar design in the same part of town.

Notice how the 90-degree bends stretch into curvy culs-de-sac?  This road design is a shrewd method to make a little more money by cramming an additional parcel or two into the same space.  If the road were to employ a conventional l-shaped bend, the lots that directly front the bend would be even more strictly wedge shaped, to the point that the street frontage wouldn’t be wide enough to allow individual driveways.  Or, one house would claim an enormous side yard from the land that is completely unreachable by a driveway.  With a gentle arc in its place, each house gets more or less the same linear footage as access to the street, and the surveyors who put together the original plat could fit in another parcel or two.  And a more conscientious developer could transform grassy patch in the center of the cul-de-sac into an attractive, verdant amenity.

There’s nothing subversive or unethical about this design; it simply demonstrates that, particularly for moderate or middle-income households, developers have learned they can slice away at some of the yard size.  The homes featured in the photos and map above all come from Gardere, a lower and moderate-income area on the otherwise affluent south side of Baton Rouge.  My suspicion is that these subdivisions exist through some form of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits: they’re newer, in better condition, and bear some of the “neo-traditional” design features that federal housing programs love to employ.  Because the average buyer for these properties doesn’t have the money to be choosy, developers can take huge liberties, and they don’t necessarily worry about details like attractively landscaped common area or well-designed sidewalks.  And, in the grand evolutionary arc (pun fully intended) of American settlements, this represents one more design strategy pushing us further from the look and feel of the original Levittown.  Suburban developments are neither uniform nor unchanging.  I’m not confident that the conventional grid will ever become the standard again, even though New Urbanist advocates have successfully implemented it in specialized niche developments throughout the country.  (After all, does anyone openly claim to be a New Urbanist anymore?)  But I absolutely trust that culs-de-sac and street curves have a long way to grow before the design calcifies.  And it probably never will.  The evolution continues.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Movable, misunderstood apparitions.

In certain subcultures, it’s become a meme.  But it took me a little while to catch on. Only after driving past this curiosity for three consecutive days did I realize what it was.  It’s not exactly showy, but that’s the point.  Look slightly to the left of the center of this photo, and it should be clear what I’m referring to. 

Since it really doesn’t jump out, a different angle and better weather might help.

Yes, it’s a fairly standard ten-speed, only painted all in white.  It’s a ghost bike—a spartan memorial to someone who was killed or severely injured while bicycling. According to the Ghost Bikes nonprofit site, St. Louis christened the first ghost bikes back in 2003, but it has spread to hundreds of locations all across the world, nearly always as a tribute to someone struck by a car.  Usually the accident took place at or near the location where the memorial stands, and frequently the dedicators deploy an already damaged bike, to intensify the mangled effect of the collision.  Sometimes the installers remove the tubes from of the tires in order to deter theft.  In this Detroit example, the bike leans against a traffic sign on Grand River Avenue and Temple Street, right in front of the Motor City Casino.

As is the case with many ghost bikes, other passers-by have inserted flowers and scribbled messages onto the enamel.

And, not surprisingly, I’m not the first to capture this discovery.  One of the more prominent local urban advocacy websites seems to have taken notice just a day or two after the installation.  Hub of Detroit created the memorial to honor Hal Williams, who died last month following a hit-and-run collision, purportedly along the same segment of Grand River Avenue as the site of this memorial.  Incidentally, a Detroit City Councilman’s son was hit on his bike at this exact intersection in 2010.  Though the councilman’s son did not sustain life-threatening injuries (not doubt abetted by the solicitude of the driver, who stopped that time around), the fact that multiple accidents have taken place along this stretch of Grand River prompts one to question the overall safety level for bicycles at this part of town, or this intersection in particular.

Even a Google Maps view suggests that this intersection is a doozie.

