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.

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