Venture Design

Jeffrey Huber, Stephen Luoni, Cory Amos and Peter Bednar of the UACDC. [Courtesy of the UACDC]

For more than a generation university-based design centers have been dedicated to linking the intellectual resources and creative energies of architecture and landscape programs to their cities and regions. These days, given declining public budgets and mounting social and ecological challenges, the potential for productive collaboration — for the application of innovative ideas to urban practice — would seem greater than ever. To explore this potential, we are beginning here a series of profiles of design centers.

We’re pleased to start with the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, based at the Fay Jones School of Architecture. Founded in 1995, and directed since 2003 by Stephen Luoni, the UACDC has earned a national reputation for adventurous design research focusing on what Luoni calls the “recombinant ecologies” of suburbia. From its home base in Fayetteville, the UACDC has used Northwest Arkansas as a laboratory for rethinking postwar suburbia, especially for reshaping the design and ecology of the arterial road, the commercial strip, the big-box store and the parking lot. Although it has yet to build much — a source of increasing frustration — the UACDC has received many awards and grants; its work has been published widely and exhibited at the National Building Museum in Washington.

As part of our profile, which features a detailed slideshow of the center’s projects, Places editor Nancy Levinson interviewed UACDC director Stephen Luoni.

Nancy Levinson: The UACDC’s mission is to advance “creative development” in Arkansas. How do you define creative development?

Stephen Luoni: We define it as development that solves for a triple bottom line — development that integrates social and environmental measures into economic development. Such integrative — or what we call “recombinant” — design solutions help to sustain economic capacity and to enhance ecologies and to improve public health. These efforts are primarily venture — or speculative — initiatives, where advocacy, research, and planning are driven by the designer, not the client. In this sense they fall within the constellation of supply-side models of nonprofit service — in contrast to the more traditional, demand-side models of community design centers.

In fact, since CDCs emerged in the 1960s, their collective service footprint has been defined by assistance to communities in distress. Traditional CDCs focused on responding to immediate problems, to mitigating market failures and meeting unmet needs within underserved — usually low-income — groups. Creative development involves a broader approach: it recognizes that a large middle class is also ill-served by public realm investments — or lack of public realm investments — and so it proactively uses design to steer public policy and set larger agendas towards building resilient communities.

NL: What would be a good example of creative development?

SL: For five years we’ve been designing proposals for light rail transit in Northwest Arkansas (NWA). It’s an unfunded initiative — a response not to a client’s proposition but instead to a real problem that wasn’t being addressed. From 1990 to 2000, NWA was the nation’s sixth fastest growing region; yet it lacked any strong planning traditions — other than highway development — that would have met the needs of this rapid development. And more growth is expected: the region is projected to double its population within the next 20 years, and to reach more than one million by 2040. So, in response to existing patterns — NWA is essentially a string of towns each founded along a rail corridor in the 1880s — we proposed a regional plan structured around resuscitation of this corridor with revitalization of the historic downtowns.

We developed this proposal through a substantial planning effort in our architecture studios here at the UACDC, and also at Washington University in St. Louis, where I was a visiting critic, and also with the support of external consultants. With an NEA grant, we created a book, Visioning Rail Transit in Northwest Arkansas: Lifestyles and Ecologies. In this way our center started a regional conversation about public investment that integrates transportation, housing, energy and urban development. One city, Fayetteville, has even adopted transit-oriented zoning codes in anticipation of rail development. Today a strong grassroots effort is pushing for rail as one more tool in the region’s burgeoning smart growth consciousness.

NL: This sounds like an ambitious and lengthy initiative. For the five-year project, did you receive other funding besides the NEA grant?

SL: We somewhat underestimated our eventual level of commitment to the cause, as well as the degree to which regional interests would look to us for further advocacy and expertise. So to continue the work — in the absence of a client or funding sponsor — we’ve drawn upon annual funding from the university.

NL: Did you see any particular entity — say municipal or regional authorities — as the client-equivalent for the rail corridor? More generally, were there any tensions with public-sector planners — any professional turf battles?

SL: At the outset we didn’t collaborate with government agencies. Light rail simply wasn’t on their radar — if anything, it was seen as farfetched. But it turns out that a group of local investors was preparing another light rail study, and in 2005 we joined forces to form a regional committee. Since then the issue has been part of the local political landscape, with clear lines drawn between those who advocate for more highway funding and others who want to see more funding for public transit. Apparently, the region’s powerful economic interests view rail funding as undercutting commitments to highway maintenance and construction. Our argument is that the shift to passenger rail will open up more capacity on highways for freight shipping.

