Do People Still Say Synergy?

A loose meat sandwich is a thing of beauty. Deceptive in its simplicity, it comprises a white bun, crumbled ground beef, katsup, mustard, and, if you prefer, cheese. Should you desire, you can have it “wet” (the whole assembly dunked into the cooking liquid). In the Midwest these sandwiches can be found at chains such as Maid-Rite. The perfected incarnation of the loose meat sandwich, however, is found Canteen Lunch in Ottumwa, Iowa.

The Canteen Sandwich

Canteen Lunch is one of those blessed places where a legendary product is combined with an inimitable atmosphere. Canteen lunch has been in operation at the same location since 1936. In the 80’s the city of Ottumwa tried to relocate the Canteen in order to build a parking structure. The Canteen had no intention of moving and so the city build a parking garage around our friends in the humble brick building. On the inside, the restaurant consists of a single, small room enclosing a u-shaped service counter. In the middle of the U, three chatty ladies bustle around a metal meat-cooking apparatus. On the wall in a corner hangs a map of the United States for out-of-towners to represent with push pins (due to the number of pilgrims, the map has to be reset twice a year).

This place is the embodiment of synergy (yes, I know "synergy" went out with "paradigm" in the late 1990's, but stick with me). In much the same way that their sandwich is greater than the sum of its parts, the experience of Canteen Lunch is exponentially greater than the sum of the taste of a sandwich, the smell of a kitchen, the friendly people, and the quaintness of a small brick building in an alley. Synergy is a powerful thing, and one of the core principles our community embraced as we set about the task of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps.

Part of our task in Ottumwa was to tell the Chattanooga story to a select group of Ottumwa VIP. I never tire of giving that presentation. When we work in other places we are, without fail, asked about specific projects that turn a city around. Without fail, I answer that the answer lies not in projects, but in principles. Projects are important, but in the end, they are singular things that can succeed or fail. Principles, however, express the essence of the community and can be applied to projects and processes. Projects can succeed or fail based on external factors that can be unpredictable and capricious. Core principles cannot be tarnished by external influences.

I shared with my new friends the principles that guided our actions in Chattanooga. I was, however, quick to point out that Ottumwa needed to go through its own process of dialogue and discovery to develop their own set of unique principles. As I was preachin’, it struck me that although our principles are ingrained in the vast majority of Chattanoogans that got in the boat and rowed, we probably don’t do a good enough job of talking about them explicitly. As a refresher:

Inclusion- Downtown should be for everyone. 
History- Reuse of buildings and respect for history should be key elements of downtown strategies. 
Quality- Whatever is done should be of high quality. 
Partnering- Partnerships should be created and strengthened to get things done. 
Importance of Place- Attnetion should be paid t public and natural places in downtown. 
Citizen Involvement- City building should be accompanied by robust citizen engagement. 
Genuine- Downtown should authentically represent Chattanooga and Chattanoogans. 
Synergy- Every piece and part of the downtown should contribute positively to the overall development and liveliness of the city around it. 
Please note that these are not C.Rushing’s principles- they are Chattanooga’s. Also note, that I ripped off that specific language from somebody else, although, I must confess I do not remember the source (I believe that came from one of Mr. Kennedy’s presentations, but I'm not certain).

When we argue for good urban design in future projects downtown, the argument has to be based on principle instead of aesthetics. When I rail against the likes of Buffalo Wild Wings, it’s not necessarily because I don’t like the gold, black and white color scheme (I don’t). That building happens to violate a number of the community-established principles that the revitalization of our city was based on. Specifically: it is not genuine, lacks quality, doesn’t respect the importance of place, and has no synergistic effect. So while the symptom of the problem is aesthetic, the root of the problem lies in the fact that our community principles have been violated. Are those principles as valid today as they were in the early 90’s? I think so, but perhaps they need to be reassessed. In either case, we need to return to a place where what we do as a community is grounded by a set of commonly held ideals.


