A Tale of Two Cities
May 13, 2014

There are two sides to Conway, Arkansas.

Conway is a college town. There are three colleges here. One of the colleges is barely a 5 minute walk from downtown. There is also a New Urbanist development popping up, and a few great highly walkable neighbourhoods.

The street I live on has a very mixed demographic. On my street there live low income families, five college students sharing the same house, and an elderly lady that has lived in her house since it was built 50 years ago - to name a few. A few blocks away there are homes still standing from the 1940s next to new builds. I often see people out on the street - little kids walking alone or riding their bicycles, other kids playing basketball on the street, college students with backpacks, and sometimes that elderly lady walks her dog.

I would consider the neighbourhood walkable, not because there are sidewalks (the sidewalks are patchy, but the cars drive slowly enough for it to feel safe), but because there are actually interesting destinations I want to go to where walking attractively competes with other modes to get there. I can walk to one of the colleges within 10 minutes. I once powerwalked home from downtown and it only took me 12 minutes. When I consider not having to park downtown, walking becomes more attractive than driving.

Many of my neighbours own bikes. People that I have talked to that work downtown often live close by and support anything to get more people walking or biking.

Reading this description of Conway, you might get the image that this is a fairly progressive town.

But what I am describing is only the inner areas of Conway, perhaps the people that live within a mile, mainly north and west, of downtown. I do not know official statistics, but I am guessing that only 10% of people in Conway live in this area. The other 90% of Conway is very suburban and sprawled - subdivisions, cul-de-sacs. We are filled with drive-throughs, outlet malls, and big box stores all drowning in parking (being a sales tax dependent city, we try to be a regional shopping destination). There are sprawled office campuses and stroads. A suburban wasteland hostile to anything but cars.

Compared to the Conway I was describing earlier, these are two very different groups of neighbourhoods and people - with two very different views, values, and lifestyles.

When we were looking for a house to buy, I told my wife my top criteria was location. We can renovate, install hardwood floors and granite countertops, but we cannot change the location. When I told my co-workers about the house we purchased they told me I was crazy - the area is old and poor, there are people walking so I am likely to get mugged leaving my own house. Thanks to all of the people that think I live in an undesirable area (despite in any other country, the closer to the centre of activity you are, the more desirable the area is), I was able to buy my house for only $56,000. With savings left over we renovated and installed hardwood floors, we replaced the old kitchen, the bathroom will be next. You cannot find this value for money outside the inner core, while staying within city limits.

To me, young children walking the streets alone is a sign that it is a safe neighbourhood. There is something to be said about their freedom and quality of life if they are able to visit their friends or walk to the store. I would never want my future children to grow up in the back seat of the car and require being driven around just to get anywhere. I do not see many children being allowed to walk to the store (if they were fortunate enough to have one within a miles walk) in the newer areas of Conway. The streets are too wide, and anything useful is too far away to walk. They are just two different environments, two different lifestyles.

The tale of Conway is really a tale of two cities.

Why would the residents of inner Conway care for some freeway project in western Conway? Why would the residents of outer Conway care for some bike lane or pedestrian railroad crossing in inner Conway? We all have our own priorities, and we would all rather have our taxes spent on something we would value. There is a clear division two sets of lifestyles, priorities, and values - so why does not our city's administration represent this? What can the city do to prevent either from subsidizing or being distracted by the other?

Rather than our endless annexation to build more suburban waste to futilely create more tax revenue, is there any inherient reason can we not reverse this process - shrink our borders? Could western and eastern Conway (that are so obviously opposed to spending taxes downtown - just read the comments on the local newspaper's website to see how anti-urban they can be) seceded from the city to create their own administration? Obviously the interests of inner Conway differ from the interests of the rest of Conway, so I often wonder why we live under the same administration.

Here are the current city borders; (Some of the labels are wrong, I copied this from Google Maps.)

Too sprawled for our own good.

Here are the new city borders if we were to secede the outer areas;

Obviously the residents of West Conway and East Conway would be much happier - they no longer have to 'subsidize' inner Conway, and we would no longer have to subsidize them.

Inner Conway would be an awesome town if we could just focus on being us - and let everyone else just do their thing.