Every time floods hit the town Conway on the banks of the Arkansas River, water fills the streets. University of Arkansas engineer Marty Matlock is part of the team saving Conway. Below, he explains why local problems require local solutions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We have a culture of collaboration in Arkansas. At the university, from ecological engineering to the architecture school, people come to us because they are in crisis. The problems are generally local, but almost all have global consequences and global characteristics.

Downtown Conway, before and after the floodwaters cleared. Source: University of Arkansas Community Design Center

I always quote Oscar Wilde when I talk about civic governance — he said the reason socialism failed is that it took too many weekday evenings. Self-governance is time consuming, and it requires listening — a lot — to other people’s perspectives.

When Conway reached out to the state of Arkansas in 2014 and asked for help, the state connected them to our university. We helped them create a watershed management group, the Lake Conway-Point Remove Watershed Association, a civil-society organization that sets its own priorities, makes decisions on funding and coordinates for all the affected cities and counties.

The Lake Conway-Point Remove watershed in Arkansas. Source: University of Arkansas Community Design Center

What had been missing was a language of water management that transcended politics and technical sciences, one that everyone could understand. Communities need language that frames complex issues in positive and responsive ways, and gives everyone something to do. The difficulty with technocrats is they use jargon, which is almost always exclusive, and it compounds into misinformation, misunderstanding and often inaction.

The Lake Conway watershed is complex, with common resources and shared landscapes across three municipal and two county boundaries that impact each other, but are not regulated. And you can’t regulate them — they’re too complicated.

Our university partnered with the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission and used pass-through funds from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for student time and travel, and created a watershed framework plan. And now our plans are starting to be built.

One example is in Hendrick’s Creek preserve in Conway. I’ve walked on that deck. It’s a cool example for how progress is already happening in bits and pieces.

Over the last decade, through several projects across the state, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in civic engagement. That’s not always welcome by city government, or desirable by city officers, who want to just go about doing their jobs.

Hendrick’s Creek Preserve in Conway, Arkansas before (top) and after (bottom) restoration. Source: University of Arkansas Community Design Center

We faced that situation working with Habitat for Humanity in Rogers, Arkansas to develop a green neighborhood called Habitat Trails. When we went to the community to talk about how to build it, we were told the setbacks we were proposing — and the densities — violated their building codes, and the low-impact development technologies were not allowed in their storm water permitting process.

So my partner on many of these projects, architecture professor Steve Luoni, took pictures of Rodgers’ wealthy old neighborhoods — 1920s craftsman style houses with tree-lined thoroughfares, narrow streets and close setbacks. He showed them to city council and talked about all the things that made it such a wonderful community. He gave language to what they like and then told them the homes are all illegal to build now. We got over 40 variances approved because of that presentation.

We’re not trying to motivate simple projects, or a simple program. What we’re trying to do is motivate a new way of thinking. That’s when you start changing the way almost every problem is addressed in a community.

What we’re finding, time and again, is that community resilience depends upon its infrastructure and ability to quickly make decisions to respond to change — especially for catastrophic disruptions like floods and tornadoes.

We’re not a consultancy, so we solve problems that aren’t really solved in the professional services arena — they’re too complicated, and they just don’t pay. This is the role of a land grant institution in the 21st century. As a result of our work on Conway, EPA is supporting us in a collaborative project with Louisiana State University’s design center and Mississippi State’s Gulf Coast design center to work in Biloxi, Mississippi, and Morgan City, Louisiana. Working with Conway, we’ll create a similar knowledge-information-decision process for all three cities.

We don’t believe in smug environmentalism. It’s not good enough for us to be green, that’s not our goal. The goal of the land grant university system, and the goal of the University of Arkansas, is to help the entire system become more responsive to global challenges. Take energy efficiency — Jimmy Carter taught us, back in the energy crisis in the 1970s, that wasting energy is wasting money. So the U of A has implemented an aggressive energy conservation program to save money, and that allowed us to roll back greenhouse gas emissions to 1994 levels. We’re moving towards zero net emissions by 2040.

We don’t have solar panels on all our roofs. Making ourselves an island of sustainability does nothing to make the system more sustainable. Rather, we use our size and economics of scale to drive the entire energy grid to become more sustainable. We believe in creating models that are replicable, at the small town level and at the major city level.

To get there, we’ve partnered with our energy provider, AEP SWEPCO, to bring wind into their portfolio. Right now, they only have coal for our power-shed. We helped them realize that wind is cheaper than coal, so they’re planning on building wind farms this year.

That’s transformational. When power companies recognize — even in this part of the world where we are deeply embedded in coal — that wind is still cheaper, that’s powerful. That’s a transformation that will drive systemic change in greenhouse gas footprints across the nation.

Marty D. Matlock is a professor of ecological engineering and the executive director of the Office for Sustainability at the University of Arkansas. This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.