Unexpectedly, the issue has lately become even more politicized, particularly at public presentations. We consistently face strong opposition from the Tea Party movement, which sees the rail proposal as a government takeover of the allegedly free-market highway transportation system.

NL: What are the major challenges of working in northwest Arkansas?

SL: UACDC is located in the northwest, but our service area is the entire state. Which actually feels more like several states, since social and geographic profiles vary widely from one region to the other. NWA feels more like the Midwest (we are about 40 miles from Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas) and is part of the Ozarks, while eastern Arkansas is part of the Mississippi and Gulf Coast deltas and culturally feels very southern. And though the state has the nation’s third lowest median household income — around $38,000 per year — the Northwest, being home to Walmart, Tyson Foods and JB Hunt, sports the most billionaires per capita in the United States. Not surprisingly, this makes for a very uneven socio-economic geography, especially since the state is moving from rural to urban economies; we’ve got lucrative growth in NWA and decline in the eastern delta.

But don’t mistake our reputation! Arkansas sponsored some of the more progressive social movements of the early 20th century. In the delta there were the farm tenant unions, while in the Ozarks there was the early off-the-grid, progressive thinking on sustainability, which has since been mainstreamed. A glance at Arkansas’ Main Street program poster — a matrix of period photos depicting historic downtowns — shows streetcars, mixed-uses, high-densities and elegant urban environments. Many towns, now suffering disinvestment, still have the DNA of good settlements. The bigger, more collective problem is that our nation’s wealth over the past 60 years has made us dumb; we seem to have lost the intelligence to make good places. Our land-use patterns practically demand that we waste nonrenewable resources; that we drive everywhere, even from one end of the parking lot to the other. Many of our buildings are literally toxic, and ugly too. The public realm — when we bother to build it — is usually just a utility and lacks vitality or connection to a larger urban — and urbane — fabric. Single-use zoning has created a complete atomization of place. And since these environments are difficult to adapt, they lack resilience and are vulnerable to socio-economic and ecological decline — for instance, to unforeseen challenges like economic recession or volatile energy supplies.

One key difference between our state and others is that we lack the resilience to overcome institutionalized bad planning. Arkansas is growing, but most of our 600+ towns have populations under 15,000, and lack planning capacity, while our state government lacks cabinet-level administration in housing, urban development and transportation — beyond the highway department, of course. There are large gaps in stewardship and public oversight of the built environment. For instance, the Fraser Institute in Calgary, Canada — in its Global Petroleum Survey 2009, otherwise known as the “exploitability report” ? ranked Arkansas as the #1 place to do business based largely on lax environmental regulations, the low cost of regulatory compliance, business-friendly tax policies and royalty rates. Definitely not good news for the state’s environment.

NL: Do you find a receptive citizenry? Engaged and progressive clients?

SL: In the seven years that our particular staff has been at UACDC, citizens have roundly embraced our proposals and eagerly participated in planning processes. In our experience local populations thoroughly understand the issues, and in some regions they’re very well organized. Unfortunately, the political leadership is a different story, and at all levels is mostly a failure. With a few exceptions, the political class here is entrenched and — despite their rhetorical commitment to economic rationality — shows little understanding of the relationship between general prosperity and development patterns. Indeed, most of our work has been funded by nonprofits, national agencies, and the private sector, mostly local economic development interests.

NL: What have been your major impacts on the region?

SL: So far, our influence has mostly been in changing the conversation among government and non-profit interests about conventional development practices. Most of our planning has the twin goals of solving for particular project circumstances, while also testing the place-building models we’ve developed — so far there are nine of them. Emphasizing the city as ecology, these design models include watershed urbanism, transit-oriented development, green street and shared street design, big box urbanism, low impact development, urban forestry, context sensitive highway design, and smart-growth planning. We’re now working on another, too: an urban agriculture model, which will be important for compressing sprawling food supply chains and improving access to nutrition. To facilitate these models, we work with clients, collaborators and government agencies to build learning networks that focus on public policy, management practices and design.

For instance, our new book — Low Impact Development: A Design Manual for Urban Areas, sponsored through U.S. EPA and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission grants — documents two residential Low Impact Developments (LID) that we planned for two Habitat for Humanity chapters. Given its novelty as a form of infrastructure, LID is considered, in most municipal codes, a nonconforming stormwater system. Still, in the city of Rogers, we built Arkansas’ first LID project — we had to obtain 30 zoning variances, but we built it! And now, because its drainage performance exceeded expectations, developers have become interested. And though the second LID project, in Fayetteville, is on hold, the city was spurred to adopt a low-impact development code — the first in the state. Hardcopy publication of the manual was funded by six environmental nonprofits in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, who will use it to advance local watershed protection.

