Urbansim- So easy, a 7 year-old can do it.

It’s a little chilly outside and cuddled up with D, I’m quite cozy. I know I’ll be cold and uncomfortable when I get out of bed, but on this Saturday I don’t mind so much. Today is one of life’s massive milestones. Today I’m taking my oldest for his first trip to Tuscaloosa and his first Alabama-Auburn game. By the time I’m up, Spence has already woken, brushed his hair and teeth, and donned his favorite ’Bama jersey, the #8 once worn by Julio Jones. Despite the fact that I HATE shaving, I shear me whiskers, have a quick shower then don a pair of hound’s-tooth trousers and a crimson sweater. I look good, he looks great. Time to roll.

iPad? Check, iPhone? Check. Tickets? Check. Car charger for the phone? Check.  Out the door, in the car, off to breakfast. A quick croissant for both of us at Neidlov’s and we’re on the road. The drive from Chattanooga through Birmingham to Tuscaloosa takes about three hours. Aside from the unfailingly appalling condition of I-59 between the Georgia line and Gadsden, the drive is pretty uneventful. This is a stretch of road that enables my mind to wander a bit.

When I was growing up, the family didn’t often go to college football games.  One of my earliest recollections, however, was going to an Alabama game with my father and brother – I suspect I was four, maybe five. I remember three fuzzy snapshots in time: arriving at Denny Stadium and walking in with the crowd; sitting in some nosebleed seats looking down at the field; and questioning why we were leaving before the game was over. Despite the fact that we didn’t often attend games in person, Alabama football (and in the case of one of my brothers, Auburn football) was as important as school or church. Of course, I was no exception; most of the people I knew also felt the same way about either the Tide or Tigers.

I don’t hate Auburn (except in 2010, the whole $Cam Newton thing did my head in). I have a graduate degree from there, and I’m member of the Alumni Advisory Council for the Planning Department. As it relates to my personal and professional development, I can’t overstate the importance of the six quarters I spent in Lee County. I actually love Auburn, and it has a special place in my heart. I found, however, that as it relates to football, six quarters on the plains could not trump twenty-four years of living and dying with the Tide.

It’s about ten in the morning as we roll into the Magic City…
“Hey Spence, look, it’s downtown Birmingham.”

“Cool…. There are a bunch of big buildings, all jumbled up.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of what a downtown is.”

“Do a million people live there?”

“Less than that, a few thousand.”

“I bet a bunch of stores are there. If a thousand people live there, that’s where I would open a store, those people have to shop somewhere.”

“Yep, cities are economic engines.”

“…And I bet it’s a lot easier to have sleepovers with your friends if you can just walk over to their house…”


After that exchange I can tell he’s paying more attention to what’s outside the car window. A few more miles and we’re into old Rushing territory. “Hey Spence, this is Bessemer… where my dad is from.” Fortunately, he doesn’t seize upon that particular morsel (I think he senses it’s not a happy subject). Instead he opines “there aren’t many big buildings here, and they’re all spread out. I bet they have to drive all over to shop. I like downtown better.” Attaboy. The rest of the drive passes relatively uneventfully – except for old man Rushing rocking to Gangnam Style during minor traffic jam. This act that causes young Spence great embarrassment, but provides a level of entertainment to our fellow travelers. We’re almost there.

Dreamland is a station of the cross for bar-be-que enthusiasts and a Tuscaloosa institution. Surely, on Iron Bowl Saturday, the place will be mobbed. I can’t not try to go though- it’s Spence’s first trip here. Jug Factory road is, as usual, a bit sketchy- but as we pull up, I am greeted with a front row parking spot. A police officer opens the door for us, and directly escorts us to a booth beneath a poster of Coach Bryant. Our server approaches the table and tells us that we will be splitting a slab of ribs and asks what we would like to drink. Who knows if it’s the gameday day ambiance, Spence’s face-splitting grin, or the food, but the combination of pork, smoke, sauce and company is better than anything I’ve ever tasted (sorry Charlie Trotter).

Pointing a signed picture on the wall, Spence asks “Dad, who’s that?”

“George Teague. I went to high school with him. I didn’t know him well but he was in my computer class with Ms. Daniel’s when I was in eleventh grade.”

“What’s he doing to that guy from Miami?”

“Stripping the ball from him. That’s one of Alabama’s famous plays. We beat the ‘Canes in that game to win the National Championship.”


