Who’s Shaping Green Spaces and Quality of Life in Arkansas?

We’ve written a bunch about the Walton Family Foundation's extensive environmental giving, which includes support for critical American rivers and marine conservation. But this funder also has a big local presence in Arkansas, and its grantmaking includes support for green space revitalization.  

As part of its Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program, the Walton Family Foundation announced a new grant opportunity earlier this spring to preserve and maintain parks, green spaces and plazas. Walton sees encouraging these types of projects as a way to make Northwest Arkansas a "better place to live, work and play" and to preserve a "sense of place" at a time when the area has been growing quickly. 

As we report often, parks are seen by a growing array of funders as a key element in boosting the strength and appeal of cities and regions. And Northwest Arkansas is among those places where people really love their parks. The Walton Family Foundation conducted a “quality of life” survey and found that a whopping 83 percent of local respondents used local parks in the last year. With a growing population, this usage is expected to increase—bringing new opportunities and challenges along the way. 

"As Northwest Arkansas continues to grow, finding balance between the built and natural environments will improve livability in the area," said Home Region Program Director Karen Minkel. "This program will allow communities to preserve green spaces in accessible urban settings."

There's an obvious irony in the Walton Foundation working on these issues, given that Walmart stores are nearly synonymous with the generic and poorly planned suburban sprawl that's blighted so many landscapes in America over recent decades. 

So, who are the key players involved in this Walton initiative to bolster the region’s green spaces?

There’s a selection committee working with Karen Minkel composed of an architect, a landscape architect, an urban designer, and the dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas. This team of industry experts typically changes from year to year, but it’s still interesting to see who’s calling the shots.

Victor Dover, an urban designer with Dover, Kohl and Partners is on the current team and specializes in creating and restoring real neighborhoods as the basis for sound communities. He also lectures around the country about livable communities and sustainable development. The team landscape architect is Elizabeth Meyer, who’s the landscape architecture department chair and director of the graduate landscape architecture program at the University of Virginia. She’s an expert in advising firms about significant historic and cultural landscapes. Cynthia Weese is the architect on board and a founding principal of Weese Langley Weese. And finally, Peter MacKeith, dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, is also involved, here. His presence could add some interesting components to Arkansas’ parks because he specializes in contemporary Finnish and Nordic architecture.

While the program is ultra-local, the companies hired to make the park upgrades are less so. In fact, Walton’s program has attracted over 50 architecture and landscape architecture firms in 15 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and Denmark.

The new grant opportunity is open to both nonprofits and government agencies, and the upcoming deadline is June 30. Past support has gone to TheatreSquared, Rogers Historical Museum and the Helen R. Walton Children's Enrichment Center

See the foundation’s How to Apply page for more details about the new green space opportunity.