Editorial: Land Conservation or Affordable Housing?

Jenna Blakeman reviews the need for density in order to preserve Northwest Arkansas's scenic beauty and create affordable housing.

Land Conservation or Affordable Housing?

To Preserve Northwest Arkansas’s Scenic Beauty and Create Affordable Housing, Cities Need to Start Building at Higher Densities


The year is 1972:

Congress designated Arkansas’s Buffalo River, a quiet, free-flowing stream of green-blue water stretching 135 miles through the Ozark Mountains, America’s first national river. A national river designation “protects the waterways from industrial uses, and allows for hiking, canoeing, and hunting.

Image source: Buffalo Outdoor Center

My dad and I grew up together and individually underneath the Buffalo’s towering bluff lines. He was the age I am now (24) when I was born, spending a large sum of his teenage and early twenties on the water. Over the next several years, he prepared my sisters and me for life in the Great Outdoors, packing us into his green Ford pick-up truck with the promise of gas-station fried-chicken as we made our way to the weekend’s campsite: a preferred habitat for a group of people searching for a new way to live outside the rules and regulations of a 9-to-5 job, long commute, or fourth-grade.

Jenna age 9

On the playground, I heard stories from my classmates enjoying the enduring wonders of the river, making their own family memories. She was no longer just mine and my identity, still forming, became fragile and threatened by my sudden awareness of the river’s popularity. (Her great beauty precedes me).

Opportunities from the Outdoors

Today, Northwest Arkansas attracts thousands of visitors every year to explore the region’s scenic beauty. The University of Arkansas, the state’s flagship university, is located in Fayetteville, Arkansas – a hilly college town recognized by the U.S. News and Report “Top 10 places to live” since 2017. Three Fortune-500 companies are headquartered in Northwest Arkansas, including Walmart, J.B. Hunt, and Tyson.

Image source: University of Arkansas

In 2011, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Bentonville, Arkansas– the first big art museum to open in the United States since 1974. Crystal Bridges sits on 120 acres of Ozark forest, blending art, architecture, and nature. Founded by Alice Walton (of the Walton family) and designed by world-renowned architect, Moshe Safdie, the opening of the museum coincided with regional economic, social, and cultural transformations.

Developers revitalized downtowns with new hotels, restaurants, and public art to accommodate the museum’s visitors. In 2013, the nationally recognized 21C museum hotel opened its third location in downtown Bentonville. In its first year, Crystal Bridges welcomed over 600,000 visitors. Since then, over 10 million people from all over the world have paid a visit to the museum.

Image source: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Not only do the presence of these companies and organizations attract new talent and make significant investments in the built environment, they play an important role in the local housing market. According to the 2023 Northwest Arkansas State of the Region report, 34 individuals relocate to Northwest Arkansas every day.

Northwest Arkansas’s population increased from 311,121 in the year 2000 to 550,596 in 2022, a 77 percent change. Additionally, housing units have not kept pace with population growth. 1

Northwest Arkansas’s growth is a subject from which debates about land, housing, and change emerge

Housing affordability is one of the region’s biggest challenges. In the first half of 2022, the median price of a single-family home increased by 75 percent in Northwest Arkansas– significantly more than it did in the Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown and Durham-Chapel Hill MSA regions, reaching an average of $385,821. Additionally, housing costs are outpacing wage increases. The median household income in Northwest Arkansas in 2022 was $73,364 and just over one-third of households make less than $50,000 per year. 2

Rent-burden is defined by Housing and Urban Development as spending more than 30 percent of household income on rent. In 2022, 35 percent of residents in Northwest Arkansas are rent-burdened and 16 percent of the population is spending over half of their household income on rent. Almost 50 percent of all households in the city of Fayetteville are rent-burdened and 25 percent of residents are spending more than half of their household income on rent. 3

The average monthly rent in Fayetteville is $927, comparable to the regional average of $1,010, a 33 percent increase since 2010. However, the median household income of $56,881 is lower than the regional median household income of $73,316.4

The City of Fayetteville’s 2023 Housing Assessment listed four factors contributing to the city’s lack of affordable housing over the last three years, including but not limited to:

  1. Higher–than–projected population growth,
  2. Record–breaking enrollment at the University of Arkansas,
  3. Changes in financial markets leading to high interest rates, and
  4. Delays in housing production caused by supply chain issues and construction labor shortages.