One Down, Two To Go

Coming to you from the Des Moines airport this week, so please remember that as I warned last week, these next couple of posts will not likely relate directly to Chattanooga, and will struggle to achieve the already low standards of the C.Rushing blog. You have been warned...

Friends, I managed to survive the first leg of three in a week full of travel. This past weekend I journeyed back to my Homeland with three of my buddies who had the misfortune of being born UT fans. On Friday afternoon we took a leisurely cruise down I-59 to Birmingham and on Saturday rolled in to Tuscaloosa to watch the country’s best college football team play Tennessee (if I never hear the phrase “Go Vols” again it will be too soon). As many of you know, because of my complex, sub-allegiance to Auburn, Tennessee is my most hated college football rival. For both fan bases this is a big rivalry, but for me it is THE rivalry. Thankfully, after a nervy start, things finished as scripted.

One of the great things about this past weekend was that I was reminded again of just how much I enjoy being a pedestrian able to catch up some much needed rest and read a great hotel guest guide to Birmingham. Upon reaching the city we parked in a structure near the hotel and forgot about it. I relish the feeling of cutting the tether to the car, if even for a short while. It was a great joy to be able to walk from pub to pub cafe to cafe to sample brown liquor exotic coffees and teas, go window shopping for any place to get something on my stomach just the right place to eat, chat with homeless folks on the street and attend a new nightclub opening retire early to enjoy a full night's sleep. This experience was made possible only by density.

It was nice to catch up some light reading this weekend.

The density equation has two components: population and form. For those types of service businesses to survive they have to have a broad customer base. There needs to be a residential population base nearby to support them. From a practical standpoint, the form of the place has to accommodate the function of walking. Businesses need to be close enough to one another to make a walk practical. Of course, there needs to be a physical place for people to walk (sidewalk). These are simple concepts; cities have built accordingly for centuries. More recently, it was understood by sub-urban developers- hence the physical form of the shopping mall. The fault in the sub-urb, however, is the segregation of use and separation of people from the businesses that serve them. So there you have it, downtown revitalization made simple: Build a compact place (with sidewalks) for people to live and businesses will move there to serve them.

On Saturday, in God’s own Tuscaloosa, we parked in a lot and headed for campus. College towns and campuses are typically great showcases of pedestrianism. The vast majority of one’s needs are provided for within walking distance, as many students, faculty and staff don’t have cars. I was reminded of my college days, when life’s daily business was conducted without an automobile. From my house I could walk to class, walk to the movies work, walk to the bowling alley gym, and walk to the pub library. If you substitute “work” for “class” in the equation, what is so different between living near a college campus or in a downtown? Yet despite the fact that many suburbanites enjoyed a pleasant pedestrian lifestyle in their college days, they have a hard time making the leap that a downtown can provide the same thing.

I am, however, in a good mood today and will not embark on another anti-sub-urb rant. I am optimistic that the downtowns in our country will continue their positive trend and that the suburbs can be recast into something healthier and more productive.

With a Tide victory over UT in hand and pleasure out of the way, up next is business in Ottumwa, IA and Auburn (back in God’s Country).

Have a great week, Roll Tide!!


Carl Jung Thinks I'm a Mastermind

A bit of housekeeping before we jump into this week’s post:

-This is me doing my best not to drop the F.U.-bomb on the BCS. What a imbecilic way to crown a national champion. The good news for ‘Bama is it doesn’t really matter as long as we keep winning.

-I fear the ole C.Rushing blog may be impacted by my travel schedule over the next couple of weeks. I will try to try to stick to weekly postings on Mondays, but there is a chance that a) they will suck more than usual, and b) they will be off topic. Consider yourself warned.

My upcoming travels will take me to
Tuscaloosa to see if this scene repeats itself.