NL: Most of the UACDC’s projects are presented in analytical drawings, graphic analyses and renderings, rather than in photographs —which suggests that they haven’t yet been built. Is built work the goal? Or is the goal to advance new conceptual models?

SL: The primary goal has always been to build, and we have built the LID infrastructure for the Habitat for Humanity project I mentioned, in Rogers. LID involves substituting soft ecological engineering for conventional hard engineering. So rather than designing a conventional pipe-and-pond stormwater system — raised curbs and gutters, catchment basins, underground piping — we substituted a green treatment network — infiltration trenches, bioswales, rainwater gardens and a wet meadow — to manage stormwater runoff. This cut street costs by 40 percent. The project also included an open space system of native xeriscapes.

The houses, though, were not built as we designed them. The detailing of the exterior envelope, especially the porches and carports, didn’t have the passive energy efficiency features that we designed. Instead they featured expensive and unnecessary builder-driven decoration. Habitat has also abandoned the two-story house types that once characterized the neighborhood.

To answer your question more directly: Some of our planning concepts seem to be ahead of our sponsors’ capacities to implement them, since they require ambitious public administrations which can think beyond the usual bureaucratic silos. Most of our colleagues in financing, development, governance and client communities agree that LID, for instance, is a superior development template — but everyone’s business model is still based on the established framework. Urban infrastructure, like any socio-technical system, develops a cultural stubbornness, due more to managerial mindsets than material factors like costs. We’re spending more time than we’d anticipated on advocacy and policy initiatives.

NL: Your projects usually deal with what you term “suburban ecologies” and require collaboration across disciplines. Who are your chief collaborators?

SL: Our work in watershed planning, shared and green street design, urban forestry, and LID all require extensive collaboration with ecological engineers, landscape architects and horticulturalists. We frequently partner with colleagues from the Arkansas Forestry Commission, with private civil engineering and landscape architecture firms, and most notably with Marty Matlock, an ecological engineer in the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department. Working with Marty is like going back to graduate school. Marty is a scientist as well as a civil engineer, and he’s chosen to work in the still-forming field of ecological engineering, so he shares our generalist disposition. I’ve never met an engineer with such a humanist perspective. We put great stock in his insight that the greatest planning challenge is to design within ecosystems that have become human-dominated. Our collaborations in watershed planning have taught us, for instance, that healthy streams have a specific architecture, and that urban design must respect this morphology in order to maintain the life-affirming ecological services that watersheds deliver. 1

So in our two urban watershed planning projects — Riparian Meadows, Mounds, and Rooms: Urban Greenway for Warren and Campus Hydroscapes — we sought to provide ecological as well as urban design benefits. In each project corrections in what ecologists call the “flow regime” of a stream were combined with new land-use interfaces along the river banks, including floodplain restoration and new stormwater gardens. These projects are examples of what Jane Jacobs called “problems in organized complexity.” They demand that we not only work laterally with other disciplines, but that we internalize their methodologies as well.

NL: You’ve studied Walmart, and made the case that “Walmart is an urbanism all its own.” And of course Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville is just up the Interstate from Fayetteville. How did Walmart’s respond to your projects? Were they one of the funders?

SL: Walmart did fund our study and the resulting publication, Finding the Social in Big Box Retail. We worked with its architecture and design department to identify best practices in community design. No other organization, including their closest competitors and even the Pentagon at one point, could touch Walmart’s expertise in logistics and supply chain management. It’s a truly amazing story.

Yet their skills in community relations and property development were not nearly as impressive. Our book outlined a transect of development opportunities, ranging from their property’s interface with the public right-of-way to the parking lot and store frontage zones. The designs were discrete, simple and componentized: you could pick and choose elements to create a context-sensitive development, essentially accessorizing the big box. We argued that “added” design costs were justified: we used the fact that Walmart is sued every 1¾ hours, with more than 8,000 cases pending at any one time, and that half of them were about community development and design issues! At the height of its domestic growth, the company was opening a store per day, with a design staff of approximately 30 architects supplemented by numerous firms on retainer. Meanwhile, their legal department had over 200 attorneys, with many more on retainer. It was clear that many of these lawsuits could be avoided with more proactive design practices. And since designers are less expensive than attorneys, the company could avoid unnecessary litigation, and save labor costs — all the while being a better corporate citizen for communities.