We park at Central High, and join the throng headed toward the stadium. Spence is about to come undone- he’s hopping, skipping, holding my hand and asking questions as fast as his little mouth can form them. “How big is the stadium? Why is it called Bryan-Denny? Where are the players? Why is he called “Ears” Whitworth? Can I have an Eddie Lacy jersey? Where are the Auburn fans? Can we meet Nick Saban? I like the way the cars are parked in places all around – that beats a big parking lot where everyone has to walk all day.” Attaboy.

As we approach the quad, the questions stop and his mouth drops a little. Thousands of our brethren are cavorting in tents, hugging, dancing, high-fiving and enjoying each other’s company. A cheesy as it sounds, I feel like I’m home. Alabamians… dressed like me, talking like me, loving what I love. I can’t help but think that Spence picks up on it. We make our way through the scene, soaking up the atmosphere, and I point out elements of interest: Denny Chimes, the Library. “I like it here, the buildings and the trees make it feel like a big room.” Attaboy.  We reach our destination: a tailgater thrown by one of my fraternity brothers from New Mexico who has moved to Birmingham and adopted ‘Bama as his own.  After a hearty round of hugs and introductions, they proceed to stuff us with food and drink. Thankfully, Mr. Garcia refrains from telling any stories that start with “I remember when your dad…”

We make our goodbyes and head toward the stadium to take pictures with the Statues of our beloved coaches. “Dad, can we go to our seats? Dad, can we go down on the field? Dad, I want popcorn… no, I want nachos…no, I want a hot dog… no, I want a pretzel. Where’s A.J McCarron? Who’s Mal Moore? Why isn’t that guy wearing a shirt?...

Standing in front of Coach Bryant’s statue, I make to have a stranger take a picture of us. OH. SHIT. How can I have made this schoolboy error? My… Phone… Is… Dead. Did I really just drive for three hours without plugging my phone into the charger? Yes. How will I be able to tell all of my Facebook friends how much fun we’re having? How will I be able to post pictures to Instagram that illustrate said fun? How will I be able to tweet the details of our fantastic adventure? In that moment, I realized that this is best gift Spence could possibly be given- the full and undivided attention of his father. Obviously, I wasn’t planning on using my phone to work or check email, I was going to use it to let family and friends know what we were up to. But from his standpoint, what’s the difference- his dad still would have been fiddling with technology on and off throughout the night. Now, its just me and him, and his experiences and memories trump all the likes and retweets in the world. This is our game- what happens here, between us is not for our family or friends (whom we love dearly). What happens here is for him and me to share to the exclusion of everyone else (yes, I’m selfish like that). 

The third quarter ends, and over the P.A. an acoustic guitar gives way to familiar lyrics…

Rollin' down a backwoods Tennessee byway, one arm on the wheel…

“Dad, are you crying?”

“Uh, er, no son….uh, the wind is uh making my eyes water… I love this song”

I am no country music fan, although, I do have a pair of boots and a cowboy hat to show for my time in New Mexico. Dixieland Delight, however, is one of those songs that has been with me my entire life. It was the soundtrack of beach vacations with the Turners and Voltzes when I was small boy. It was a go-to when I got homesick in Albuquerque. It’s been the backdrop for a number of cherished moments with D (notably the stormed delayed Riverbend concert of 2000). It was cause for a drunken square-dance with Matt Winget and Johnny Hardaway at Hannah’s before this year’s UT game. In this moment, it’s perfect once again. With ‘Bama up by six touchdowns, and my son by my side, a hundred thousand happy Alabamians serenade one another at the top of their lungs.  When the chorus I arrives, I join in full voice (…except for the unofficial lyrics that aren’t really appropriate for seven-year-old ears)…

Spend my dollar; (ON BEER!)

Parked in a holler 'neath the mountain moonlight; (ROLL TIDE!!)

Hold her Uptight; (AGAINST THE WALL)

Make a little lovin', (ALL NIGHT)

A little turtle dovin' on a Mason Dixon night. (F*** AUBURN)

Fits my life, oh, so right: My Dixieland Delight.

The song ends, the game resumes, and the elderly gentleman sat in front of us turns and says “You and your son look like you’re having so much fun, would you like me to take a picture of you two?” I replied with a wink, “ Thank you sir, I appreciate it, but fortunately my phone is dead”

He inquires 
“Oh, by the way, do you know who sings that last song?”