One of the great advantages of being self-employed is that scheduling is self-directed. The challenge is to design the day efficiently in order to maximize effectiveness. This is done over time through trial and error, and has to account for events that are inflexible. I’m still trying to master this skill, but over the course of the past six years I have become far more attuned to my daily rhythms. Most mornings, I’m a machine: creative, clear minded and focused. After lunch, I’m worthless till about 3. There is a brief moment of focus in late afternoon, followed by another period of worthlessness. From around 7 p.m. until the time I choose to go sleep I’m a machine again. I’m probably slow on the take with this one, but I am just now fully getting a grip on how to take advantage of myself (wait… that didn’t sound right).

Understanding these cycles has made it easier for me to schedule my time efficiently. I try to schedule all of my meetings in the afternoon, leaving the mornings free to get “real work” done.  As an introvert (for the Myers-Briggs geeks out there, I’m an INTJ – 33%, 62%, 25%, 78%) keeping to that schedule allows to me recharge in solitude in the morning so that I can be “on” for meetings with others in the afternoon.

Saint Nicholas Saban is a fellow INTJ

I’m shooting from the hip (in that I have no research to back this up), but I think cities may have cycles as well. Perhaps they can’t always be “on”. I’m not sure that cities and communities can sustain inexorable marches in any direction indefinitely. Cities are influenced by all number of factors from economies (international, national and regional), social movements, transportation concerns, weather patterns, and natural disasters. But even if you put those considerations aside, can any community maintain keen focus and purposeful drive for even a generation?

To be frank, we saw a waning of “energy” downtown since the completion of the 21st Century Waterfront project. A variety of excuses have been proffered for that trend: global and national economic conditions, an overbuilt market, national and local political changes, to name a few. Who knows, maybe the answer is one of those or perhaps a combination of those. Perhaps the answer is something altogether different. Perhaps the community just needed to take a deep breath after 20-something years of remarkable change. Maybe this lull would have occurred without the recession or change in the cast. We will probably never know. In the end, the cause does not matter, only our recognition of the occurrence does.

Playing the blame game – singling out things, phenomena, and people does not accomplish anything; it is a waste of time and is usually detrimental to constructive community dialogue. It would, however, behoove us to be self-aware. We should query and question ourselves to see if we can become more attuned to our civic cycles. If we can identify our cycles of productivity and rest, then we can more ably focus our resources and attention efficiently.

Get thee to the Community Design Forum!
Why woulds't thou be a breeder of sub-urbanites?

If you read this blog, you’re probably tuned in to what’s going on downtown now. There seems to be a renewed energy in the civic conversation regarding downtown. The River City Company’s Urban Design Challenge has played to hundreds of attendees (be sure to catch the next installment on November 10th at 5:30 at the IMAX). The Community Design Forum has become fertile ground for idea generation and discussion of urban design and community. From a programming and development standpoint, it appears that things are starting to bubble up again. We seem to be on the leading edge of an oncoming cycle. All of us: designers, political leaders, developers, community leaders need to find a way to marshal this groundswell of energy and use it to build a better city.

...and yes, he did just drop some Hamlet on you...


"Go" is Not A Five Letter Word

At this month’s meeting of the Community Design Forum we heard from a group of LSU landscape architecture students (despite the fact that they were from LSU, they seemed to be very sharp, sane, intelligent people). Their class had undertaken a number of theoretical projects in and around downtown Chattanooga. It was a lot of fun to see student work and it’s trademark naïveté (read: primary strength). Students with fresh eyes produce great ideas because they have not yet learned what is not possible. Of course, our downtown has had the benefit of 30 years of student work. The vast majority of the “real” work that has been done downtown in the past couple of decades exists on sites that have been dreamed on by students. Over the past couple of years we have had the odd group of students return from time to time to work. We are, however, worse off for not having an institutionalized studio here year in year out.

Nothing to do with the post...
The Bear doesn't need a reason.
The student work offered me a reminder of a topic I have been planning to write about for some time. That topic is the importance of resisting the privatization of public space.

For a variety of reasons, citizens both locally and nationally and from each end of the political spectrum are decrying the size and reach of government. Everybody has their pet complaint whether it's taxes, bailouts, healthcare, public art, or any of the myriad other wastes. For my part, I am in favor of a massive reduction of government scale and reach. That said, not all government is bad, there are a number of things that a government can and should do better than the private sector. The government being our tool for the stewardship of our shared resources and all that.

