Community Design Center Wetlands Project Awarded National Endowment for the Arts Grant

This rendering shows the proposed Watershed Conservation Resource Center, one of several projects to be developed in the new Fayetteville Riverine Commons.
Image courtesy of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center

This rendering shows the proposed Watershed Conservation Resource Center, one of several projects to be developed in the new Fayetteville Riverine Commons.

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support the creation of a public access master plan for a wetland near downtown Fayetteville.

The $25,000 award is through the NEA's Grants for Arts Projects program in the Design category. The grant will support the creation of a Public Access Master Plan for Fayetteville Riverine Commons at property co-owned by the Watershed Conservation Resource Center and the city of Fayetteville. The Watershed Conservation Resource Center is a watershed-based ecological restoration and education nonprofit organization that is working to restore a 98-acre property that has an extensive riverine and open wetland landscape on a degraded floodplain along the West Fork of the White River near downtown Fayetteville.

This NEA funding came through the first round of Grants for Arts Projects awards for the fiscal year 2021, with grants that range from $10,000 to $100,000 and cover 14 artistic disciplines. A total of 1,073 projects from communities across the United States received grant funding totaling nearly $25 million.

The Public Access Master Plan will combine watershed planning with urban design, bringing together city, ecology, culture and art in reinventing a riverine commons. This public access will facilitate the reconnection of the community with the river and wetland ecology, while cultivating a historic understanding of indigenous cultures' management of these natural features.

The master plan scheme will provide for environmental art, recreation facilities (such as hiking, canoeing, fishing and birdwatching), a transit node in a developing intercity water trail, a river education center, and trail exhibits that memorialize Native American riparian lifeways. The project showcases the integration of watershed management with urban design to achieve resiliency and river literacy in Northwest Arkansas, which is the nation's 22nd fastest-growing region and has a population of about 565,000.

The U of A Community Design Center, directed by Steve Luoni since 2003, is an outreach center of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design. Luoni is also a Distinguished Professor and the Steven L. Anderson Chair in Architecture and Urban Studies at the university. The center's staff also has written a book about watershed urbanism.

"We are particularly excited by this opportunity to work close to home with new partners tasked with developing a new kind of public realm," Luoni said. "Though not quite a park nor a preserve, the commons combine riparian stewardship with celebration of riverine cultures and placemaking through interpretive outdoor installations, art and infrastructure. The NEA award allows us to envision how we might recombine applied thinking in ecology, design and history to develop a public space rooted in a place across different times."

The Public Access Master Plan development, which includes the schematic design and design development phases, is expected to take about 15 months. Luoni and the Community Design Center staff are collaborating on this project with Sandi Formica, co-founder and executive director of the WCRC, who is an authority on design-build restoration of river, wetland and riparian landscapes and who will define program and co-design the 98-acre site; Matthew Van Epps, co-founder and associate director of the WCRC, who specializes in anthropogenic processes affecting watershed resources, river restoration design and implementation, and will engineer landscape restoration strategies; and George Sabo III, director of the Arkansas Archeological Survey and a prominent author on Arkansas history, who will oversee the development of programmatic content on Native American lifeways and agricultural practices for exhibit on the trail system. Other collaborators include the city of Fayetteville, the State of Arkansas Archeological Museum, and the Northwest Arkansas Council's Regional Arts Service Organization.

In the schematic design portion of the work, the collaborators will look at the development of an intercity water trail and a boat livery on the West Fork of the White River flowing through the site. The new master plan will incorporate a new spur of the nearly 40-mile Razorback Regional Greenway and secondary trails displaying information about Native American land-use practices through the design of outdoor exhibit assemblies. The site will also be a haven for plant species native to the Ozarks region, providing locals the opportunity to reimagine how they landscape their own properties.

"Restoring the 98-acre site has been a longtime dream of the WCRC," Formica said. "Revitalizing the wetlands and floodplain is critical to the health of the West Fork of the White River and Northwest Arkansas region's drinking water source, Beaver Lake. We are excited to work with partners to create engaging opportunities to share this rich, riverine environment with the public, so they can directly experience a healthy ecosystem and learn how Native Americans depended on this precious resource and how our quality of life depends on it today."

The Arkansas Archeological Survey, a unit of the University of Arkansas System, will develop programming content that memorializes Native American settlement patterns and river-based habitat management practices.

"We look forward to collaborating with Native American partners to memorialize the legacy of their ancestors through this exciting new project," Sabo said.

The Community Design Center will partner in the design of interpretive exhibits and information displays, as well as habitat and garden re-creations. The center also will prepare the master plan, coordinate partner input, and design facilities and access infrastructure.

Restored riparian forests, prairie and wetlands will be settings for future independent public art pieces. Renderings of the master plan will help with capital fundraising and grant applications.

Three other Arkansas programs received Grants for Arts Projects funding from the NEA in this first round of awards for the fiscal year 2021. These awards include $25,000 to TheatreSquared in Fayetteville in the Theater category; $30,000 to the Sonny Boy Blues Society (King Biscuit Blues Festival) in Helena in the Music category; and $10,000 to the Oxford American Literary Project (the Oxford American magazine) in Little Rock in the Literary Arts category.

Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose funding and support give Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the Arts Endowment supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America's rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. Visit the NEA website for more information. 


Michelle Parks, director of communications
Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design


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