2017 AIA Institute Honor Award Winner in Regional & Urban Design
A 45-minute drive north of Little Rock, Ark., the town of Vilonia has long been prey to tornadoes, but the one that struck in April 2014 was like none before: Winds that approached 200 miles per hour uprooted houses, shattered shop windows, and blew a massive fertilizer tank more than half a mile. When the dust settled, 16 people had been killed. But the calamity inspired a firm resolve to rebuild—and to rebuild right.
Together with the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, Vilonia has embarked on a Reinvention Plan, aimed at making the town more resilient to future catastrophes while giving residents a higher quality of life through smart urban thinking. On the resiliency front, the plan calls for the installation of an underground network of shipping containers to be used as bunkers in the event of another twister: More reliable than home-built storm shelters and less likely to cause dangerous traffic in a disaster than a single communal bunker, the solution puts every resident within a five-minute walk to safety.
Above ground, new parks and public sports facilities, a new central square and farmers market, and a pedestrian-friendly refurbishment of the highway running through the center of town will make the area more attractive to businesses and prospective residents. Beyond their aesthetic value, these features will improve access to the underground “safescape.” With incidences of weather-related disasters on the rise, the Vilonia plan is one that could become a model for towns throughout the state.
Project: Reinventing Vilonia, Vilonia, Ark.
Client: City of Vilonia, Ark.; Rebuild Vilonia
Designer: University of Arkansas Community Design Center, Fayetteville, Ark. . Stephen Luoni, Assoc. AIA, Matt Hoffman, Assoc. AIA, Paco Mejias Villatoro, Joshua Palmer, AIA, Tanzil Idmam Shafique, Assoc. AIA, Jay Williams, Assoc. AIA, Chen Lu, Jonathan A. Martinez, Assoc. AIA, Linda Komlos (project team)
Consultants: Gateway Planning Group; UALR Institute for Economic Advancement
Sponsors: Central Arkansas Planning and Development District; U.S. Economic Development Administration; Metroplan
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FROM THE AIA:
Driven by resident input, the recovery of Vilonia, Arkansas—a town leveled by an EF-4 tornado that killed 11 people in 2014—is transforming a rural highway town into a safe, walkable community despite a lack of urban traditions. Currently a bedroom town for the nearby cities of Conway and Little Rock, Vilonia’s Reinvention Plan, unanimously adopted by the city council in 2015, is built upon a new strategy to employ underground safe rooms as a municipal planning format that can be transferred to other towns susceptible to tornados. According to meteorologists, safe refuge from tornados can now be found only below ground, with reinforced building cores such as bathrooms, closets, and stairwells providing inadequate protection. Centralized safe rooms can present congestion issues, potentially stranding motorists in traffic, and home-based safe rooms do not adequately serve Vilonia’s visitors or residents while they’re at work. To deal with these issues, the plan calls for the implementation of a “safescape” comprising a modulated system of shipping containers buried underground. By combining the network of safe rooms with a park system and new town loop, residents and visitors will be within a five-minute walk of safety during a tornado. In addition, the safe rooms can function as community hearths, providing wayfinding and organization to public spaces spread throughout the community. The plan also hopes to bring commerce, which has all but fled due to negative safety perceptions, back to Vilonia. To do so, the plan proposes leveraging two parcels to serve an armature for mixed-use development, the creation of a town square, and re-envisioning State Highway 64, which runs through the heart of Vilonia, as a multi-way boulevard. While strong planning cannot not guarantee exact outcomes, the introduction of urban processes stands to strengthen Vilonia while creating the resilience necessary to withstand living at the “mercy of the sky.”