Northwest Arkansas may not be where many people expect to find a city on the forefront of environmental policy. But one city in the region, Fayetteville, shows how traditional expectations and stereotypes don’t have to stand in the way of forward-thinking policy around sustainability.
Earlier this month, CDP, an international nonprofit that examines climate risk for hundreds of local governments and corporations across the globe, released their latest A list, highlighting the cities preparing the best to “build a climate safe future.” Fayetteville was one of 34 North American cities lauded for its commitment to transparency and action on climate change. Amid the expected honorees—nine cities from California made the list—the inclusion of a small city in the center of the country suggested sound environmental policy isn’t just for progressive bastions on the coast.
“Fayetteville is demonstrating that urban areas of all shapes and sizes can step up and lead the way,” says Katie Walsh, head of cities, states and regions for CDP North America. “You don’t need to be in a blue state to be a green city.”
Part of the reason this college town of roughly 85,000 ranks amid cities 10 times its size is that it’s taking the problem seriously, Walsh says. That includes instituting programs to achieve significant carbon emissions reductions, a focus on preserving urban forests and tree canopy (which promotes cleaner air and provides needed shade), and numerous initiatives to manage stormwater, one facet of rising extreme weather risk in the Midwest.
“The city is taking action on these issues in the face of federal inaction and state-level leadership that’s lacking,” Walsh says.
For Peter Nierengarten, the city’s director of sustainability and resilience, Fayetteville’s success in planning ahead and prioritizing sustainability comes down to how it communicates its vision. These policies are as much about taking actions that will cut emissions in the future as they are about preserving the natural beauty that makes Fayetteville such a draw today. Both can help make Fayetteville more livable as temperatures increase.
“Livability is at the forefront of a shared community vision,” says Nierengarten.
Home to the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville has long attracted residents with shared progressive values and a love of the outdoors. But perhaps more important is the city’s location in the Ozarks, a region of rivers, lakes, and millions of acres of national forest nearby, one blessed with significant natural beauty.
Nierengarten and other leaders and advocates in Fayetteville say the city’s engaged population helps build the political support needed to take action on preservation and climate change, but the real secret is selling sustainable policies with proven results.
“Not everyone is going to align on what it means to have a healthy ecosystem, or manage stormwater,” says Nierengarten. “I feel my role is to harness what the community wants and steer it in a direction that works for Fayetteville. I don’t feel like we’re forcing it as much as the community has been asking for it.”
In concrete terms, that means showing the immediate benefits of long-term investments. In 2019, the city collaborated with the Ozark Electrical Cooperative and Today’s Power Inc., a solar energy company, to install $23 million worth of solar arrays and battery storage to help power the city’s two wastewater treatment plants. It’s not exciting, sexy policy. But Nierengarten and his team targeted these plants because they’re responsible for the bulk of the city’s energy bills, and fiscal responsibility is a strong message for voters. Adding this power project to the city’s portfolio now means 72 percent of the city’s power needs will be generated by renewable sources, and because the bulk power purchase from the plant has given the city lower rates, it’ll save $6 million in the next two decades, after paying for the cost of the solar panels.
The same goes for the city’s commitment to improving trails and bike lanes. Nierengarten, a committed cyclist, says it’s not about telling people what they can’t do, but rather providing an amenity and benefit. Take Fayetteville’s goal to make 25 percent of trips car-free by 2030. To that end, the city has launched the first stationless bikeshare program in northwest Arkansas and offered free bus fares for routes within city limits. But the real selling point is investing in its bike lanes and trail networks (47 miles of trails exist, and 26 are planned over the next five years). By 2040, the city wants to provide trail access within a half-mile of 97 percent of the city’s homes. It’s not about banning cars, it’s about offering more accessible ways to safely bike and exercise, and explore the landscape, a policy that both benefits the planet and locals who want more bike paths.
“We’ve had success with sustainability because we’ve had leadership with a soft touch,” says Teresa Turk, an environmental consultant elected to the city council in 2018. “We’re not a huge city, but people here value the environment.”
The challenges of preservation amid rampant growth
Fayetteville’s strides towards sustainability come at a time when it’s facing the challenge of growth. Northwest Arkansas, particularly the big cities in Washington and Benton counties such as Bentonville, home of Walmart, have rapidly expanding populations, making any efforts to restrain sprawl and conserve resources even more challenging.
“The region is exploding, and it feels like a race against time to figure out how to balance accommodating growth and housing needs without losing our quality of life,” says Terri Lane, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust. “So much of that is tied to the land. Overnight, hillsides can turn into apartment buildings, and the shift impacts issues as diverse as wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and climate resiliency.”
This issue is where the city’s policies have been especially prescient. CPD’s Walsh underscored how the city’s focus on zoning changes, especially upzoning, has pushed more density and prioritized infill, moves that not only cut down on sprawl but lead to long-term emissions savings, as residents can live closer to jobs, cutting down on time spent in traffic.
Fayetteville has also proposed creating an Enduring Green Network as part of its 2040 plan, which would protect existing natural areas from development, guaranteeing green space as the city grows. The hope is that by combining pro-density policies with preservation, the city can save nearby green space without contributing to sprawl.
Smarter land-use policy can also accomplish multiple goals at once. Nierengarten points to rules that govern development near streams and rivers. By requiring setbacks that protect the waterfront (development can’t happen on any riverfront), the city has created a built-in system for natural drainage in the case of heavy rainfall. In addition, Nierengarten has built bike paths and walking trails in these protected parcels, doubling the impact of pushing back development.
“Updating zoning is a standout climate action,” says Walsh. “Making these changes to zoning, and the urban fabric and built environment, can help you plan for a better future.”
The city has also been a great partner in long-term preservation of natural areas, says Lane. Fayetteville just set aside land adjacent to the recent solar installation to create a large prairie park, and also helped create the 387-acre Kessler Mountaintop forest preserve. The city actively donates land to conservation organizations like the Land Trust, placing the property in a conversation easement, which guarantees later city administrations can’t reverse the decision and build on the land.
“They understood a long time ago that there was a connection between not only paying attention to what you’re building, but also setting aside land,” Lane says.
Changing city policy to preserve the best of Fayetteville
Fayetteville’s vision could be summed up as smart growth, according to Lane. Looking forward, the city also wants to increase active, car-free transportation, says Nierengarten, which makes the city more accessible and livable and contributes to the larger goal of cutting energy emissions. The city has committed to converting all city facilities to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and cutting community-wide emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. That requires reworking the city’s transportation system, he says, which includes electrifying its fleet, providing charging stations, and expanding mass transit options.
In addition to setting up electric infrastructure, Fayetteville will also do what it can to add more renewable options to the power supply. That includes working with a regional utility to connect to an Oklahoma wind farm, and changing the building code to make it easier to add solar installations or create community solar projects.
Nierengarten and others hope that by being aggressive about changing the way the city operates, Fayetteville can preserve trees and natural habitat and take more cars off the road. Not only will the city attack the collective problem of climate change by cutting emissions, but the progressive land-use decisions made today will prevent changes to the prized landscape that has made Fayetteville so popular.