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Fast-growing Northwest Arkansas must change the way it prepares for the future and be strategic in its planning to remain one of the nation’s best places to live and work.

That was among the messages shared by Allison Thurmond Quinlan, an architect and planning expert who presented to more than 180 people at the Northwest Arkansas Council’s spring meeting in Bentonville.

Quinlan told the crowd the housing challenges aren’t created entirely by population growth, but also must focus on allocating space for people more efficiently. Sprawl and having miles of single-family subdivisions are expensive for cities to support with services like water, sewer, street maintenance and police protection. Increased housing density would reduce the cost of supporting growth.

The region, which a state demographer predicts will have more than 1 million residents by 2050, must plan for the growth. To reach 1 million, the region must accommodate 400,000 more residents.

Construction of lower-density developments to accommodate that urban growth, which is the most common approach in Northwest Arkansas, leads to “eating up some of our most beautiful and productive land with sprawl,” Quinlan said.

Note: these maps are for visual and scale purposes only to visualize growth and land use at current projections without intervention. The red shaded areas depict developed land assuming Northwest Arkansas communities accommodate growth without significant changes in the way they operate today.

The region’s household size is shrinking, now at 2.64 people per dwelling, yet city zoning laws throughout the region practically require building large homes, she said. Those regulations suited growth in the 1960s and ’70s but no longer work for Northwest Arkansas.

Quinlan’s estimates showed 72% of the region’s land available for residential building is zoned for single-family homes, yet 68% of NWA households have no children. And current zoning restrictions across Northwest Arkansas make it illegal to build housing in walkable, mixed use neighborhoods where residents aspire to live. She stressed the importance of building housing that aligns with what the needs are. 

“We have failed,” Quinlan said. “What we’ve tried is not working.”

The theme of the Council’s spring meeting focused on Northwest Arkansas’ challenges created by rapid growth such as needing affordable housing, more infrastructure and paying to improve highways in ways that would reduce traffic congestion. Council leaders announced plans to create a regional growth strategy.

“While this growth trajectory is good news for the already booming economy, Northwest Arkansas is already feeling the impacts of rapid population growth,” said Nelson Peacock, the Council’s president and CEO. “Rising housing costs, traffic and physical infrastructure issues threaten the quality of life for NWA residents.”

Earlier this year, the Council conducted public opinion research to gain insight on residents’ views of growth and its related challenges. The research identified four consistent concerns: infrastructure, traffic, housing and the need for leadership to devise and execute a growth strategy. 

Eighty-three percent of those surveyed rated the region’s quality of life as good or excellent. The aspects of quality of life that received the most favorable ratings included outdoor recreation, safety and clean drinking water. 

In terms of challenges, 71% of respondents said a shortage of affordable housing is the biggest issue, followed by traffic congestion (64%) and the destruction of green space (40%). 

Leaders have suggested the Northwest Arkansas Council Council can play an important role in establishing a multi-community growth strategy because it’s able to work across jurisdictional boundaries for the greater good of the region. It’ll be necessary to avoid repeating the work accomplished in other regional plans such as the long-term transportation plan, open space plan and bike master plan produced by the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, leaders indicated.

In addition to policy changes and alignments, Quinlan said rethinking the strategy for building developments to accommodate growth will require public education and advocacy to make policy changes happen.

“What we have done has not been enough…We have to work together, we have to work regionally and we have to not be afraid to make mistakes as we go,” Quinlan said.

Click here to view Quinlan’s presentation

The Council launched Groundwork in March 2021 with the goal of providing housing solutions for the region’s workforce. Last summer, council officials announced the center’s first attainable housing investment, a 77-unit mixed-income apartment project in downtown Springdale that would include 30 units permanently reserved for households earning below the region’s area median income. Officials hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for the project in March. 

In the coming months, the Council will convene leaders to identify priorities and get to work on a robust regional growth strategy.

“As the region moves towards 1 million residents, leaders will need to work collaboratively to adopt smart growth policies that will accommodate this growth while preserving the character of the communities that make NWA special,” Peacock said. “While housing is the most visible challenge, many other issues need special consideration – including water and highway infrastructure, regional transit, along with efforts to reduce urban sprawl and preserve precious green space.”

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