“Yes sir. It’s Alabama.”


Man Crush: John Nolen

Before we jump in this week, I have to acknowledge the remarkable events of the weekend. What a life!! For those of you who don’t stake your emotional and mental well being on the performance of a group of 19-year olds, I’m talking about college football. Two miraculous upsets have propelled Alabama back into the national title picture. I must admit that for a moment, I lost faith- I thought we spent all such luck last year. If things go according to plan, we’ll get Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game – delicious. There is still plenty of water between us and the shore, but for now, this makes one very happy C.Rushing.

Dr. John J. Pittari, Jr. has the ignominy of being the only graduate school professor to give me a B. I fully believe that I did A work in that particular class, but it was not be. There is, however, some justice there as I likely did not deserves some the A’s that I received in other classes. I’m not too broken up about it, but the frustrating thing about the B (in Planning History for heaven’s sake) was that I actually enjoyed the course. I’m not really a history buff, but studying past philosophies of planning and reading about past practitioners and theorists was enthralling.

As a class exercise, each student was assigned an historic figure of the planning world to research and present back to the class. I was hoping to work on Ebenezer Howard. At the time I was enamored with the rigid geometry and rationalism of his Garden City diagrams. Failing Howard, I wouldn’t have minded doing some work on Earl Draper. Draper did the vast majority of his professional work in the South and borrowed heavily from Howard. Despite the fact that the good Doctor knew I wanted to do Howard, he purposefully assigned me John Nolen. I was pissed about that (I got over it).  Of course, when the good Doctor assigned Nolen to his favorite pupil, he knew what he was doing. Nolen’s work wasn’t about two-D geometry, it was about quality of space. He was less concerned with creating utopias than he was embracing and elevating the spirit of place. Nolen was a stud- I developed a full-on man-crush. The man was a titan in the field: an academic, a prolific consultant, and for his work in various professional organizations is often referred to as the “Father of City Planning”. He did HUNDREDS of plans across the country, and his list of work in the South is long and distinguished. His firm did 54 plans in Florida alone, including excellent examples in Venice and Sarasota (but let's agree that FL isn't the South). His work in Kingsport is famous and he also did plans for Asheville, Columbus, Savannah, and, you guessed it – Chattanooga.

The 1911 John Nolen park system plan for Chattanooga…Kicks. Ass. The plan comprises a twenty-seven page document entitled “General Features of a Park System for Chattanooga” and an accompanying map. It’s tough for me to read through his work without feeling inadequate. While it’s easy to tell that this was written in the very early twentieth century, his prose is clear, direct and readable. Four of the twenty-seven pages of the plan are given over to bibliography- he quotes books that he wrote himself. The greatest thing about the plan, however, is the intangible quality that separates great plans from good ones. This intangible quality transcends time and the development of the city that has occurred in the intervening years.

That is the power of vision. Nolen has been dead a long time, and the city has boomed, busted and boomed in the decades since his death. Yet, there they are, hundred-year-old concepts that could easily be incorporated in a planning document of today. Like all good vision, there are elements of specificity and elements of spirit. From a detail standpoint, virtually everything on the map could be implemented today in some form. The danger of specificity, however, is that elements of a plan, when unrealized can make a document seem outdated or obsolete. Great plans, however, have an underlying layer of vision that suggests broader concepts that are viable regardless of the circumstances of site.

As I am very fond of saying, cities are constantly changing. All of the elements in play cycle at their own rhythms and change at their own pace- most of these very slow by the measure of a human life. Mr. Nolen’s plan is 101 years old, but the Chattanooga of his drawings is more than recognizable today. As I was reviewing his document during the preparation for this post, I came across a passage that gave me goosebumps:

“The first and last need of a city, the one that outweighs all others, is civic spirit and the expression of that spirit in great and enduring public works, erected for the common welfare. Chief among these, according to modern standards and modern necessities, is a system of parks, playgrounds, and open spaces, adequate in extent, artistic in design, scientific in construction, and liberal in maintenance. In Chattanooga, the first step, but only the first step, has been taken toward the formation of such a system. It now rests with the community to express its civic spirit, to manifest its faith in the future of Chattanooga…”

That statement is as true and applicable now as it was in 1911. It is not lost on me that our resurgence was driven by the channeling of our civic spirit and by manifesting our values and aspirations in the construction of a generous and democratic public realm.