It’s essentially three-way, except that the bi-directional John C Lodge Service Drive straddles both sides of a below-grade State Highway 10 (M-10), which operates as a limited-access freeway throughout the Detroit city limits.  And Temple Street is particularly confusing: contrary to the appearance on the map, the motorists traveling eastbound from the west side of M-10 can fully cross, but those on the west side of Temple heading eastward (toward the Motor City Casino) cannot completely traverse this intersection.  A good portion of the traffic uses this intersection as ingress or egress from M-10 (Lodge Freeway), and an additional service ramp loops across (parallel to Temple Street) cutting through the intersection in an opposite flow that one would expect (the left side of the road) in order to continue access on the south side of the portion of Temple separated by a median.  If this description seems baffling, one can imagine how it would appear to any bicyclist or motorist unfamiliar with the intersection.  The photo below at least provides a hint of the sort of “Charlie Foxtrot” situation that this intersection inflicts upon its users.

Ghost bikes could serve as a sobering reminder to passers-by of the risks that bicyclists assume when maneuvering in urban environments with fast-moving automobile traffic.  They could prove particularly effective in reminding motorists to proceed with caution in already complicated, high-traffic intersections like Temple and Grand River.  But unfortunately my inner grammarian impels me to use epistemic modal verbs in the previous two sentences, because I don’t yet think ghost bikes are achieving their goal.  They could someday.  But if a website exists to track them, they clearly aren’t that widespread.

Sure, we don’t have nearly as many bicyclist fatalities as we do of motorists; after all, not very many people ride bicycles in the US.  But one far bigger hindrance to the visibility and viability of ghost bikes is that they rarely survive long.  Floyd Reeser of Bike Saviours, a nonprofit community bicycle education center in Tempe, observed that ghost bikes rarely last more than a week, while officials in the Arizona city were finalizing a measure limiting the placement of roadside memorials in the public right of way to 90 days following a fatal accident.  Tempe officials agreed in June to work on a relocation of two ghost bikes, divorcing them from the accident sites but preserving their commemorative integrity.  Meanwhile, the New York City Sanitation Department announced that the “eyesores” had to come down after receiving numerous complaints about the ghost bikes, though the department is giving families of loved ones a 30-day grace period—25 days more than typical abandoned and derelict bikes receive. For those who think this callousness is stereotypically American, the City Council recently ordered a family to remove a ghost bike in Hackney, UK.  And a ghost bike just north of Dupont Circle in Washington DC managed to survive a year as a tribute to a young woman hit by a garbage truck in 2008.  This particular episode amplifies the poignancy of ghost bikes for me.  I remember this accident, since I biked across the exact same intersection and through the often-terrifying Circle every day on my way to work in Georgetown that year. 

These interventions are among the more courteous.  Most cities remove the ghost bikes with little to no notice.  The only reason this might attract greater attention is because the public sector usually accords another grassroots memorial much greater respect.  We’ve all seen wooden crosses or miniature gravestones along the road to commemorate a life lost in an automobile accident.  Ghost bikes are little more than a semantic subset, specifically indentifying individuals killed while bicycling.  But to remove a wooden cross—or even to complain about it—borders on blasphemy, while petitioners routinely campaign for the successful removal of ghost bikes.  What’s the difference?

I attribute it to several factors.  Obviously bicycles are much larger, and they can legitimately impede a right-of-way in a manner that few roadside graves ever will.  Ghost bikes are far more likely to inhabit urban settings, where the higher population density engenders a higher propensity toward complaints.  But neither of these excuses is entirely fair to ghost bikes, since other memorial graves can be large and ostentatious; meanwhile, ghost bikes could just as easily commemorate an accident in a rural setting.

My suspicion is that the multitude of implied uses to bicycles serves as a liability to the proliferation of ghost bikes.  Obviously the most common function of a bike is as a means of transportation.  So when one remains planted at one site for weeks or months at a time, the public often draws the conclusion that it is abandoned, regardless of an alabaster coating.  Meanwhile, grave markers serve a discrete semiotic purpose: to memorialize—nothing else that I’m aware of.  We see a wooden cross or a flower-embellished placard along the road and we know exactly what it means.  No one has the gall to refer to them as “eyesores” because they fundamentally cannot become abandoned, no matter how aged and deteriorated they might be.

