A walk in the park

The big news in Chattanooga urban design this week was the grand opening of Main Terrain in the Southside. This is a great project and one that has been foreshadowed at for a least a decade. The park serves as public art installation, stormwater detention facility, and outdoor gym. The project also harkens back to the halcyon days when broad partnerships were common for us and public projects flourished because of it.

Main Terrain is a linear public space that connects 13th Street and Main Street, mid-block between Broad and Chestnut Streets. The dominant element of the park is an abstraction of our bridges and nod to our industrial heritage in the form of a kinetic sculpture. A series of workout stations are located along a network of paths that then define two large grassed areas. Those grassy areas hold stormwater during rain events and allow the water to be released more slowly into the ground, or released directly into the river (which is preferable to sending it through the CSO to Moccasin Bend for treatment).

In the mid-90’s during the numerous Southside planning efforts the Main Terrain site was identified as a part of a larger pedestrian connection through the district. At the turn of the century, a number of public projects were undertaken in the Southside (off the top of my head: The Chattanoogan, Development Resource Center, Trade Center expansion, Battle Academy, Fire Hall #1, and 17th Street), but for various reasons this project did not move forward with them.  Virtually all of the public realm improvements that were proposed incorporated some form of green infrastructure element. For example, the 17th Street improvement was about more than sidewalks and street trees. The project included a stormwater facility that collected rainwater from streets and rooftops, was to store it in the water tower and then reuse the water for the irrigation of street trees. The Main Terrain site was to be the location for another water tower that was to serve the same function for 13th Street. Alas, that project was not to be.

A concept for the 13th Street corridor and water tower (E. Myers drew this).
Conceptual plan for the north end of the site by Richard Rothman

Fast-forward a decade and the site is now ripe. While the project is perhaps not as robustly integrated or “sustainable” (that word has almost lost all meaning) as some previous concepts, it is a very solid piece of work that will be of tremendous value to the community. What is equally exciting is that this was done through cooperation and collaboration. Foundations, artists, consultants, vendors and local and federal government working together- sounds like the old days. I have the utmost respect for all of the designers involved (especially Mike Fowler, who is a gentleman of the highest order and a most conscientious designer).

Four of the untold number of Southside plans that called for a
mid-block "environmental Corridor"

All told, the park design is solid. To be fair though, I'm not a fan of the pedestrian light fixtures. When I saw them, I immediately thought of the immortal words of DeAndre Cole. I suspect that someone in public works got a deal on them and shoehorned them in there. A minor quibble though, for as bad as the fixtures are, the space and art are strong enough to overcome them.

oooooooowheeee, what up with that?

On a tangential note, I have a comment on a current national trend. I am saddened by the concept that art in public space has “do something” to justify its existence.  Virtually every new public space in our country is now driven by utility. People aren’t content to commission objects of beauty for their own sake; they force them to serve a purpose- to be a seating surface, an exercise apparatus, a water filter, a pencil sharpener, an energy generator, etc. It is a high-functioning and civil community that has a common understanding of the inherent value of art. The understanding being that art does not need to justify its own existence. This is not an indictment of Main Terrain as I think that there is indeed a place for interactive art. The rotating kinetic sculpture fits within the physical and narrative plan of the site and the larger district.

I, for one, am very thankful for the hard work and effort that were put into making Main Terrain. It’s a well-designed space that has the potential to be a jewel in a larger Southside network. The product and the process are the fulfillment of promises past, an expression of our current spirit, and a statement of our aspirations.

BTW: If you think "Cities are about linkages and gateways and transitions and transformations" you have an incomplete knowledge of cities...or you might be a transportation planner. Cities should be more about people and places and activities and experiences than about moving through them.


Bo Knows Urbanism?

Oh, the joys of being back in Chattanooga and sleeping in my own bed. I had a fantastic, productive week with our friends in Iowa, but the trip was taxing (I’m getting old). As a warm weather person I was not relishing the prospect of sub-freezing temperatures and snow all week. As fate would have it, the weather in corn country was sunny and (relatively) warm, whilst it was cold, wet and snowy here. As sometimes happens when I travel, I neglected to make time for blog post writing. So, once again, I will turn to what I have watched on TV this morning as a basis for the post.

