2017 AIA Awards – Regional & Urban Design
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.”