The connotations to a long-parked bicycle are never quite so clear, and ghost bikes suffer as a result.  Since they’re a relatively new phenomenon, maybe time will grant them the same respect that wooden roadside graves enjoy. But the need for widespread public education on ghost bikes references something far more critical: a superior public understanding of how vehicles and bicycles can safely co-exist on roads both urban and rural.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Grow quickly. Live better.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, from the perspective of urban sociologists and planners, at least, major discount retailers such as Walmart have thrived on the destruction of commercial activity in traditional town centers.  No doubt my assertion borders on exaggeration, but it would have to, considering I’ve cribbed Jane Austen’s famous (and equally ironically hyperbolic) first seven words to Pride and Prejudice, in which a man’s search of a wife sets a blithe tone for much of what follows.  By contrast, the unceasing diatribes against Walmart from urban advocates are rarely whimsical.  And while not every high-profile writer/blogger on urban affairs excoriates Walmart, the general tenor of the discussion ascribes much of the decline of downtown retail to the much-maligned megachain.  After all, virtually every freestanding small city in America over 20,000 people that is not part of a larger metropolitan agglomeration can claim a Walmart, perched at the edge of the municipal limits.  And yes, the burgeoning of Walmarts does more or less coincide with the near abandonment of historic, pedestrian-scaled main streets in favor of car-oriented commercialization consolidated into big-box department stores.

But did a corporation—or the corporation—really cause all this?
If the average American consumers genuinely cared enough about Main Street or the courthouse square, wouldn’t they have shunned this commercial cataclysm before it radically altered the entire landscape?  Wasn’t it the consumer that ultimately fueled Walmart’s meteoric growth, by opting for the convenience of everything under one roof, abundant free parking, and (perhaps the most objective factor) those famously low prices?  Some might argue that I’m unreasonably throwing Walmart a bone, since the folks at the boardroom table clearly knew what would happen to Main Street, as department-store big-box shopping encroached on communities that commercial developers had previously perceived as too modest in size to support this retail typology.  And, yes, I recognize the firm’s historic opposition toward unionization, its eventual reneging on a long-standing “Made in America” pledge, and even the management of logistics/merchandising favoring the automatization of functions that once provided communities with stable jobs.  Maybe I am cutting Walmart some undeserved slack.  But I also think the corporation’s biggest critics fail to recognize that Walmart didn’t become a leviathan overnight, any more than these towns devolved from flourishing to failures with the flick of a light switch. 

My own articles on main street America have explored the topic routinely.  But it took a visit to Bentonville, Arkansas to develop a more nuanced understanding of Walmart’s approach to community engagement right at the belly of the beast.
My suspicion is that, until probably around the year 2001, 98% of Americans hadn’t heard of this well-scrubbed little municipality in the northwest corner of the state, just a stone’s throw from the rugged topography of the Ozarks.  Even today, if people are familiar with the town, it is only because it hosts the corporate headquarters for the world’s largest retailer.  And there’s nothing wrong with this seemingly simplified association: after all, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Bentonville who would argue that the city is better known for something else.  But what sort of impact has Walmart’s presence exerted on what otherwise would likely be a nondescript, mid-southern county seat?

Not surprisingly, the influence has been formidable.  I mention the year 2001 because, upon publishing the results of Census 2000, the nation learned that the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area (consisting of the primary cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville) had become the sixth-fastest growing region in the nation.  While a Census update isn’t the sort of news item that necessarily grabs the public by its lapels, it can flirt salaciously with the unconscious and, eventually, through mimetic repetition, penetrate to the conscious.  With each passing year, Bentonville has grabbed the headlines more often, as decisions from the Wal-mart Stores, Inc. Home Office exert a greater impact on the global economy.  I would hesitate to assert that the name “Bentonville, Arkansas” is common knowledge to the same level that a similarly-sized city such as “Beverly Hills, California” might be, partly because the similarities between these two places basically stop there.  But its star is rising on both the national and international horizon, since many of Walmart’s foreign retail ventures have proven just as successful as their domestic efforts.  And Bentonville, predictably, has enjoyed its share of the region’s growth: at over 35,000 people in 2010, it more tripled its population since the 1990 census, and, as recently as 1960, it was a quiet village of barely 3,500 people.

