COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Where Placemaking Meets the Outdoors in Northwest Arkansas

Nov 25, 2019
Nov 25, 2019

This article is sponsored content from the Walton Family Foundation, a sponsor of the 3rd International Placemaking Week.

There is a peculiar division between placemakers and proponents of the great outdoors. Both groups care about conserving space for all to enjoy. Both care about a sense of place. Both care about similar outcomes like health, wellbeing, and sustainability. Yet it seems that these groups only come together on a regional trail project, here, or a national park within city limits, over there. Maybe it’s the urban-rural divide at play, or maybe it’s simple disciplinary and bureaucratic silos, but both parties still have a lot to learn from one another.

That’s why it’s exciting to see an organization in Northwest Arkansas bring these sister movements together through places that combine outdoor sensibilities with a density and intensity of uses that rivals any urban area. And the glue holding together placemaking and the outdoors in Northwest Arkansas is something that many placemakers may not have thought much about in their practice: mountain biking.  

Mountain Bikers enjoy a “flow” trail at the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve in Bentonville, AR. | Photo courtesy of the Walton Family Foundation

The Walton Family Foundation, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, has supported 215 miles of the region’s extensive trail system, including options for mountain biking, cycling, walking, and rolling for every age, experience level, and ability. A recent report estimates that the system as a whole generates $51 million annually for local businesses and $86 million in health benefits to residents.

This regional trail network does a remarkable job of connecting community destinations. The 37-mile, multi-use Razorback Regional Greenway serves as the spine for the system, running from Fayetteville, AR, in the south to Bella Vista on the Missouri-Arkansas border in the north. Besides mountain bike trails, the regional trail network also connects four downtowns, three hospitals, 23 schools, the University of Arkansas campus, as well as residential areas and dozens of other points of interest. From Bentonville’s town square, the closest singletrack mountain biking trail is only a block away. As Tom Walton, chair of the Home Region Program at the Walton Family Foundation, summed it up in an article for Outside magazine, “We talk about Bentonville as a ski town for bikes.”

Coler Mountain Bike Preserve brings together mountain biking trails, historic and natural landscapes, and placemaking. | Image courtesy of the Walton Family Foundation

The most recent addition to this network is the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve, a 300-acre former farm that offers a microcosm of the region, allowing visitors to get a taste of the diverse Ozark landscape, as well as almost every type of trail the region offers, from high-flying mountain biking to a peaceful stroll. Coler Creek runs through the site, and the riverbank habitat has been restored, providing ecological benefit and access to the water. When the Preserve is complete, however, it will also include a Power of 10+ worth of outdoorsy and social uses and activities, from tent and hammock camping to yoga platforms to event pavilions, a café, and community gathering spaces in two restored barns. This approach may prove particularly important when it comes to inclusion, since as Dr. KangJae Lee has observed, natural public spaces that stick too closely to traditional activities, like camping and hiking, can become seen as “white spaces” by communities of color.

In true “lighter, quicker, cheaper” fashion, the development of the Coler Mountain Preserve has also arrived in phases, with built-in moments to test, observe, and adjust to community needs. The first amenities to be built were 16 miles of natural surface trails, which opened just in time to be the primary riding location for the 2016 International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit. One of the Coler trails is Esther’s Loop, which was originally intended for intermediate riders, as well as beginners. But after observing who was using the trail and how they interacted along it, the designers decided to reduce the difficulty of the trail, to create additional passing and standing areas, and to improve sightlines—all to make the trail more enjoyable for more riders.

One of the most unique landmarks of the Preserve is Peak One Hub, which the designers describe as “the mountain bike cathedral.” This metal and wood structure at the top of Coler Mountain allows riders to select a trail based on their desired difficulty and get a nice downhill boost to start their ride. The ramps snake around an outdoor gathering space, which will eventually become a crossroads for the Preserve’s mountain bike trails.

Placemakers in cities and towns with the great outdoors on their doorstep should take note. If early signs are any indication, there is a big demand for places like Coler Mountain Bike Preserve. The Preserve has already become a destination for mountain bikers, hikers, trail runners, and creek visitors, and as a plethora of new community-oriented uses open, it seems positioned to become a destination for a much broader public as well.

The completed North Gateway, another ramp structure at Coler Mountain Bike Preserve, arcs over a paved trail and gathering area. | Image courtesy of the Walton Family Foundation

“We're committed to increasing access to nature for everyone,” said Jeremy Pate, senior program officer at the Walton Family Foundation. “Places like the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve provide a gathering space where people of all backgrounds, interests and abilities can engage in the transformative benefits of the outdoors.”

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space