Small Enough to Make a Difference

Publication Note: This column was first published in the April 13, 2017 edition of the Lonoke County Democrat weekly newspaper, linked HERE in its original format.  It is the 4th installment of the “Look at Lonoke” column.

In design, context is key.  Particularly in architecture and the built environment, the surrounding elements inform the decisions that a designer must make with regards to size, scale, and proportion.  All of the elements that compose the design have a relationship to one another as parts of a whole, and to the surrounding context.

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Lonoke, in our rural context, is like a front porch to the Delta [aerial photography by Trae Reed, Provision UAS]
That relationship to context could be harmonious, or it could be a juxtaposition.  Adjacency creates opportunity for a meaningful response.  Small objects in a large field have a different relationship that of large objects to a small field.  The space between the elements creates a canvas for connection.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes that the town of Lonoke occupies a land area of 4.6 square miles within our city limits.  One of the signs on the side of the road reads “Population 4,287” as you enter town.  Of course, not all of us live in town, as many of our neighbors in the aquaculture industry and row crop farming reside on the surrounding land outside of the city limit signs.  Nevertheless, we are part of one community and our paths cross at Front & Center Streets, at school, and at church.

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Front & Center Street, Lonoke (looking west)  [aerial photography by Trae Reed, Provision UAS]
Think about that number again: 4.6 square miles.  That means that we all share the same little slice of the Delta, shaded by the same expansive tree canopy lining our streets, and surrounded by the same ponds.

Have you stopped to think how unique that is?  Certainly there are other communities our size, either geographically or by population.  But how often is a town of 4,000 – 6,000 people considered to be influential?  In a recent survey, nearly 70% of respondents selected the words “small town” to describe the personality of Lonoke.  It makes sense, right?  In comparison to our surrounding context in the metropolitan area, we are “small.”

But “small” doesn’t necessarily mean “simple.”  In fact, in a relationship where proximity is close, the space between can often become more complex, and sometimes confusing.

The resource I previously referenced, The Encyclopedia of Arkansas, is a rich reserve of images and narratives online curated by librarians.  Our own Lonoke County Museum on Southeast Front Street is a treasure chest of photos, newspapers, and artifacts that anyone interested in history–or just a plain old good story–can find themselves delightfully distracted for hours (I speak from personal experience).  Newspaper accounts from the late 1890’s are fascinating windows on how different people in a different era handled their relationships with one another right here in our community, on our soil in Lonoke.  I was recently reading some of these stories from our community’s past.  In combination with the personal stories of friends several generations ahead of me, I have learned many accounts that are woven into the fabric of our collective story as a community.  Part of that past is tragic, and one can begin to see how sometimes personal pain is unavoidably present, even decades later.  

That complex past is part of our context, as well.  As in architecture, context is important in literature, in narrative, and in history.

A key leader in my life teaches that “everything affects everything.”  Actions within relationships are not without consequence.  Our internal choices may be a response to our context, but they affect that context as well.  Naturally, when larger in size, the effect has potential for greater reach.  When considered in a small setting, the effect has potential for greater influence.  It’s simply a matter of proportion.

I believe that the size of our community may be the key to ensuring that the Lonoke of today is capable of creating environments of healing and redemption.  In a small community where we all share the same few square miles, we have a very real, unavoidable opportunity to grow closer in relationship with one another.  Our ability for greater influence is magnified.  I believe we can confront hard truths with grace and provide one another with opportunities for deeper connection.

Let’s not forget that the opportunity to serve, to be a part of a nonprofit or an outward-focused congregation is something that the upcoming generation of young professionals and homebuyers is earnestly seeking.  In a bigger city, with a bigger context, it is often more difficult to find a place to make a difference.  In a faceless suburb, you can get lost in the congestion and noise.  However, in Lonoke, you can easily leverage your skills and talents to make an immediate difference in the lives of your overlooked neighbors.  Lonoke is blessed with nonprofit organizations that are each uniquely focused on healing a particular hurt in our community with deep compassion and excellence.  As each operates in their strengths, a redemptive arc is lovingly being written into our community’s narrative. What if we grew, and that number on the sign changed to, say 6,000?  That’s okay!  Proportion allows for key adjacencies and harmonies to be maintained.

Many in our next generation of learners and leaders are seeking to affect their community in a positive, enduring way.  In Lonoke, we can be the model that demonstrates that healing is possible, and that good work can be done in a small context can make a very big difference.  I believe that the unity, healing, and creativity demonstrated in Lonoke’s redemptive story will prove to exemplify what is best about our nation and inspire other communities to envision what is possible.

The walk across the street, or even across town, is shorter in Lonoke.

Ryan Biles is local architect who, with his wife Natalie, is raising three sons in Lonoke.  You’re invited to share your story of healing and redemption in our community by using the hashtag #LookAtLonoke on social media.

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