Swim Bike Run - Part 2

OK, I’ll be honest. I’ve done my level best to try to create an urban design connection to this, the second in a two-part post about the ten-year anniversary of my completion of Ironman Florida, but I’ve got nothing.  Don't worry, I’ll be on about something else next week.

The sea was angry that day.  A 2.4-mile swim is a difficult proposition in the best of circumstances, but on this day, it was like swimming in a washing machine. As a consequence of the choppy waters, I caught a few mouthfuls of seawater that induced an inglorious return of that water to the ocean. Training in the placid waters of the Sportsbarn indoor pool helped prepare me for endurance, but didn’t do much to prep me for the course. It also didn’t do much for mental preparation. While training at the pool I was thinking about things like the urban public realm and how we were going to make it through another Downtown Plan meeting. While during the race I was thinking, dear lord, I’m half a mile from shore, I could drown, there are sharks out here, I just threw-up seawater, and this wetsuit is giving me a nasty rash on my neck. I emerged from the brine with an awful time of 1 hour 45 minutes- about half an hour worse than it should have been.

Of the three phases of the race, the bike was the least exciting. The ride was long and uneventful (TWSS). The one interesting thing that happened was that I got the first flat tire of the whole process about 10 miles in. Despite the fact that it was November, the mosquitoes were still out in full force on the panhandle- I got eaten up during the four minutes it took me to replace the tube. This race course highlighted the one deficiency that downtown Chattanooga has for IM training. That course is flat- the only grade change on the course is a small bridge. Try finding a flat place to ride around here. I satisficed by riding moccasin bend from the hospital to Pineville road and looping back and forth as many times as it took to hit my training distance for that particular day. The 112-mile ride took me 7 hours. I was hoping that the time would be a little bit better, but compared to swim, it was fine.

The run was the portion that I was most prepared for physically. I came into the IM on the heels of a couple of marathons and was pretty confident in my ability to finish strong. Based on my training and my estimation of what the rest of the day would take out of me, I figured that I had a 4-hour marathon time in me. I was wrong. The first 13 miles of the run were fine, and I was right on pace. But at the half-way point of the marathon I developed a sharp pain in my knee. Since pretty much every other part of my body hurt, I didn’t think much of it. I took a walk through an aid station and tried to run again and the sharp pain was amplified. I discovered some time later that I damaged the cartilage in that knee. One of the difficult things for a competitive athletic person is to surmise the difference between being injured and being hurt. Playing when hurt is a hallmark of a tough guy, playing when injured is for fools. By the time I felt leg pain, my ability to think was severely diminished. In fact, there was no point when I even confronted the question about whether or not it was wise to proceed, the only question was how. For the last thirteen miles of the marathon I traded off walking, shuffling, brief idiotic sprinting, and extended periods of limping. It took my almost as much time to finish the last half of the run as I thought it would take to finish the whole thing. I lack the vocabulary to describe what I went through for those last few hours. I entered some kind of surreal mental and emotional state- I know that I was changed in those few hours, but I can’t explain how.

A year of hard work, sacrifice, training, and self-denial resulted in a day of stress, injury, and exhaustion. Hard work was the reward for my hard work. So it is for those of us who endeavor to build cities. It is our privilege to be able to work toward the building of the community – the work is our reward. Unlike a triathlete, however, there is no finish line for city builders. Chattanooga was here before any of us arrived and it will be around when we go to our reward. So we work hard to build the type of place we want to live in- a place that expresses the values and aspirations of the community- then we move along. 

As I reached the last of the 140.6 miles that I traveled that day, I broke into what could reasonably be called a run. As I was high-fiving spectators and taking my final strides toward the final line, I lost it. It’s no big secret that I’m an emotional man, and will cry on cue. Couple that with the journey that my body and mind had just undergone and I was worse than Dick Vermeil watching Old Yeller. I stopped the clock in 14 hours, 53 minutes and 34 seconds. The time was three and a half hours worse than I had anticipated, but the race was everything I could have hoped for. Thanks being patient and indulging my anniversary, I'll be back to business next week.


