For our November print issue, we asked local experts to gaze into the crystal ball to predict what life in the Little Rock metro area will be like in 2050.
Demographics, population growth and vaccines
Let me start by talking about numbers. Census 2020 tells us the four-county Central Arkansas area (Faulkner, Lonoke, Pulaski and Saline counties) had 720,054 people. This was up 7.2% from 2010, a sharp slowdown from 15% growth the previous decade. But it was faster than average for the state of Arkansas, with its population increase of just 3.3%. The state’s rural counties saw net population loss.
When will Northwest Arkansas pass us to become the state’s largest metropolitan area? Probably not by 2050. Metroplan’s official forecast of 914,000 in 2050 looks too high now, but a rudimentary linear forecast based on Census 2020 still shows Central Arkansas holding a small edge, at 866,000 vs. 848,000 for the Northwest region in 2050.
Our overall population will be older in the future; median age will rise from about 37.3 today to 39.2 in 2050. Median age is impacted by life expectancy, which was about 79.7 a couple of years ago. But life expectancy got dinged by the opioid epidemic, and then COVID-19 came along, knocking nearly two years off, and the pandemic is not over. In a 2017 report, the Census Bureau explained that life expectancy climbed fast during the mid-to-late 20th century partly because widespread vaccinations slashed the mortality rate. Contrast that with modern vaccine sentiments and you can see why I’m less optimistic today.
Our region’s race and ethnic population mix is changing fast, like the national average. Our white population, at about 63 percent of the total, is above the U.S. average (58 percent). Our Black population, around 23 percent, is nearly double the U.S. average. We have fewer Asians and Hispanics than average, but these groups are growing fast, and continuing change in the region’s racial profile is inevitable.
The portions of Central Arkansas that have grown fastest in the past 10 years have also seen the fastest racial change. Black population grew by 11 percent across the region, but more than doubled in fast-growing Saline County, where Hispanic population also doubled. The category “other” is the fastest growing, consisting largely of persons of two or more races.
The rapid growth in this last group hints at how our definition of racial categories will change over time. There may be continuing distinction between whites and nonwhites in 2050, but growing numbers of the latter mean the barriers will probably soften. If you wonder how I can say our racial categories will be different in 2050, just look back a few years. The 1960 census did not report Hispanic population. The 1970 census added a new population category to some reports, “Persons of Spanish language.” For most reports, it gave just two categories: “white” and “Negro and other races.” And that’s just 50 years back.
How cities are changing
We know there is more poverty in the suburbs than there used to be. Even in relatively high-end communities like Sherwood and Maumelle, poverty nearly doubled from 2000 to 2019. You can expect this trend to continue. Houses and apartments in the suburbs are often cheaper.
There has been a lot of growth in multi-family housing lately. Modern apartments are concentrated in “apartment cities” because multi-family developers need at least 200 units per complex to manage operating costs. Developers look for areas that are visible, near major intersections along major roads, reasonably close to jobs, and in desirable neighborhoods. The last characteristic leads to land-use controversies. Zoning laws have historically kept multifamily housing out of single-family areas, making single-family housing exclusive and inaccessible to the poor and those of moderate means.
There is always a need for affordable housing. The paradox I cannot solve is that there are attractive, livable older neighborhoods in our region with pretty tree-lined landscapes in older urban locations like south-central Little Rock, Rose City and Levy in North Little Rock, east-central Conway and south Benton. These places are seeing deinvestment, housing demolitions and population decline. This is where crime, or the undeserved stigma of it, really hurts us. These neighborhoods were built and paid for in a past century while we continue building new suburbs, at considerable expense, with some of the cost borne by taxpayers. Older neighborhoods are often well-located, close to jobs, shopping and recreation. If we can somehow turn disinvestment into reinvestment, we can revive some affordable and livable places. This is already happening in Pettaway, south of downtown Little Rock, where 72 new single-family homes were built in the past decade. It is a pretty neighborhood, and these are nice and relatively affordable homes. I take it as a hopeful sign.