Unfortunately, the design department viewed our proposals as impractical — though how practical is it to defend thousands of preventable lawsuits? I suspect this was due to the crisis management mentality that dominates its working environment and also to the general inertia of large organizations. Walmart has made considerable strides in adopting sustainable practices in its supply chains and in some retail development; the next big step will be to reward employees for making decisions in a different way. It will be interesting to watch how Walmart, which has already saturated the suburban and rural markets, manages the shift to cities. This is an important planning topic. At the height of the boom, the top four big-box retailers were opening close to two stores per day. Large-format retailing dominates our consumer economy, though in a real sense it’s just the latest incarnation of the category-killing retail dynamic that’s been part of our history since the department store usurped the local merchant in the late 1800s.

NL: You’ve articulated the goal of designing projects with “currency at the national level.” How do you balance local impact with national relevance?

SL: The insight to “think globally, act locally,” which extends back to the acclaimed town planner and biologist Patrick Geddes, is an important orientation for us. Despite various locations and cultural practices, all of us share immutable relationships with our neighbors and environments. For instance, we humans cannot escape the reality that we walk at approximately three miles per hour, which gives a universal measure to good town planning. On the other hand, our LID infrastructure projects address wet climates with rainfall budgets of more than 25 inches per year, which applies to 60 percent of the continental United States. At the UACDC, we shuttle back and forth between using pattern languages of predictable behavior and creating projects defined by place-based dynamics. But we always start with the specifics of a problem as an way into a broader inquiry about models.

It’s important that we are part of a larger conversation, since UACDC’s work relies on constant feedback from local and global voices. Ironically, we’ve received more feedback from firms outside Arkansas, who purchase our publications and incorporate insights from our projects. Here I’m reminded of the Swedish geographer Torsten Hagerstrand’s observation: “The criterion for survival is to succeed as a neighbor.”

NL: How do you connect with the community and the city?

SL: One of our goals is to set up what I call “transactional” relationships with agencies to enable communities to use our place-building models. For instance, our current project for the town of Farmington, Townscaping an Automobile-Oriented Fabric, is intended to be a model for the context-sensitive conversion of highways as they move through town centers. In this case we propose converting a five-lane, 45-mph state highway into a pedestrian-friendly multimodal boulevard. The plan also includes new large-scale urban agricultural components in public right-of-ways — the idea is to “put the farm back into Farmington.”

UACDC hopes to convince the Arkansas Highway Transportation Department to invest in the project as a demonstration. We also hope to see agricultural urbanism take hold, and we’re exploring new codes that would integrate edible landscapes with urban development. For now, the project is our catalyst to connect with state-level decision makers.

In fact, in all our work, the particular project will always be our indispensible center of attention.

NL: How does the UACDC function in relationship to the Fay Jones School of Architecture? Is part of your mission to be a resource to students?

SL: We are an outreach center of the school, and I am one of two chaired faculty within the architecture department. In addition, two UACDC staff are adjunct faculty in our off-campus studios. Students work on our projects in different capacities. Sometimes they collaborate with staff, other times they work parallel to or even before staff involvement with a project. We also host students doing independent studies, as well as work-study students and interns. The school’s new strategic plan calls for us to create a graduate program in community design, suggesting that outreach and the need to build greater instrumental capacities in students are becoming more central concerns. Encouraging leadership potential in the next generation is an imperative.

NL: How is the center funded?

SL: Sixty percent of UACDC’s $550,000 annual operations budget, including salaries and benefits, comes from the university; the rest comes from project fees and grants. The University of Arkansas is unusual in recognizing both the academic value and social impact of applied scholarship in community development. From a practical viewpoint, university assistance keeps us alive, since funding for design and planning is not routinely part of clients’ budgets. Again, planning is a weak tradition here. We devote a lot of energy to just making the case for design as fundamental to sustainable governance, growth, strategic planning and resource management.

Obtaining funding is difficult. Design and planning are often seen as elite activities. So most of our external funding has come from federal sources like the EPA and NEA. The recession actually helped us, since we received federal stimulus funding to preserve jobs. Our long-term goal is to raise an endowment to support our operations.

NL: In some cases, the local professional design community regards university-based design centers as potential competitions What is the UACDC’s relationship with the local professionals?

