Why It Matters
Before I offer my observations, perhaps it’s best to back up and review why our attention to the public realm- streetscape specifically- is important. The public realm refers to all of the freely accessible spaces in our city that are communally owned- this includes our streets, sidewalks, parks, plazas, rights-of-way, and open spaces. These communal spaces are owned by the citizenry and are available to all. Because every Chattanoogan is part owner of our communal property, that space is a representation of each of us individually and as a community. Therefore, how we treat the public realm is a direct reflection of our values and aspirations. The substance and style of our community assets reinforce our belief in ourselves and show the outside world what we're about.
Beyond the rather lofty concepts of community self-image and aspiration, there are a number of more tangible reasons why streetscape is important:
-Public Safety: Cracked and heaving sidewalks pose hazards for pedestrians and workers. Even and consistent lighting designed for pedestrians increases safety. (Lighting is a ripe topic for another post. I once wrote a lighting ordinance for then Councilman Littlefield that never got adopted, but I learned a lot during the process).
-Economic Development: We know that working together works. When private investments are reinforced with public commitment, the result is powerful. Public commitment to a safe, comfortable, accessible, and attractive public realm induces pedestrianism, which supports private investment. People like to visit attractive places, and an appealing public realm attracts visitors (and homers) and their dollars.
-Orientation: A consistent treatment of the public realm aids in orientation for both visitors and residents. A clear definition of public and private realms make the city more legible and experiences there more comfortable.
-Environment: Trees are great things, they provide shade for pedestrians, filter and detain stormwater, reduce CO2, produce oxygen, reduce the urban heat island effect, etc. etc. etc. Streetscape projects also provide the opportunity for green infrastructure elements (in our case, primarily stormwater separation and detention.)
A Brief History
The modern push for streetscape improvements in Chattanooga came in the early 90’s with the construction of the Aquarium. The well-chronicled decision to address the broader riverfront as opposed to the single site resulted in several blocks of streetscape- sidewalks with brick pavers, street trees, pedestrian lighting and textured cross-walks. The fixture of choice, what I refer to as the ball-in-cup, was designed specifically Chattanooga. The aesthetic of the fixture is distinctly Chattanoogan and (mercifully) lacks sentimentality. The down side is that the lamp is not shielded so the fixture contributes to light pollution and urban sky glow. The next two mayors continued a robust streetscape program that extended in concert with private investments and public works projects. During this “Golden Age” of Chattanooga streetscaping, a new fixture (I call it the UFO) was designed. The UFO is essentially a Ball-in-Cup that has been redesigned with a shield that addresses the light pollution issues. Over the past eight years, we have seen a precipitous decline in the level of public realm investment in downtown. During that time however, we have seen a number of new types of fixtures introduced- none of them shielded, each of them sentimental, and all of them could be found in any city in the country.
What I see when I look at our pedestrian lighting fixtures...
|The Lost In Space|
|The (Expletive Deleted)|
What’s up Now?
A cursory investigation (done during the blizzard of Saturday morning) shows that we currently have no fewer than nine (9) types of pedestrian lighting fixtures in our streetscape (this number balloons when you add those in use in public parks and plazas). This is not a good thing. Each unique luminaire requires us to maintain a different stock of maintenance and replacement parts. Most of the fixtures are not fully-shielded and thus contribute to light pollution. A number of the fixtures are dated, and appear to be using old and inefficient lamps (driving up our collective light bill). The inconsistent and inefficient patchwork of streetscape improvement doesn’t make sense, and I don’t think it reflects well on the community.
That said, the fact that we’ve paid attention to our public realm at all puts us light years ahead of a lot of communities. I also recognize that a wholesale change of pedestrian lights is a time consuming and expensive proposition. However, having a single pedestrian luminaire that can be upgraded over time as lamp technologies change is a worthy and achievable goal. You could probably convince me of the logic in having a few different types of fixtures that play different roles in different settings downtown. The current situation, however, is asinine.
* Pet Peeve: On more than one occasion I have run across a building owner or developer who has insisted that the streetscape around their project be redesigned to specifically relate to their building. While I appreciate the genuine concern for the quality of the city, that concept is a non-starter. One of the key principles of the public realm is that it belongs to everyone. Therefore the sidewalks in our city belong, as a whole, to us- not in piecemeal fashion to every adjacent property owner. It doesn’t take much to imagine what our city would look like if each property owner was responsible for independently designing and maintaining the streetscape in front their building.