Shelter and Place

A plan from the University of Arkansas Community Design Center links parks and green space to disaster resilience.

By Zach Mortice

Reinventing Vilonia uses a network of public green spaces to link disaster shelters. Image courtesy of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center.

Plans for the small town of Vilonia, Arkansas, by the University of Arkansas Community Design Center (UACDC) assert the primacy of public green space as the center of traditional urbanism: town squares on formerly abandoned lots, generous boulevard streetscapes on what had been pedestrian no-man’s-land, and new neighborhoods with pocket parks. But in doing so, the director of the UACDC, Stephen Luoni, and his team learned how to use this network of outdoor civic space to meet a far more pressing need.

In 2014 a tornado flattened much of the town of 4,000, destroying or damaging hundreds of structures and killing 16 people in the area. And Luoni’s plan uses these urban green spaces as links in a chain of disaster shelters.

The UACDC’s plan, Reinventing Vilonia, calls for a system of buried shipping containers that act as tornado shelters, installed into public green spaces near the town’s center. It’s the latest UACDC proposal to win an AIA Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design, and it’s the prolific UACDC’s 13th such honor. Here and elsewhere, Luoni’s design center has built a celebrated body of urban research by asking critical questions of little-studied places, namely the rural and exurban South. By meeting client communities on their own terms, the UACDC has become a master at revealing demand for more sustainable and urban lifestyles hidden by oversimplified media narratives about what kinds of places different people want to live in.

The town’s mayor, James Firestone, says that rather than build Vilonia back the way it was, residents and civic leaders saw the disaster as an opportunity to change the ways the town would be developed. The Vilonia City Council unanimously approved the plan led by Luoni in 2015.

The UACDC’s plan calls for a more walkable, urban environment in a small town with few urban design traditions. Image courtesy of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center.

Today, Vilonia is a “subdivision farm,” Luoni says. “There really is no traditional urbanism. Even though it’s pretty scattered and sprawling in terms of its density and settlement, there are social capital and good schools in the city.” And money, as well. Within commuting distance of Little Rock and Conway, Arkansas, Vilonia has a median household income of $66,000, much higher than the state average of $40,000.

“The citizens asked for a walkable town center, which was pretty incredible because we never get asked to do something like that,” Luoni says.

Openness to denser development led Luoni to an approach he calls “the urbanization of safety.” His dense but distributed network of disaster shelters is superior to centralized shelters installed into public buildings such as community centers: While a storm rages, he says, “most people sit in traffic trying to get to the community center.”

Part of the Reinventing Vilonia plan calls for renovated streetscapes with more space for pedestrians. Image courtesy of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center.

With Reinventing Vilonia, public landscapes form a circulatory system that leads people to safety so that no one in the town center is more than a five-minute walk away from a shelter. A public promenade lined with shops and businesses called the Long Meadow links a new town square (currently a mostly abandoned lot) to a pedestrian-friendly Main Street, renovated with new landscaping. An existing baseball park will get an upgrade, and a series of small neighborhood green spaces will radiate out from the central town loop the plan defines. A floodplain greenway to the east of the town center will help repair the local riparian ecology. This space is currently a graveyard for vehicles destroyed by the tornado, and Luoni says the town is considering keeping it that way as a monument to the disaster. “You see tractor trailers that were twisted like Play-Doh,” he says. “It’s just chilling to look at. It’s the most eerie thing I’ve ever seen.”

Whether it’s parks that double as disaster shelters or wetland monuments to nature’s destructive power, the common theme is that infrastructure can’t just do one thing anymore. “Whenever you make an investment in public infrastructure,” Luoni says, “it should be doing multiple duties.”

Shipping containers are used as underground tornado shelters, indicated in the landscape with upturned containers used as signage. Image courtesy of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center.

Shipping containers in public parks are an intuitive fit in terms of access, awareness, and cost, Luoni says. These places are already city administered and owned, and should be evenly distributed throughout any town. Nearly all residents are already aware of them. “Why not make the safety shelter a utility, and put it in the public space?” he asks. Luoni envisions upturned containers sticking out of the ground like megascaled pylons, working as signage markers for visitors who might not already know about Vilonia’s tornado shelter system. And for residents, these building-sized billboards could be canvases for art or sculptural treatments. Shipping containers’ modest cost (about $2,500 each) and ubiquity make them ideal for this kind of disaster shelter, especially given that a tornado refuge really only needs to be used for an hour at a time. There’s little point in building more permanent, expensive, and amenity-rich concrete bunkers. “It’s a very peak-demand use,” Luoni says.

This kind of disaster resilience plan won’t work without a vital urban core that a wide swath of people want to live near. Reinventing Vilonia responds with a range of housing types (garden apartments, duplexes, live–work town houses) beyond the single-family homes that predominate. Luoni envisions this new Vilonia a bit like a 19th-century Western frontier town, fashioned from a set of provisional metal building typologies. It’s an easy to deploy “starter-urbanism” kit, he says, assembled for $99 per square foot.

Given current development patterns in Vilonia, only about 15 percent of its residents live near the town center today. But the city’s population is forecasted to more than double by 2030, and the set of walkable urbanism prescriptions in the UACDC plan ensures a future that’s safer, a bit more neighborly, and quite different from today. “This is really about incentivizing future growth,” Luoni says.

Firestone says many Vilonia residents move to his town for the high-quality schools and family-friendly atmosphere, but then move away once their kids grow up. A wider range of easily accessible urban amenities could halt that trend, he says. And some of these newcomers have lived in more urban, walkable settings before, and want to see them in Vilonia. As the town grows, it seems that more like-minded neighbors will join new Vilonia’s ranks. And they’ll be joined by the mayor himself. “I’ve lived here my entire life. I’ve never had the opportunity to live like that,” Firestone says of the town center. “I’m going to be one of the first people to sell my house and move into this area.”

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. Listen to his Chicago architecture and design podcast A Lot You Got to Holler, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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