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My friends, where has the year gone? I rarely make New Years resolutions, but last year was an exception. I resolved to start a blog in which I would dedicate about a thousand words a week to urban design issues in Chattanooga. This is my 51st post of the year, two more to go before the task is complete (I did an extra one when Blues won the Carling Cup this past spring). I have not yet determined whether or not I will stay the course into the New Year. It appears that life is conspiring to pinch my writing time, but this has been fun, so I’ll try to find a way to keep it rolling.

During a meeting earlier this week, a friend offered a quote for the blog. As he is the first person to actually ask that he be quoted, how could I deny him? The quote: “Surface parking is the South’s new cash crop”. At first, I thought he had inadvertently gifted me this week’s topic (alas, it is not to be). I have written about downtown parking before. In that post, the thrust of my argument was that surface lots are an inefficient use of our scarce land resource and do little to improve the character and quality of life in a place. I do, however, recognize the necessity and importance of downtown parking to provide access for the community at large, and as economic generators- they make money for the owners and operators, they accommodate downtown workers, and service businesses whose clients travel in from the 'burbs. Without reviving the whole parking discussion, the surface lot as transient use can be a useful tool beyond its face value for car storage. When considered vis a vis the analogy of the city as a forest, a surface parking lot can be considered a development parcel whose time has not yet come.

With the exception of the 700 block, each of the Urban Design Challenge sites have surface parking lots associated with them. It is easy to think of a surface parking lot in an urban area as a blank canvas. Even for the layperson, it is simple to look at a parking lot (a large flat piece of undeveloped land) and imagine “what if”. Visioning exercises have played a vital role in the revitalization of our city. Virtually every broad stroke of redevelopment and reinhabitation of the city has been guided by a broader exercise of imagining what the future held for us. The well attended and well publicized Urban Design Challenge (sponsored by River City Company) is our latest iteration of a community visioning process. But perhaps our most important, consistent, and comprehensive visioning program has gone largely unsung. I am, of course, referring to the 23 years of work by architecture students from the University of Tennessee.

The School of Architecture at UTK had a policy of strongly encouraging its students to study outside of Knoxville for a year. Some of the students traveled to the program in Krakow, some did their time in Nashville, and the fortunate ones came here to the Planning and Design Studio. The Studio was established and work commenced in 1980 when the students set about defining an urban structure framework that would evolve and be fleshed out over the course of the following decades. The work of the studio addressed sites and districts throughout downtown. The work that the students produced inspired future developments, and the research and design investigations they produced were invaluable resources for the professionals that eventually tackled the sites. The Aquarium district, Miller Plaza district, Brabson Hill, Cameron Hill, Southside and the MLKing district are but a few of the sites of real-world projects that were influenced by the work of the students.

Successful visioning, putting forth an idea for what the future might be, is a very delicate process. When “grown-ups” who have been exposed to the “real world” undertake visioning, the process is almost always colored by perceived realities and constraints. Visioning efforts led by governmental entities are usually met with either apathy or cynicism. Visioning efforts led by the private sector tend to put people on guard against what might be put over on them. Visioning work by students has a number of unique advantages: the students have not yet learned what is impossible, the fact that they are attending a well-respected, educational institution lends them credibility, and the fact that they are “merely students” makes their proposals non-threatening. Work produced by 4th-year architecture students has the benefit of expertise, a sprinkling of reality and the benefit that it can be considered at face value without the worry about ulterior motives or nefarious intent.

I was still at the Design Studio in 2003 when the last studio came through. I am not now, nor have I ever been officially affiliated with UTK’s architecture school, so I will leave it for more qualified observers to speculate why the 20+ year partnership came to an end. I will say, however, that without the students the Design Studio was not the same. We found that a design studio without students turns out to be essentially another government agency. As such, it is subject to the will and wishes of elected officials. What made our Design Studio unique and ultimately effective was the balance of an academic focus that could spark imagination and a governmental tie that had the ability to influence policy. In retrospect, the act of successfully navigating the politics of a major academic institution, dealing with the convoluted politics of city and county government, and interfacing with the local architecture and development communities, all the while producing uncompromisingly excellent and intellectually honest work for over 20 years, was nothing short of miraculous. 

The things that Chattanooga has accomplished in the past 30 years are truly remarkable. That is, in part, the reason why we still play host to architecture studios from different universities to this day. However, I can’t help but feel that no matter how impressive the work by Auburn, Georgia Tech and LSU students (among others), it is not the same as having a Chattanooga based studio. Having students live in the place that they are designing lends a richness and depth to the work that can’t be replaced by a weekend visit at the beginning of the semester. A site-based studio also provides a consistent framework and existing body of work for new projects to build upon- as opposed to visiting studios that are one-offs with no overarching narrative to give them context. Let there be no doubt that the Chattanooga studios made our city a better place and that we are worse off for their absence.

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