The pandemic has hit downtown offices hard, especially in Little Rock, where “for lease” signs have sprung up like mushrooms after a summer shower. The work-from-home trend means we will see permanent change in downtowns, but the pandemic must end before we can really assess. A recent Economist article suggests urban areas are behaving like omelets, oozing out from the center into the ’burbs. Suburban jobs tend to concentrate in activity centers near major intersections.
Little Rock still contains about half the total jobs in the metro area. This means our region has a more radial commuting pattern than average. People commute inward from the suburbs on converging routes, instead of circling around on beltways. Because a lot of our jobs are fixed in place — in state government, hospitals and other large institutions — radial commuting is likely to persist in 2050. Less commuting will go toward downtown specifically, though.
Transportation could change a lot by 2050, but this is hard to foresee. Self-driving cars have receded from the headlines but by 2050 will have a presence. So-called “demand-responsive transit” could compete with Uber and Lyft to get people around. The city of Rogers is experimenting with demand-responsive transit for all citizens. The idea is that, since you pay for roads, parks, police and fire protection, your taxes should also ensure a free ride anywhere within your city. It sounds radical but think about the implications for personal freedom.
Trails are in demand. It is hard to find the funding and wherewithal to build them through the urban fabric, over or under streets that block safe biking and walking. Yet there is growing understanding that urban trails have a lot to do with quality of life, which is becoming the key element in economic growth. Cities with high-value trail systems attract top-notch talent.
Crime and urban blight
Our region suffers a worse-than-average crime problem. Sometimes this is dismissed as “unfair numbers,” but I’m convinced it’s real and a major obstacle to investment, growth and opportunity. Part of the answer lies in improving our policing model. I worry most about older suburbs. Asher Avenue is shunned today, but it was once one of Little Rock’s newest shopping destinations. Suburban strip development has little long-term value; the buildings typically have a life cycle of 30 years. Huge swathes of development from the big-box boom of the 1990s will be nearing 70 years old by 2050. Some — not all — older suburban areas are becoming vacant asphalt wastelands. Our region isn’t alone in facing this problem, but it will be a make-or-break question in years ahead. Walkable, human-scale urban environments attract activity and socialization. Roaring five-lane traffic sewers, parking lots and empty buildings feel anonymous and alienating. Crime avoids the former and feeds on the latter.
We can learn from our neighbors. Northwest Arkansas has recently seen some major advances in quality of life, including the 36-mile Razorback Greenway trail that cuts right through the urban fabric all the way from Bella Vista to Fayetteville. Walmart is building a new corporate HQ near downtown Bentonville, and a segment of the Razorback Greenway walk/bike trail will run right through the corporate headquarters. Business and government work together amiably to develop parks, city centers and cultural institutions. In Little Rock a certain major retail headquarters shuns free trail development on its property, an example of the public-private antagonism that pops up too often in Central Arkansas.
Still, our region has some great assets. Our natural landscape is unusually varied and physically attractive, with steep topography, rivers and lakes, with a pleasing contrast between Delta flatlands and Ouachita highlands. We need to capitalize on our lasting landscape advantage. To some degree we already have. We have some great neighborhoods and parks. Our trail system is world-class, it just needs to make connections between our high-quality places. When you build trails it can really leverage land values and encourage developers to invest — so-called “trail-oriented development.” Even if you get there by car, the trail helped create a new destination.
Central Arkansas has seen some outstanding urban revitalization in the past 20 to 30 years. We have strutted our know-how by building up areas like the River Market District, Downtown Argenta, Hendrix Village, Rockwater and downtown Conway. There are promising trends in downtown Benton and Lonoke. We already know how to rebuild attractive historic landscapes and build new landscapes that mix urban energy and location advantage with rural-feeling trail and park systems. We need to extend the model to other areas, maybe with better housing affordability. Our upscale neighborhoods remain a tad expensive, but overall our region offers remarkably low housing costs compared with similar U.S. urban regions.
We need a stronger sense of regionalism. The old antagonisms between Little Rock and its upstart suburbs still get in the way. Yet I’ve heard our region’s mayors and county judges agree at Metroplan Board meetings that what’s good for Little Rock is good for the smaller places, and vice versa. We need to emulate our friends in Northwest Arkansas and work together as a region.
Jonathan Lupton is senior planner for publications at Metroplan.