Urban Exposure

By the time ya’ll read this, I will have already suffered my first sunburn and OD’ed on royal reds. Yes, the C.Rushings have made their triennial pilgrimage to the place of Rushing vacations past, Seagrove Beach, Florida. When I was a younster, our family would make the 3-hour expedition from Montgomery with the Turners and Voltzes to a virtually unpopulated Florida panhandle. Of course that all changed with Mr. Duany's New Urban masterpiece.  I fully expect that next week this space will be devoted to my renewed impressions of Seaside (a mere couple hundred yards from Sea Grove).

Royal Reds are not mere "shrimp" my friend.

This week, from the comfort of my satellite office on Cherry Street, I will offer thoughts on our city as a destination for so many other families as their vacation spot.

First, let me admit that I am uniquely unqualified to talk about this from personal experience. I never set foot in Chattanooga until I came for my first job interview. However, I will take a shot at describing what a person of my cohort would have encountered in their youth, and upon their return with a new family. In their youth this person would likely have seen Rock City, spent time at Ruby Falls, visited Point Park, and perhaps been treated to time at our civil war sites. On their return years later, they likely would take their family to those places, but with added excursions to the Aquarium, the Creative Discovery Museum, the Waterfront, the Riverwalk, and the parks and open spaces on the North Shore.

I will make every effort to talk to Spence about why Seaside is important and about why the way in which we build and inhabit our environment in important. I sincerely doubt that my descriptive capabilities will make an impression with him. However, I fully believe that being there with him, exposing him to an environment that has been excruciatingly designed to be dense, diverse, walkable and beautiful will make an impression on him. He will clearly lack the vocabulary and interest to want to talk about it, but he will have gained a sense that this is a different environment than the sub-urbs of say, Ringgold or Montgomery where he spends time with Grandparents on vacation. “Urban”, “dense”, “city”, “downtown” – these words will not carry the negative connotations for him as they did for me.

My first trip to the panhandle, and Big Luke's last.
(Before any of you hipster DBs ridicule the black socks,
recognize that at the same age you were going through
your 4th sophomore year and ironically swilling cheap
domestics, he was chasing Rommel's ass through the desert.
Show some respect.)

One can only hope that my contemporaries who bring their families back to Chattanooga will have similar experiences. The new generation of Chattanooga visitors will no doubt be entertained by our fantastic attractions on the mountain. When they visit downtown they will no doubt be entertained by our fantastic attractions, but they will also experience first-hand a dense, diverse, walkable and beautiful public realm. Will they fully grasp what they are experiencing, or develop the vocabulary of urbanism? Probably not. However, they will have what is hopefully an enjoyable experience in an urban environ. This is an experience that most southerners of my age did not have.

I recently read a piece suggesting that economic conditions and a surplus in condo inventory mean that little new development would happen in downtown for years. The piece went on to argue that governmental projects in North Chattanooga and Moccasin Bend were going to be essentially the only game running. I do not agree with either of those assertions, but for the sake of argument let’s say it’s true. Does this mean that we should continue to postpone our Community discourse on the future of downtown? Nay. In many respects it means that this is the crucial time to have that focus. While cities across the country get to take a breath after overbuilding for a decade, we should take this opportunity to focus on our future.

The concept that the only folks who want to live downtown are empty-nesters or skinny-jean-wearing hipsters is tired and played out. People across the country have been exposed to the benefits of urban places and aren’t afraid of them. As we continue into the future we are finding that more segments of the population in more stages of their lives are drawn to the amenities in urban areas. Every generation that gets to visit a vibrant, healthy urban environment only strengthens that. There may be some truth to the contention that the million-dollar condo market is overbuilt. However, that is just one market segment. The real challenge is to be able to provide a range of housing that makes it possible for anyone who wants to live downtown to do so. Of course, ‘round here there are those who would never dream of leaving the 'burbs (and that's fine). However, there is an ever growing number who have had positive experiences in the city and would love to live here if economics would permit.

I, for one, believe it will be a great waste if we spend the next few years waiting around to get ourselves involved in government projects. We should be taking this time to restart our community conversation, identify the gaps we have downtown, and put together partnerships to address those concerns. Oh, by the way, this is something we've done before.

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