The impact on this growth is obvious, particularly when viewing the street configuration.
The shift from a conventional grid to a more hierarchical arrangement is conspicuous and unsurprising.  The oldest part of the city adopted the grid, which was customary for shaping virtually all communities in the 19th and early 20th century.  Yet 80% of Bentonville’s city limits (which extend in all directions beyond the boundaries in the image above) fits the more expansive, automobile-oriented configuration, in which streets curve and wend, sometimes into hairpins, sometimes into full loops.  Often they terminate as culs-de-sac.  For a municipality that remained a modest village until the 1950s, this growth pattern is normal and broadly characteristic of numerous Sunbelt communities.  Thus, the city of Bentonville has decentralized considerably in the last fifty years, in addition to hosting the global headquarters to the retail behemoth most regularly flagged as the culprit in expediting the demise of downtowns.  Given these two factors, one prevailing question remains: what on earth does its beleaguered town center look like?

Chances are, you’d be as surprised as I was.
It looks terrific.  Nearly 100% occupancy, clean sidewalks, a well-manicured streetscape.  And virtually of all the retail mix—from bike shops to brasseries, yoga studios to yogurt cafes, tea rooms to trattorias—caters to an upmarket clientele, suggesting that the leasing rates are fairly high.
The culminating attraction, however, is the humble storefront that spawned it all:
Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime now serves as the Walmart Visitors’ Center and a mini-museum, with interactive exhibits and the recreation of a soda fountain.

These pictures date from a summer festival on the central square, taken a few years ago, in 2010.  Though they are obviously a bit faded by now—not all of the visitor attractions were open yet during my visit—I can say with a fair amount of confidence that downtown Bentonville is even stronger today.  After all, most estimates show the city has continued to grow another 10% since the 2010 Census results, and, considering that it was demonstrating considerable resilience during the peak of the Great Recession, the downtown is likely only to build on a momentum it had established long before the bubble burst.  A detractor might challenge my assertion by arguing that I captured the city during an atypically vibrant time, when out-of-towners had flocked to the city for the summer celebration on the courthouse square.  But how could the downtown support a high concentration of restaurants, caf├ęs and boutiques if it weren’t lively during the other times of the week as well?

The fact remains that downtown Bentonville boasts a number of civic associations that have worked tirelessly to boost its cachet, including Downtown Bentonville, Inc, a nonprofit association that promotes, attracts investment, and plans activities for Bentonville’s historic downtown, as well as the Bentonville Merchant District, which seeks to attract upscale traveling merchants through the provision of Class A office space and furnished loft-style apartments close to the city center.  The city also has a Convention and Visitors Bureau and a Chamber of Commerce.  These organizations have no doubt worked tirelessly to re-centralize investment in Bentonville’s small downtown, even as the vast majority of the population growth over the last two decades has taken place in the purlieus.  By most metrics, their efforts have paid off.  But plenty of other similarly sized cities can claim the same business associations without these results; I blogged about Jefferson City, Missouri earlier this year, a small city whose civic leaders have collaborated to promote the downtown.  However, the results in Jefferson City, while palpable, have been much more modest than Bentonville—and it is nothing less than the state capital.

Bentonville is simply part of a region that is enjoying a persistent economic boom.  The other primary cities in this unusual metropolitan area—Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville—are also growing like mad.  It doesn’t hurt that the region is home to two other nationally prominent companies: Springdale’s Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat producer, and trucking giant J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., based in the town of Lowell, which abuts Rogers.  But the real cog in the wheel remains the world’s largest retailer, headquartered in Bentonville, and I still suspect the corporation and its numerous investments has more to do with downtown’s vibrancy than the tourist bureau.  Walmart undoubtedly prefers to associate its name with a municipality that enjoys a profile of prosperity and high quality of life; the company will do what it takes to maintain that image within Bentonville.

