A natural connection

Anthony Woods Waters reports on a burgeoning relationship between the US city of Little Rock and Newcastle upon Tyne

Newcastle upon Tyne enjoys a ‘friendship’ relationship with Little Rock, the state capital of Arkansas. Over recent years there has been a greater impetus to develop this relationship to Sister City status.

My organisation, Building Futures East, has supported this move and has hosted visits by young delegates from youth projects in Little Rock, officers and Sister Cities commissioners from the city. As a result of this I was invited to join the visiting delegation from Newcastle in early November last year.

The itinerary reflected areas of interest and commonality with a view to promoting awareness and understanding and develop relationships in order to establish mutually beneficial links. The visit therefore covered the following themes: the environment, urban regeneration, unemployment and biosciences.

Arkansas is dubbed The Natural State. Travel around and you are immediately struck by its diverse natural beauty and by the significant individual and collective connection with this as both a natural and a leisure resource. We visited two complementary environmental projects, both with an underpinning strategy that effectively manages and therefore conserves the environment so that it can continue to be enjoyed by all.

The projects play an important role in education and conservation and provide a range of leisure and educational opportunities together with interactive displays that are hugely engaging and informative. As a confirmed city dweller it was interesting to note culturally, and as part of environmental resource management, the prominence of hunting. One example is the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Centre, an impressive building standing within 3.4 acres in downtown Little Rock, overlooking the Arkansas River and within the Julius Breckling Riverfront Park. The centre is adjacent to William E. (Bill) Clark Presidential Park Wetlands, which involved the restoration of 13 acres of wetlands along the river adjacent to the Clinton Presidential Library.

Project funding flows from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Arkansas Natural Resource Commission. Important activities provided by the centre are hunting and boating education programmes, the main focus of which is safety and personal responsibility, and participation is demanded by the state.

The Wetlands Park is an enviable environmental protection and learning amenity. Separated from the river by a levee, a walkway has been constructed around what had been swampland. The walkway is part of a more ambitious trail for walkers and cyclists that showcases the rich and diverse Arkansan landscape.

The construction of the park is well under way and when planted out and eventually opened it will provide the city with a further visitor attraction. These sites are a part of the River Market District, which includes the Clinton Presidential Library, instrumental in bringing more than $1.5bn in economic development to the area.

It’s a positive example of sustainable economic development and urban renewal. What also struck me, leaving aside the issue of urban density and the fact that there is simply so much more space available, was the giving over of what must be valuable development land for such purposes. Where in the UK might we find similar examples?

Elsewhere there is the same struggle in regenerating neighbourhoods suffering from underinvestment. This is further complicated by the problems created by, for example, previous infrastructure development, planning restriction, absentee landlords and balancing commercial, cultural and community interests. The private sector has such significant influence, house prices continue to fall and the economy is generally recovering at a less than the rate anticipated.


Our House is a vital refuge for Little Rock’s working homeless and their families

Another project, Our House, provides food, shelter and basic services as well as resources and programmes to lift people out of homelessness. Support services centre on four programmes: housing shelter, family housing, the learning centre and the Little Learners Child Development Centre. The project strongly communicated the fact that it is value-driven but with clear expectations and responsibilities. There was a palpable exuberance and sense of purpose, commitment and belief.

But it faces limited and short-term funding in the face of real need and increasing demand, similar to the complexities we face at Building Futures East. I also recognised within this the fragility so many vital services delivered by organisations like ours, which are crucial in addressing the needs of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable.

This is a shelter for the homeless unemployed. There is a basic premise – residents start looking for work from day one and 75% of their income is saved to support their future move into independent living, the remaining 25% contributing to the costs of living and accommodation.

The vibrancy and passion displayed here was in stark contrast to our visit to the Little Rock Jobs Corps Centre. Comparisons were obvious and disconcerting. For me, this characterised all that is wrong with work programmes in the UK: remote, lacking in compassion, emphasis on unit cost and quick wins that has an inevitable focus on those nearer the jobs market rather than supporting individual transformation in the most disadvantaged.

My colleagues and I found this experience upsetting but it prompted a renewal of my personal resolve to ensure that supporting and caring for people remains at the heart of what my organisation is about.

The centre is a relatively new residential campus facility constructed through considerable federal funding and the vocational skills and personal development services is delivered via the private sector through competitive tendering. But the rhetoric conflicted with what we witnessed; this was a facility in ‘lock-down’.

We toured the games and TV areas, gym etc and all were locked despite our visit coinciding with the end of the training day. Outside the young people showed no signs of youthful exuberance; that energy and excitement and interaction you would hope to see.

Those we spoke to were generally passive or quiescent but interestingly could all give the exact date their attendance at the centre commenced. They were vague on real success – job outcomes were not even a measure of success in the contracts – and they were evasive on the nature and extent of employer partnerships.

Fortunately, the visit has led to a commitment to develop a knowledge sharing programme with New Futures for Youth, based in Little Rock, and to improve outcomes for young people through training and employment.

What was impressive was the level of investment through philanthropy. This was driven home in our visit to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Housed within first class facilities constructed through charitable giving, UAMS research is key to scientific and medical innovation in Arkansas. Clinician scientists and faculty members use cutting-edge research findings to create, for example, new identification, treatment and prevention methods for cancer, infectious disease, imaging, substance abuse and behavioural problems. From a scientific perspective there are clear synergies between some of the work conducted within UAMS, particularly around umbilical cord stem cell research, and Centre for Life, Newcastle’s science village.

There are tremendous synergies between our cities. I was tremendously encouraged by almost all of the visits we made and the experience reaffirmed the innovation of my own organisation. There is much, however, that we can learn from our friends in Little Rock. Part of the mission of my organisation is to influence thinking but it remains important that we are open to others.

In identifying similar problems and challenges I discovered a real climate for sharing and understanding based upon mutual respect and common goals.



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