Swim, Bike, Run - Part 1

Last week, an ass a good friend observed that in the past few weeks the blog has been filled with stories from my youth and recollections of past glories. From this, he has deduced that I am having an online, mid-life crisis. He has also predicted that within the next year I will purchase a new, red sports car. I don’t happen to agree with his assessment, but if he’s right, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. For one, I believe that I am past the mid-point of life- due to my affinity for brown liquor and cigars I rather suspect I will not see 80 (but who knows- Baba hit 94). Additionally, if this is indeed a mid-life crisis, I got off easy – a few blog posts are far less expensive than the car I would probably buy. The ass’s point is taken, and in the future I will try to stick more closely to the urban design script. In defiance of his assertion, however, I offer another trip down memory lane.

This week marks the ten-year anniversary of my competition in Ironman Florida. For the uninitiated, an Ironman is a long-distance triathlon. The Florida version of the race comprises a 2.4-mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico, a 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run (aka a marathon), completed back-to-back-to-back in the same day. The fact that I was engaged in the sport is purely a case of sibling rivalry. My brother egged me into running (a couple of a marathons) and a few short triathlons. He was always faster than me, so the only way to beat him was to go for distances that he wouldn’t. Regardless of the reason for participation, the race was perhaps the highlight of my athletic career. Beyond that, the process of training for it sparked the biggest leap in my understanding of Chattanooga and urbanism.

Yes, I shaved my legs for this.

2002 was, until that point, the most dynamic year of my life. Personally, it was the year I got married and the year I bought my first house. Professionally, the studio had just embarked upon the Downtown Plan and the 21st Century Waterfront Plan. This was also the year that I had an aborted attempt at starting a new design firm- obviously it didn’t work out, but I suppose I can count my blessings for that. It was in the midst of that storm that I thought preparing for an Ironman was a perfectly logical thing to do.

The primary factor in training for an Ironman is time. Clearly there is a physical endurance component, but with the proper training you teach your body over the course of a year to be able to handle the physical stuff- all it takes is time. At the height of training, I was spending 4 hours per weekday and six hours per weekend day in the pool or on the road. The upshot of that is that I had a lot of time alone to think. A portion of that thinking time was spent on things like technique and mental preparation for the race, but much of the training is mindless repetition that allows the thoughts to wander. The unintended consequence of spending 4 hours a day running was that I was put into direct contact with the city – our roads, buildings, sidewalks, parks, plazas and greenways. I had hundreds of hours with nothing to do other than think, observe, and contemplate the built environment. Perhaps this is something that others take for granted, but it seemed profound to me: in understanding a place, there is truly no substitute for being there. The typical planning “windshield survey” can be useful for data gathering, but it doesn’t allow for the depth of understanding that comes from actually being in a position to touch, smell, hear and see places up close.

One of the things that is best understood in person is the varying level of quality in the public realm. There were places that I loved to run and places where I didn’t. The places where it was fun to run were those that treated pedestrian with respect and generosity. These are the places where one felt safe and could let the mind wander- the excellent example is the Riverwalk. On the Riverwalk there is no real danger of being plowed by a car, lighting was ample and consistent, and the surfaces level and well maintained.  These factors made for less stressful and more comfortable runs. Then are the places where you have to constantly be on alert for motorists, cracks in the sidewalk, or any of the other typical runners banes.

Fun to run.
When we advocate for a generous public realm, it’s not about aesthetics. The width of the sidewalk, the character of the lighting, the quality of the ground plane, the number of curb cuts, and the interface with the street are often characterized as costly, aesthetic concerns. In reality these issues are more about function than they are form. It boils down to the classic budgetary concern – should you build to the minimum arbitrary standard and end with something that is marginally useful, or do we spend a little extra to produce something that is highly functional. Running through downtown, it’s easy to find the places where we built quality- these are the places where you can find people, these are also the places that expressed our values and aspirations as we were making our comeback. Its also easy to find the places where we cheaped out- these are the places we avoid, places devoid of life and vitality.

Over the past few decades (with some notable exceptions) we have proven that we are a community that aspires to do more than the minimum.  When we have made those extra investments in our public realm, the return on that investment has been extraordinary. When we have cut corners, we have received what we paid for. Chattanooga is currently kicking ass while communities across the country are struggling. Why is that? Our current success is a direct result of our investments over and above the minimum.

I'll see YOU next week

I'll be back next week to finish the thought. For now, I'm off to Nashville to see Noel again. Cheers.