So what is the visual evidence that this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill boomtown?  Beyond from the picture-perfect courthouse square, the air of plentitude permeates the city.
However, it isn’t just the park spaces that distinguish the more recently developed outer reaches of Bentonville; all the spaces in between have received above average treatment as well.
So a city street has sidewalks.  Big deal, some might say.  But it is out of character for low density, hierarchical, auto-oriented development in the South to make any concession for pedestrians, let alone a full network of sidewalks along all of the major streets.  Compare Bentonville to just about any other city in Arkansas (outside of the Northwest) and you’d be hard pressed to find sidewalks on any arterial or collector roads beyond the historic original street grid.  Both the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Planning in Bentonville have determined that core pedestrian access remains critical, even when the development pattern is sparse, in keeping with the preferences of the majority of people who settle in this part of the country.  The former of the two aforementioned departments reveals that it has conceived network of parks, greenways and biking trails rivals that of a community three times its size.
Meanwhile, the latter-mentioned planning department has several aces up its sleeve as well.  While it isn’t unheard of that a city might support a 76-page Bicycleand Pedestrian Master Plan, a Smart Growth Guidebook, or a Traffic Calming Guidebook, it certainly places the city well outside the bell curve when juxtaposed with its peers.  After all, even the neighboring city of Rogers (pop. 55,000) shows no evidence that its planning department has the resources even to conceive of such initiatives.

The aforementioned features are hardly likely to elevate anyone’s pulse; they aren’t exactly competing with Manhattan’s High Line for infrastructural innovation.  And it’s unreasonable to surmise that Walmart had any real influence on what remain purely publicly owned assets.  But one structure in Bentonville is likely to turn the head of even the most skeptical coastal snob: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The structure was not complete when I visited Bentonville in 2010, but it opened to the public in late 2011, and made international headlines for both its novelty (first major American art museum to open in 50 years, and the only one in an over 100-mile radius) as well as its magnitude (over 200,000 square feet of space on 120-acre grounds and a collection valued in the hundreds of millions).  The striking edifice reaches Bentonville courtesy of internationally recognized Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie.  Perhaps most importantly though, it is resolutely the vision of Alice Walton, daughter to founder Sam Walton and heiress to his fortune.  In one of many interviews she offered at the time of the museum’s opening, Walton, who has been an art collector most of her life, acknowledged that she wanted to make a difference in this part of the world by bringing “something we desperately need”.  She contributed over $300 million to the project, built on family land.  Admission to the museum is free, but because of its destination status, visitors will typically linger, travel the grounds, shop, buy a meal.  A Huffington Post article from the museum’s infancy concluded that the museum would skyrocket past its estimated 250,000 first-year visitors, based on the success after just three months open to the public.

If Crystal Bridges Museum lives up to its promise as an attraction of national or even international caliber, Bentonville clearly needs the tourist infrastructure to support those visitors.  But it would appear it already has it.  Just down the road, in neighboring Rogers, an Embassy Suites Spa and Convention Center flanks one side of the interstate; the Pinnacle Hills lifestyle center sits on the other.  And, earlier this year, the sleek 21c Museum Hotel, famous for the prominent positioning of contemporary art, opened right off of Bentonville’s courthouse square - only the third of its kind in the country.  (Louisville and Cincinnati claim the other two.)  Many of the amenities that have sprouted across Northwest Arkansas over the last twenty years are in keeping with a metropolitan area of nearly a half million people; of course it has a mall, convention center, and a seasonal symphony orchestra.  But while growth trajectory of the metro might resemble that of Phoenix or Las Vegas, no single municipality has spawned everything here in Arkansas.  As of 1950, only college town Fayetteville had even 10,000 people.  The other towns—Lowell, Rogers, Bella Vista, Johnson, Springdale, and of course Bentonville—were isolated villages that boomed simultaneously, swelling their incorporated boundaries until they touched one another.  As a result, Northwest Arkansas may be the country’s youngest conurbation: a 35-mile string of small cities—a microlopolis.  (The only comparable phenomenon I can think of domestically would be the Texas border towns along the Rio Grande, but even Brownsville and McAllen were more than villages fifty years ago, and they’re big cities over 100,000 people now.)