If you have not seen You Don’t Know Bo, the ESPN 30 for 30 on Bo Jackson, you owe it to yourself to watch (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). While he was at Awbun I couldn’t stand him (this was before my brief attendance at Auburn softened my hatred for ‘ol API ;). Over time, however, I was won over by his sheer overwhelming athletic spectacle. He also happens to hail from Bessemer, Alabama, which is my father’s hometown. His is a very rich story, and as the director notes, its not a sports story – it’s a superhero story, a legend. There were a couple of things that stood out for me that could tangentially be tied to topics addressed in this blog:

1) What a fantastic example of core talent. Bo was among one of the last generations of athletes that were allowed to play multiple sports at a competitive level. These days, the philosophy is that if a child shows an aptitude for athletics, you have to essentially pick a single sport and then have an immersive, year-round participation in that silo. I wonder how many Bo Jacksons, Deion Sanders, Jim Thorpes and Jim Browns the world has been deprived of because of our fixation on specialization.

This fixation is not limited to athletics. In much the same way that a core of athleticism can be expressed in many different sports, a core of design can be in expressed in many different professions. Back in the day, architects did more than design buildings – they planned cities, designed furniture, crafted landscapes, designed silverware, and otherwise applied their design philosophies to a range of products. In my opinion the ability to think across disciplines resulted in better performance in the core competency. These days, everything we do in society is in a silo – even within silos there are silos. I think we have done a disservice to our professions and to our cities by abandoning the concept of comprehensive practice and thinking.

2) While he was performing at the end of the multi-sport athlete era, he arrived at the dawn of the “branding” era. As noted in the film, Bo and Michael were two of the first athletes to be heavily marketed by a shoe company (Nike). Nike’s iconic work with those two is now famous and made Nike a global force. Let the record show, however, that I did not own any “Bo Knows” product (Air Jordan paraphernalia is another matter altogether). The integral reason that those Nike/Athlete partnerships were so successful was that the athletes were otherworldly in their actual exploits.

I would love to go to one meeting in this town without hearing the word “branding” or “brand”. What is worrying is that it seems that more effort is spent working on image than substance.  If we put half as much energy into the quality of the things that are being branded as we do the process of branding them, we would be in far better shape. Sure, getting the word out about the _____ is great- but it is more important to actually make the _____ great. Admittedly, I have been sucked into branding/media/PR vortex before, so I'm not throwing stones. But as it relates to the city, (which is a tangible, physical thing) what we do is more important than what we say. So, will we be the “Bo Knows” and deliver on our marketing promises, or will we be the “Dan vs. Dave” and fail to deliver on our rhetoric?

There you have it - Bo Jackson as an allegory for the city building . Yeah, it was a stretch, but thanks for indulging. See you next week.


I dunno.

I’m all smiles for the next year (and that makes three of the past four). When ‘Bama is on top of the football world, the rest of life just seems to work better. Alas, nothing lasts forever, so I shall enjoy this little run while I can. For the record, please note that my prediction of 49-12 was not so far off of the final score of 42-14. The Golden Domers should hold their heads high, however, they had a very exciting season and a great run- I wouldn’t mind seeing a rematch next year.

I appreciate ya’ll indulging my tongue-in-cheek post last week. Clearly, I was joking- I am incorrect from time to time, and I don’t have all the answers. It follows then that I should write this week about questions instead of answers. Cities are odd things- on one hand, the “rules” that govern them are simple, straightforward and enduing; on the other hand they comprise roiling, complex systems where issues and challenges constantly emerge and morph. Whereas most weeks I use the blog to talk about my opinions, this week, I’ll write about things I haven’t quite figured out.

How will new technology influence our built environment?