Higher Densities Save Land

In debates about managing urban growth, land conservation and affordable housing are issues typically thought of as being at odds with each other. The truth is: if we want to conserve land and create affordable housing, cities need to start building at higher densities.

Single-family housing units make up 74 percent of the region’s housing stock in 2022, despite the fact that 60 percent of households are 1 and 2-person households. Based on the City of Fayetteville’s 2023 Housing Assessment, “if current population growth trends continue and the housing units needed for the current growth rate were built as low-density, single-family homes, it would require more than 12,000 acres of land– approximately one-third of Fayetteville’s current land area.”

Land conservationists and affordable housing stakeholders need to work together

To ensure that long-term residents can continue to afford to live in Northwest Arkansas while creating opportunities for people to experience the joys of the Arkansas hills, land conservationists and affordable housing stakeholders need to work together. Cities don’t have to pay the price of a flourishing outdoor economy with rising housing costs and residential sprawl. Reforming out-of-date zoning laws to allow for housing opportunities around major transportation and employment hubs will help to create affordable housing in the city and conserve land by activating underutilized lots.

In 2023, the City of Fayetteville passed a resolution expressing their intent to consider rezoning property along Highway 71B corridor to allow for housing opportunities– an area heavily zoned for commercial use. Stakeholders from both sectors (land conservation and affordable housing) have an opportunity in the City of Fayetteville’s 71B Corridor Plan to envision a shared future in which Northwest Arkansas continues to be a truly affordable and naturally beautiful place for people to live, work, and visit.

Building Community Trust

There are several promising examples of land conservationists and affordable housing stakeholders working together to identify areas of collaborative work: Maggie Walker Community Land Trust in Richmond, Virginia and the Hudson Valley Alliance for Conservation and Housing in New York State.

Richmond’s Maggie Walker Community Land Trust (MWCLT) is the country’s first community land trust to be combined with a land bank. Like most CLTs, the MWCLT is a “nonprofit organization that owns the land beneath a home. Income-qualified home buyers purchase the home rather than the land upon which it sits, reducing down payment and monthly mortgage costs. A 99-year renewable ground lease plus resale restrictions on homeowners ensure the home remains affordable, even to future homebuyers.” The MWCLT increases its impact on the natural environment by working as a land bank to “acquire and manage vacant and tax-delinquent properties and repurpose them for community needs.”

The Hudson Valley Alliance for Housing and Conservation is a coalition of 10 affordable housing and land conservation groups working together to “meet the need for affordable housing, conserve important lands for human and ecological benefit, and adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.” This model serves as a framework for organizations to increase their institutional capacities for change by collaborating with stakeholders from both sectors. Learning from the Hudson Valley Alliance for Housing and Conservation, the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust and Groundwork (a local workforce housing center) should partner together to increase their impact on affordable housing and land conservation in Northwest Arkansas. To start, these organizations could join together to:

  1. Develop a list of shared public policies
  2. Create a GIS-based map of potential sites for collaborative work, with particular focus on publicly-owned vacant lots
  3. Secure funding from the Land Trust Alliance and Housing and Urban Development to pilot new project

These cross-sector approaches to managing urban growth are compatible with a certain Southern sensibility where, for example, your family doctor is also a dairy farmer. In the South, people aren’t just one thing, and land conservation doesn’t neatly align with one political party or identity. For example, last fall a group of residents organized a town-hall in Jasper, Arkansas to express widespread opposition to a controversial effort to redesignate the Buffalo National River as a national park preserve. (See: Widespread opposition to efforts to re-designate the Buffalo National River).

Our multiple positionalities to a place certify that certain frameworks (e.g. NIMBY vs. YIMBY) are somewhat unhelpful at creating meaningful coalitions to build a future that works for all of us. My dad’s childhood was different from mine in every way except for one thing: finding beauty, ourselves, and each other in the Arkansas hills. I hold fast to the promise of the Ozarks and believe in its expansiveness to hold all of our nuances, distinctions, and especially our contradictions.

Jenna Blakeman is a native Arkansan living in Brooklyn. She holds a Master’s degree in Urban and Community Planning from Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and African American Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research interests coalesce around the intersections between place, identity, and politics.

[1] American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates (2022) and U.S. Census (2000)

[2] American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates (2022)

[3] American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates (2022)

[4] American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates (2022)