The rapid ascension of these communities into a regional economic powerhouse—with the amenities one might from a single, medium-sized city—may very well neatly manifest the multiplier effect.  But it still doesn’t explain how Bentonville, the epicenter of Walmartlandia, has managed to hold its own with a lively downtown, when plenty of other fast-growing big cities struggle to keep it all centralized (Houston, for example).  After all, in one of the most famous journalistic explorations of Northwest Arkansas, Financial Times’ “The Town that Wal-Mart Built”, Jonathan Birchall observed in 2009 that he always found it “hard not to be hit by the irony in this Bentonville Renaissance. Wal-Mart’s football-stadium-sized supercentres are, after all, the epitome of the chain store culture that has destroyed small town centres and homogenised communities all over America in the past three decades.”  But it sounds like he took the bait.
The town that Walmart built has either proven itself immune to the main-street-murdering forces that afflicted most American cities, or it has recovered from that ailment magnificently.  Bentonville also boasts a regional airport that offers year-round, nonstop daily service to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; Alice Walton’s money helped build the terminal, which serves a population that had no regular airfare until 1998.  Bentonville Public Schools have offered the prestigious International Baccalaureate program since 2007.  And yes, Bentonville has a Walmart not so far away, in what probably was the edge of town not too long ago.

By this point in such a lengthy analysis, it’s obvious what has happened: Bentonville has responded to the fact that it hosts a multinational corporation by offering the sort of amenities needed to attract talent to the region—talent that, its current leadership presumes, will propel Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to another fifty years of unprecedented growth.
Most MBA grads trained at Harvard, Wharton or Kellogg are going to need enticement to move to an area not recognized for its urban offerings.  On top of all the talent in multinational retail, Bentonville and its neighbors most also graciously host the satellite offices of 1,300 suppliers whom Walmart has lured due to its vast trade network—ranging in size from one sales exec to something as large as Procter and Gamble, for whom a few hundred employees call Northwest Arkansas home.  The elite business class that routinely visits the Walmart headquarters expects top-tier hotels and shopping, while many of the executives who make it their permanent home will inevitably seek sophisticated eateries in an attractive, walkable setting.  How much of all this was funded directly by Walmart is anyone’s guess (though I’m sure at least someone out there has the numbers).  The fact remains that the corporate culture in Bentonville fueled a demand for a Parks Department that builds a network out of its green space, or a Planning Department that performs traffic calming studies.

The hardened cynics can read about this serendipity in the Ozarks and offer an acerbic rebuttal: of course Walmart is going to prop up its hometown, but does that absolve it from the devastation that has taken place virtually everywhere else?  This assertion would be valid if every town with a Walmart suffered an equally moribund Main Street.  But they clearly haven’t.  And there remain villages too small or too remote for a Walmart, which have confronted the exact same decline of entrepreneurism in their historic centers.  Arguing from that same angle, the City of Bentonville did not enjoin Walmart to revitalize downtown—or force Alice Walton to build Crystal Bridges—any more than existing laws compelled Cornelius Vanderbilt to endow a university in Nashville, the capital of a state he never even visited.   No doubt some of Walmart’s boosterism in Bentonville is self-serving, since a desirable community only helps to improve Walmart’s reputation as both an employer and corporate citizen, which in turn can attract further investment.  However, viewing all corporate altruism as suspicious requires a labyrinthine recontextualization that is just as distorted as saying “Walmart killed our downtowns”.  Or its equally hyperbolic counterpart: “Walmart has had no impact on the way we shop on main street”.  Clearly it has, but the forces compelling consumer behavior remain complicated—baffling even.  For while most of us can understand that we abandoned our old downtowns out of convenience and lack of foresight, no one will ever truly be able to explain want prompted many American consumers to give up their cars so they could return to bicycles.  And if you don’t think I’m concluding ironically, I’ve got a Jane Austen novel to sell you.