The really big in thing in Chattanooga right now is the Gig. We now boast the fastest public internet service in the country and we’re way ahead of the curve on this one. But what does this mean for the form of the city? A brief survey of history shows that technological advances have had massive impacts on the shape and organization of cities. The provision of water and sewer conveyance, the widespread availability of electricity, the car, and in our little corner of the world air conditioning (which made the South a more habitable place) each had direct and dramatic impact on the form of the city. I have little doubt that our new information technologies (including our smart grid) will play a key role in the evolution of our city, but I’m having a difficult time wrapping my head around how that might manifest itself.  I suspect the impact will be most keenly felt in the energy realm, with intelligent buildings that produce their own energy and grid that provides hyper-efficient service. Beyond that, I think the public realm will be influenced heavily, I’m not yet sure how though. 

How will the community be convinced that design matters?

This is a tough one. 'Round here, the deck is stacked against design. For some (primarily my conservative brethren) design is a four-letter-word. Some equate design with governmental interference, or tampering with the free market. They don’t care to see that good design doesn’t have to cost more, and that by raising the value of the whole it benefits each individual. Is it possible to think that we believe in private property rights and in the free market, and still not build crap? The flip side of the freedom coin is personal responsibility- we owe it to ourselves to try to build a city that is beautiful, functional and sustainable. Of the things that I don’t understand, this is the one that most perplexing and the item that causes me the most agita.

How will we fill in the blanks?

Earlier this week, a Facebook friend made an observation about density and retail development vis a vis an article on walkability. The fact is that as a whole, our downtown is not particularly dense from a pedestrian standpoint. A number of factors influence walkability and just as important as a path to walk on, is what we walk by. An area is perceived to be more walkable if there are ‘events” and elements along the path that give the cue that there is reason to walk there. Jeff Speck noted that to attract pedestrians (and in my opinion be considered walkable) a place has to “provide a walk that is simultaneously useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.” Downtown Chattanooga has a number of pockets of walkable places. A problem is distance between pedestrian districts and the lack of density of the interstices between them. Other problems include things we have constructed ourselves- chief among these are highways(US-27, I-24) and introverted institutional Buildings (like TVA).

We have a few very walkable little districts in town – Main Street, The Riverfront, Bluffview, Frazier Avenue. These pockets are, however, separated by deserts and canyons that aren’t particularly comfortable or interesting. Is it realistic to think we can fill in the voids?  The surface lots aren’t going anywhere, the TVA building isn’t going anyway, I-24 is going anywhere, US-27 is going to get worse. For now, this seems a bit hopeless, but as opposed to the other questions in the post, this solution is apparent if the will to implement it is somewhat less clear.

How will we raise the community baseline?

A sad fact facing American cities (and cities around the world for that matter) is the increasing disparity between the have and the have-nots. Over the past few decades Chattanooga has made a remarkable rebound, and our revitalized downtown has increased the quality of life and provided economic opportunities for a massive portion of our population. Unfortunately, this has not translated into a rising of the tide for the whole community. There are still large segments of the community (some in very close proximity to the dynamo that is downtown) that have benefited from our rebound. How can we comprehensively address the quality of life and provide opportunity for those who haven’t heretofore shared in our success? This is probably the toughest question of the post, and if I had the answer I would win a Nobel Prize.

How will anyone outside of the SEC dethrone Alabama?

It’s tough to see how this will happen. We have an excellent CEO, we have several years of top 5 recruiting classes, and we have a tried and tested process. I suspect we will continue to lose the odd SEC game here and there – the season and schedule are just too arduous. The crucible that is that schedule, however, creates teams that are simply stronger than our out of conference foes. As mentioned earlier, these things are cyclical so it won’t last forever- I will enjoy it while I can though.

I could not resist sharing the front page of the South Bend Tribune- this has not been photoshoped in any way, I guess they just wanted to give me a shout out.

"To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. "
-Conan The Barbarian in response to the question "What is best in life?"


Parallel Universe

As some of you may know, I am never wrong. From time to time I process new information and adjust my position- but this is quite different than being wrong. It occurred to me this week that perhaps in some parallel universe somewhere I might always be wrong (oh, the horror). What a strange universe that must be- cats and dogs living together, UT with a good football team, a decent Chinese restaurant in this town…

But what If I was always wrong? (I know that this is far-fetched and strains credulity, but bear with me.) If I was wrong, then the blog might look like this….

