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.

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