Ahhh, deep breath. An amazing and grueling summer sets this weekend with the boys imminent return to school. This has been arguably the most hectic 3-month period in my life (in a virtual dead heat with the fall of 2002). Here are some highlights of the past few months: I traveled to Iowa twice, Florida twice, and Montgomery three times, my grandmother died, my wife had surgery and a subsequent July 4th trip to the emergency room (she’s back to normal now), I had an endoscopy, I finished design and drawings for a house in North Chattanooga, I pulled together the Design Studio Retrospective, my wife bought a new car when I wasn’t looking, I took the family on vacation, and last week I whisked boys away for our first trip to The Lost Sea in Sweetwater, TN. Over the course of the summer, however, most of my attention has been devoted to the Urban Design Challenge.

Some of us were more excited than others.

In the spring of 2011 in celebration of their 25th year in business and on the heels of projects that shall not be named, River City Company endeavored to undertake a public process to re-energize the community conversation about downtown. When we were brought on to help craft this yearlong “something” there was no way of knowing the impact that the process would have. I had a gut feeling that there was pent up demand for a community discourse on urban design issues- the first couple of months of this blog hinted at that. If you would have told me then, however, that we would get more than 200 people at each of the presentations I doubt I would have believed it.

If the goal of the Urban Design Challenge was to re-energize the conversation regarding urbanism and design, then the process can only be considered an overwhelming success. Hundreds, if not thousand of people have participated in the process- in the flesh. The in-person, on-site nature of the UDC was not an accident, it was very much by design. The decision was made that a robust and energetic conversation could best be established by convening those concerned in the same place to socialize with one another and to have the shared experiences of each of the presentations. There is no doubt that digital augmentation of real-world events is a powerful tool that is here to stay. It is my firm belief, however, that people putting forth the effort to attend an event with others who have made a similar commitment creates stronger bonds. Indeed, the defining characteristic of the UDC was the almost palpable level of energy and excitement at each of the presentations- these were no mere public meetings.

(Massive shout out to Brad Shelton at Accendo Studio for his
great photography through the UDC Process)

Beyond that, the Challenge was designed to propose visions and spark conversation, not necessarily to impact real-world projects. The process, however, has done just that. The most obvious example of real-world influence is the US-27 project. Who knows how that will eventually play out, but the fact that a small band of architects and interested citizens can influence an $80 million State transportation project is nothing short of amazing. Beyond that, word on the street is that UDC proposals have influenced potential developments at 700 Block, the Haney Block, The John Ross Building, the chicken plant and Patten Parkway. Of course, only time will tell what impact the UDC work will have on the city, but my hunch is that we’ll look back at this as a watershed moment as it relates to how we build the city.

Frankly, I have been jealous throughout the process. My friends and colleagues got the opportunity to put teams together and perform the work of the challenge, while I was stuck holding a microphone. While not being able to perform the work was difficult, it has been great fun to serve as a liaison with each of the teams and get to see the behind the scenes work from each of the teams. Without exception, the teams produced top shelf work. It is truly remarkable to see what these teams of architects produced. They were given BLANK SLATES and rather to go the stereotypical route of creating signature architectural statements, every team produced a work of urban design that focused on the public realm. The work is a credit to our professional community.

The Urban Design Challenge is the most fun and fulfilling public project I’ve had a chance to be associated with. By any metric, River City Company’s Urban Design Challenge has been an unqualified success. If you’ve made it out to any of the presentations, you know of what I speak. If you’ve missed them, you can catch up on content at http://www.urbandesignchallenge.com. We all have one last event to attend- The Grand Finale. Thursday night at 5:30 at Track 29 our thirteen-month odyssey comes to a close. I greatly anticipate the week’s festivities, however, I will be gutted to see it end.

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