When considered in the context of government waste, the sub-urb is an interesting study. The Sub-urbs are only possible because of massive public subsidies. Roads, sewers, water lines, power, police services, transit, and fire protection are all necessary elements for sub-urban development, and they are all paid for by the community. So if one person asks “why do my taxes go to purchase public art?”, another could just as easily ask “why do my taxes subsidize McMansion building out in the country?” One of the irksome things about the sub-urb is despite the fact that it receives a disproportionate amount of community spending, it has almost no true community space. Virtually everything is privatized: gated communities, shopping areas, athletic facilities and the like. Even the most “democratic” space in the ‘burbs, the shopping mall, is a private concern (as the curfews and security officers will attest). True public space, such as the street, the archetype of communal realm, is essentially inaccessible to people (unless they are in cars). This condition is understood by all, however, it has always been that way, and it is part of the DNA of those places.

The thing that grinds my gears is the attempt to impose suburban values on urban places. I have written at length about the nefarious effects of the sub-urban building type in downtown so I won’t address that here. That is not, however, the only instance where the introduction of sub-urban practices can destroy the elements that define downtown. In the last decade or two, as downtowns have become popular once again, we have found that people returning often do so with sub-urban baggage.

The Tennessee River belongs to all of us. It is our community resource- it is both the place of the city’s birth and provides us with life (water) to this day. Downtown belongs to all of us. It is us- the place we originally came together for communal benefit and the place we come together for commerce and recreation to this day. Part of the DNA of downtown is the concept that shared resources are just that. These resources belong to everyone in the community, and access to those resources for all is a fundamental principle. Thankfully, dating back to the days of the Moccasin Bend Task Force, a number of dedicated and hardworking Chattanoogans have recognized the importance of public access to the river. Consequently, we have a number of world-class riverfront parks and a riverwalk that extends miles from downtown. Those successes, however, are not complete. Without calling out specific developments or vessels, there have been (successful) attempts to privatize the riverfront, and restrict public access- to all of our detriment.

Another form that sub-urban privatization takes is street closure. How often do we see large office employers pitching the “campus” concept? They see their brethren out in the suburbs with expansive, closed, “secure” places and want that for themselves. Unfortunately, private companies aren’t the only guilty parties in this regard (ahem…UTC, TVA). Downtown streets should not be abandoned for private purposes (for that matter, downtown streets should not be abandoned for public purposes*). The fine-grained network of streets that defines a downtown make pedestrianism possible, provide a variety of alternatives for drivers, make infrastructure delivery efficient, and normalize wayfinding. The kicker is that once those rights-of-way are abandoned they are essentially lost forever (even if that business moves or goes out of business in a decade). Our community, present and future, loses its shared inheritance of public space.

Reducing the size and government is an admirable aim. Let’s be mindful, however, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Did I mention how I loathe LSU (no offense intended to the LA students) and how I can’t wait for November 5th?

*I wish I had nickel for every charrette I’ve attended where a well-meaning citizen has suggested that we close a road to make a pedestrian mall. That is very rarely a good solution.


99% Entertaining

In the last two days I have read more blogs and tweets than I have in the past year. I am fascinated by how events in The City are going down. For those who are not aware, thousands of people have gathered to protest against…well…pretty much everything. The epicenter is Wall Street but there are similar “occupations” in cities around the country. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the sentiment(s), the whole spectacle is immensely compelling.

Any questions?
I must admit, however, that I find it compelling for its entertainment value as well. I love conspiracies theories. I don’t believe in the Pentaverate, or the nefarious nature of the Bilderberg Group, but I am a sucker for a good story. There are tons of interesting stories and theories coming out of the current events: social media platforms caving to their corporate donors to prevent trending, traditional media being censored, Radiohead showing up for a free concert, and corporate payoffs of police departments for protection.

