Heureux Anniversaire!!

Well my friends, this is my 27th post of the year. I am officially halfway through with my year-long experiment of weekly posts on Urban Design. I have come to the conclusion that writing is like eating crawfish- it’s a tremendous pain in the ass, it’s better while drinking, but in the end is a rich and rewarding experience. Speaking of milestones and anniversaries, in addition to the anniversary of the birth of our nation, there are a couple of other very conspicuous anni's related to urban design in our city.  This year marks the 25th anniversary of the River City Company and the 30th anniversary of the Images of the City exhibition.

The list of River City Company accomplishments is long and distinguished. For all of the great physical projects they've been involved with, I think the greatest value of the organization has been its embodiment of more intangible concepts. The fact that the board comprises City and County leadership in addition to a diverse group of community leaders means that the organization is essentially an embodiment of the collective will of the citizenry. The vast majority of our successes downtown are a result of cooperation and collaboration. RCC, in and of itself a form of public/private partnership, helped engender the practice of innovative partnerships to tackle difficult challenges. These are things we take for granted now, but only because RCC blazed that trail.

In 1981 through ‘82 over five thousand people experienced the Images of the City exhibition. This was a principle driven exercise that challenged Chattanoogans to envision the reinhabitation of the city. In ’82 downtown was dead, so it was indeed a challenge to envision a future that involved people living, working and playing downtown. The exhibition put forth a vision for what the city could become based on the following principles: reinforcing positive patterns of activity; maximizing the use of existing streets and buildings to reinforce existing city structure; clear and coherent street structure that differentiates regional routes, city routes and city streets; variety of landscape structures to define character and quality of streets and places; urban public realm defined by the conscientious design of buildings; linked open spaces; excellence in design, planning and implementation. These are things we take for granted now, but only because that trail was blazed back in the '80s.

Happy 30th Birthday!

The reason that the exhibition was so successful in capturing the imagination of the city is that in addition to listing the principles, they were expressed explicitly on specific sites. The six opportunities identified in the exhibition were (and went on to be): 

1. Miller Plaza  (A runaway success)
2. Downtown Housing  (Thousands of units, all over the place.)
3. Fountain Square  (Probably not as significant a site as was originally hoped)
4. State Aquarium  (Successful beyond anyone’s dreams)

5. Market St. Depot  (A fine project that pales due to other insanely success projects)

6. Landscape in the City (The riverfront, Riverwalk, and streetscapes, still some work to do)

What the inimitable Stroud and his students did was to show people what the future of their city could be instead of simply introducing abstract architectural theories. If the layperson sees concepts expressed on a site they know from every day experience it becomes a much more tangible exercise. As we all know, for the next twenty-plus years Stroud was able to continue the work of making urban design/architecture/planning accessible to the community at large while sparking public discourse and engendering a community spirit of generosity. The Chattanooga model of publicly displaying plans, dreams and visions in a common, public place began with Images of the City exhibition. That tradition reached its pinnacle with the Design Studio- a repository for our collective plans and visions, and a common ground for discussing cooperative solutions to challenging problems. Sadly for the city, this is no longer.

I ask, who can rock a cravat like Stroud? No one.

Perhaps we have become an effete community resting on our laurels, perhaps there was a marked change in the tenor of public discourse. For whatever reason, since the completion of the 21st Century Waterfront projects, there has been virtually no community conversation regarding our downtown.  What is worse, not only have we not been talking about what is happening now, we have not engaged in any discussion of what we aspire to be.

A repository for dreams, plans and visions.
A common ground for community discourse.

I am very happy to note that this post is not just about fond reminiscences. As fate would have it, the River City Company will be leading the charge to reenergize our civic discourse and foment a new round of visions for a new set of sites downtown. Keep your ears open and eyes peeled for more details in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you want to comment on this anniversary post, please do so on the back of a box of CAO L'Anniversaire Maduro Belicosos and send to my attention at 420 Broad St, Suite 203, 37402

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