(cue Wayne’s World doodly-doo, doodly-doo, doodly-doo, doodly-doo dream sequence)


I don’t consider the US-27 expansion project a ham-fisted return to Urban Renewal-style, big-government intervention. I think that buying a couple of seconds for the traffic passing through our city is more important than the quality of the built environment that Chattanoogans live with everyday. The original US-27 project served to segregate African-American neighborhoods from the urban center where other people worked. Why not- land uses should always be segregated. I can’t imagine that this project doesn’t have to reinforce that segregation, but could be used instead to knit the city back together. I love the few dozen (33 to be exact) stark concrete retaining walls that are replacing our vegetated slopes. I totally buy in to the comment from the TDOT representative that the walls will be “almost art”. I mean, it’s a concrete retaining wall designed by engineers and built by a massive government agency using federal funds – how can that be anything other than beautiful? (In this universe I probably also really like concrete formed to look like something else- stone, brick, etc.) Yes, I think that government traffic engineers in distant cities know what’s best for our city- and if they think that transient cars are more important than the businesses, people, and built environment of our city, then I believe them.

“Those” Chain Restaurants

Dude, in this universe, I am so stoked that we have BWW, Applebee’s and Chili’s in their current forms. That we have these kick-ass chain restaurants downtown means we’re like a real big city, brah. Of course, these bostin joints have their signature appearance, so it makes sense that they would do that downtown- how else would we be able to recognize them? One-story buildings Kick. Ass. It’s easy to see what’s happening in there and you don’t have to mess with stairs and stuff. Those building are, like cheap, so when they’re done and Dollar General wants to move in, it’s like totally on. Have you seen Buffalo Wild Wings – that’s fuckin’ architecture bro – like it’s an immaculate ochre cube with a black and white checkerboard on it, and patio with shrubbery, whaaaaaat!  And Applebee’s is my shit bro- fuck the Fourth and Broad intersection anyway, that’s for cars. Brah, I could so totally crush an Ultimate-Tablegating-Sizzlin’-N’awlins-Fiesta-Lime-Chicken-Skillet-Slammer right now, and wash it down with a cool MGD 64.

Design Guidelines

Design Guidelines are great! They take all the uncertainty and pesky creativity out of design, how neat and convenient is that? The authors of the guidelines all have plenty of experience in private practice actually designing things, so they know their stuff from experience rather than by theory (or copying other sets of guidelines from other cities). Also, the board charged with enforcement will always act in a principled manner to preserve the letter and spirit of the guidelines and will never bow to pressure from politicians or big businesses. Every big box and chain outfit that comes here will understand the rules and willingly change their corporate standards to meet the guidelines rather than try to find a work-around. Clearly, our community has had such an unwavering commitment to sticking to our guns on design guidelines that no entity would ever dare assail them. If we can just get guidelines adopted for downtown all of our problems will be over.

The Role of the Community

It is not possible for any gathering of citizens to provide any meaningful input on the form of the city they live in. The public realm is government property and as such should be the exclusive domain of traffic engineers, and various other bureaucrats who know what they’re doing. Trust me, the government always knows what’s best for us from the standpoint of city-building. Just look at the American landscape from 1960-2008- it is beautiful and sustainable, and this is all due to governmental mandates in the form of zoning codes and transportation design standards. I think everyone should go back to their Swanson dinner in front of the TV and leave the built environment to the professionals. (I’m sorry, joke or not, I actually threw-up in my mouth a few times typing that).

Alabama v. Notre Dame

(Note: By the time most of you read this, the actual game will have been decided, but for the record, this was written the day before the game.)
 In no universe can I foresee a scenario in which Notre Dame beats Alabama. However, I have a sense that in another universe I predicted that ‘Bama would win by 37 points. Sorry, I don’t think the Tide will cover the spread. If you consider that ‘Bama lost to Texas A&M by 5, A&M beat Oklahoma by 28, and the Irish only beat Oklahoma by 17, then you will find that Alabama is 6 points better than Notre Dame. My prediction: Alabama 6, Notre Dame 0.

So there you have it, a glimpse into world in which I am not always right. It isn’t very pretty is it?