Kaid Benfield Archive


Walkable livability is a small-town value

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 6, 2010 at 1:32PM

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My pal Steve Davis, a communications coordinator at Smart Growth America, used to be a journalist in the small city of Bentonville, Arkansas (population estimated at 33,744 in 2007).  Best known as the community that spawned and still serves as headquarters for Walmart, Bentonville is nothing if not quintessential Middle America.

In a two-part series of revealing blog posts (part one here; part two here), Steve describes his life in Bentonville as very much what “livability” advocates like yours truly aspire to:

“When moving to town, we deliberately chose to live as close as possible to the old town square, the focal point of the city since it was platted in the 1830’s. Third Street, Bentonville (by: Stephen Lee Davis)We wanted to be close to our office just off the square and though we liked the idea of walking to the downtown grocery store or the park around the corner, rents and home prices were also generally lower in the historic core of the city, with the influx of new residents with higher incomes fueling the construction on the edge of town, at least in part . . .

“Several weekends in a row, we parked our cars entirely, and managed to do our grocery shopping, go to church, visit friends, or listen to bluegrass in the square on a Friday night without having to get in either of our two cars. We walked 5 minutes to the grocery store. We biked to Walmart a handful of times — receiving many strange looks in the process. We went to eat at a new restaurant on the square. We went hiking on a short trail in the woods right on the edge of downtown. We went to the library.”

Bentonville's town square (by: Ben Hardill, creative commons license)Given how closely this lifestyle aligns with what we think of us the essence of small-town or small-city living, Steve thinks that rural-state members of Congress have it completely wrong when they oppose the Obama administration’s “livability” agenda in the misplaced belief that there is nothing in it for communities outside of large metro areas.

In fact, he argues, only by creative initiatives that free up federal transportation dollars for walkable streets and community initiatives, for example, are places like Bentonville likely to get much of anything useful from that substantial pot of money.

“Where are values like livability and quality of life more resonant if not in small towns like Bentonville? Other small towns and cities aren’t that different. Even in largely rural states like Wyoming or Montana, the majority of residents are still generally concentrated around urbanized areas, the old town square, or the former railroad depot in a pattern similar to Bentonville.

“When Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood talks about livability as the desire people have for a range of transportation options, the freedom to own less than 2 or 3 cars, the Benton County Court House (by: Dale Miller, creative commons license)a high quality of life with ample green space, biking or walking paths, and shopping, restaurants or health care located nearby, he’s describing the very lifestyle [that] many residents of rural areas or small towns have, or the lifestyle many of them would like to have . . .

“People who live in classic American small towns like Bentonville know a thing or two about livability. There’s nothing “livable” about being stuck in your subdivision that got built too far from town, work or school when gas prices get too high. Nor is it “livable” to have the federal government incentivizing (through money to the State DOT) the widening of highways into the county to encourage more sprawl outside of town even as the city is clamoring for more investment inside of it.

“Some in Congress seem to think that ‘livability’ is some sort of urban hoodwinking of rural America. storefronts in Bentonville (by: nsub1/Nick, creative commons license)They need look no further than the sidewalks and town squares of their state’s small towns to see the truth.”

(I’ve written before about sustainability in small towns, e.g., Langley, Washington; Greensburg, Kansas; Baldwin, Minnesota; Sebastopol, California.)

There is a lot more in Steve’s blog posts, including some terrific photos, more about how transportation dollars have been spent (and misspent) in Bentonville, how the city’s sprawl now threatens the very things that make it attractive, and the simpatico views of former Meridian, Mississippi mayor John Robert Smith.  I think Steve’s personal experience brings a valuable perspective to the table.  Read it and see what you think.