SL: Well, teaching and research hospitals don’t refrain from delivering medical services. We’ve enjoyed broad-based support from the professional design communities — but still, these types of skirmishes are symptomatic of a structural underdevelopment in the design profession. Professions like medicine, teaching, law and engineering triangulate policy making, governance, and service delivery in the public interest; they’ve got institutional ecologies that include schools, teaching offices and hospitals, outreach centers and legal clinics, think tanks and research institutes — all outside private practice. All of these formats engage in some form of professional service. Here I’m reminded of author Bruce Robbin’s insight that the health of a profession is tied to its status with its public. 2

UACDC is clear about the nature of our services. As a university-based teaching office, we deliver professional planning and design services, but within a framework that advances capacity in public agencies, communities and nonprofits. Our best practices manual for Walmart was written as much to benefit host communities as to benefit the corporation. Private design practices usually cannot deliver this combination of services, nor should they be expected to, as it doesn’t constitute a viable business model. For instance, our Porchscapes, which involved a complex mix of collaborating service providers and multiple clients for a 43-unit Habitat for Humanity LID neighborhood, was sponsored through government programs that limit funding to nonprofit partners. The traditional professional firm is only one component of a healthy profession. But since the design professions lack a robust institutional ecology and thus a strong relationship with its public — which is key to sustained economic vitality ? we see the kind of irrational competitiveness intrinsic to a culture of scarcity.

In most of our large planning projects, we’ve collaborated with design and engineering firms, and in some cases the projects include technology transfer components to those private practices. In our two low-impact-development projects, we developed demonstration planning strategies, which yielded marketable services for our private collaborators. Alternatively, UACDC sometimes plays a supporting role; in the MacArthur Park District Master Plan, for Little Rock, we were the urban designer on a team that included architecture, landscape architecture and engineering firms. Whether we lead or support a team, our planning involvement usually leverages more commissions for designers and engineers, and in the case of LID, we are creating new markets for design and engineering.

NL: How do you define a successful project?

SL: Success is getting a demonstration project built according to our plans. But even if we all short of this, we can still show that design is a highly elastic and synthetic practice capable of engaging complex issues with unparalleled solutions. More specifically, we’ve developed a lexicon of design approaches that account for multiple issues — again, what we call recombinant design. Our publications have helped communities imagine new possibilities. We get a kick out of seeing constituents develop cogent triple-bottom-line thinking. Our planning has become part of a regional consciousness and we have established alliances with superb organizations and individuals along the way.

But we are impatient now, and want to see something built.

NL: What are your major challenges?

SL: The capacity for follow-through, with the goal of getting the project built, has been a major stumbling block. This is a reality in planning, but more so here in Arkansas.

Obstacles can vary. For both Habitat projects, the big obstacles were due to changes in leadership at either the board or executive director level, where new leadership did not share the vision of their predecessors. Another major challenge is creating scaled alliances with public agencies; doing so will probably require a sea change in agency culture. Municipal planning, housing, transportation and environmental management agencies in Arkansas will have to be convinced that good design and planning are not narrow aesthetic enterprises, but rather value-adding resources.

What we really need is an Arkansas Tomorrow Plan, akin to the state-level planning undertaken by Utah, California and Oregon. I’m thinking of Vision California: Charting Our Future, Envision Utah, and Oregon’s exemplary Statewide Planning Goals & Guidelines. Likewise, our nonprofit culture has yet to recognize the value of design in sustaining economic development. This is important, since Arkansas, along with Mississippi, leads the nation in philanthropic giving as a percentage of income; Arkansas ranks third in the nation for assets owned by nonprofits. 3 So another stumbling block is making the wealth accumulated here much more productive. But Arkansas is still a developing state — so the positive view is that we’ve got enormous untapped potential to create model communities.

Project Slideshow

Editors' Note

For more on university design centers, see our profiles of URBANlab at the California College of the Arts and UPSTATE at Syracuse University.

  1. Here is the list of these services: gas regulation (carbon sequestration), climate regulation, disturbance regulation, water regulation (flood control), water supply, erosion control, soil formation, nutrient cycling, waste treatment, pollination, biological control, refugia (habitat), food production, raw material, genetic resources, recreation, and cultural values. From: Robert Costanza, Ralph D’Arge, Rudolf De Groot, Stephen Farber, Monica Grasso, Bruce Hannon, Karin Limburg, Shahid Naeem, Robert O’Neill, Jose Paruelo, Robert Gaskin, Paul Sutton, Marjan Van Den Belt, “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital,” Nature 387 (15 May 1997), 253–260.
  2. See Bruce Robbins, Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture, and The Phantom Public Sphere (New York: Verso, 1993).
  3. Assets owned by non-profits in Arkansas total total $279 billion, exceeded only by Illinois at $321 billion and California at $787 billion, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.
Stephen Luoni, “Venture Design,” Places Journal, April 2011. Accessed 27 Sep 2022.

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