Conspiracies are much better when accompanied by graphics.
Apparently, this has been going for three weeks, but I didn’t hear anything about it until somebody tweeted that Radiohead was going to do a free show there. I turned to the mainstream news websites to find out about what was happening and got nothing.  There are, at times, thousands of protesters (700 of which were arrested for shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge) and at 5:00pm on Sunday night CNN has no mention of that while featuring the following stories: “Elizabeth Hurley, cricketer engaged” , “Giant pumpkin weighs 800 lbs.”, and “Football game ends in brawl”. I’m not exactly sure what the protesters are all about, but regardless of their point of view, the assemblies qualify as news. (update: as of Monday morning there are a number of stories in major media outlets.)

Politics and conspiracy theory aside, how is this influenced by urban design? Political protests around the globe follow an easy recipe. The aggrieved parties go to their most important shared civic space and make their voices heard. These are places like Tahrir Square, Tiananmen Square, Gamal Abdel Nasser Sqaure, Triumfalnaya Square, Zuccatti Park (formerly Liberty Plaza). Note that these places were not designed for the single purpose of staging protests. These civic spaces were designed to accommodate a broad range of peaceful and productive community activities and to serve ceremonial purposes as well. Regardless of the purpose, most communities have an understanding of where the citizenry gathers for purpose, their communal center. If you take a broad view of human history, you could argue that the primary purpose of the city is to serve that function.  

For a moment, forget all of the myriad problems created by the suburbanization of our country save communal gathering. The current model of the American city is in no way conducive to the spontaneous (or even planned) gathering of the community in a single place that has a shared value to the community**. In that sense, our cities have failed to fulfill what is perhaps their primary purpose. Yet another failing of the sub-urban model.

Lest you think I am all doom and gloom, there are indeed cities in our country that defy that model in terms of communal space. Chattanoogans happen to be some of the fortunate few living in such a place. If there came a time for Chattanoogans to protest or revolt (I am not encouraging protests or revolutions, this is purely a “what if?”) how do our current land use patterns support that activity? Will the revolution be televised from the Kohl’s at Eastgate Town Center? Will the masses gather in the Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy parking lot at Hamilton Place? Of course not. Our community knows that downtown is our community gathering place. Fortunately, those communal gatherings have been (mostly) peaceful events centered around alcohol music: Riverbend, Wine Over Water, Nightfall, River Rocks, and list goes on and on and on.

Pissed Chattanoogans? No, Chattanoogans getting pissed!

Thirty years ago, the Design Studio had a dual-goal in an effort to aid the rebirth of our downtown. The first was return to the river, the birthplace of our city, our “front porch”, Ross’s Landing. The second was to reestablish a “heart” of the city, Miller Plaza. Both of those places are generous, accessible communal gathering places. They are essentially the two “go to” venues for community activities. Yet, if our community was to protest something (again, not advocating, merely musing), I don’t believe we would use either of these places (although I seem to remember the TEA party having a shin-dig at the riverfront). For my money the best protest site in town would be Miller Park.

I don't think Ross's Landing is a good place to protest. it's
hard to stay angry in a beautiful place right next to a river.

Why would protesters chose Miller Park over Miller Plaza? Despite the fact that it has an almost bucolic, oasis-like feel at times, the Park has just enough of an edge of modernist austerity to make it protest-worthy. The Park is also sandwiched in-between two imposing institutional buildings- focus points for objectors. On the other hand, the Plaza has a more human-scaled design that just doesn’t seem congruent with righteous indignation…it’s a happy place.

Now that's a place where I can get pissed!

On the macro level, what remains to be seen is whether these national protests will prove to be the American Autumn following the Muslim Spring or if this was just a bunch of slackers angling to get a free Radiohead concert. Closer to home, we need to be continuing our discussion on civic priorities and on the stewardship of our inherited environment.

**Note, this is not a conspiracy theory that the powers that be influenced the development patterns of our country to deprive the masses of a suitable place to protest…or is it…