All Roads Lead to Chattanooga

I’m so excited! Good news from last week has given me a perfect opportunity to tell one of my all time favorite stories…

My undergraduate years at New Mexico were spent in a habitual state of homesickness. At the time, the internet was still unknown to me, news from home was in short supply and contact with friends and family was infrequent. Most of the students at UNM were New Mexican, Californian or from abroad. I never met a fellow Alabamian, and maybe only 5 other southerners in as many years. As a result, I desperately clung to all things Southern. I found that while I was there I starting caring more about Southern sports teams (Braves, Saints, and Falcons), my monomania regarding Alabama football became (unbelievably) even more pronounced, my accent got a bit stronger (particularly when young women were around), and my cravings for Baba’s food sparked an interest in cooking that continues to this day.

Step back in time to the spring of 19 and 92. I was skint and unable to join any of my friends on their spring break journeys. A small handful of us stayed behind for what was, as I recall, a remarkably boring week. Our rather large house, which was usually abuzz with commotion, had become a ghost town. Midway through this most boring week came a brief spark of excitement. Out of the blue, four strangers showed up at the house. They were fraternity brothers from Vanderbilt stopping by on their way to points west. I was beyond excited to see fellow Southerners and to get to chat with some normal people (for let’s face it, New Mexicans and Californians are weird). They stayed long enough to have a couple of beers and shoot the breeze and then continued on their way. The rest of the week passed uneventfully, and the memories of the week were retired to the farthest corners of my brain.

Last week I wrote that the thought of a city Department of Transportation scares the (expletive deleted) out of me. One need only look at what the various levels of D’sOT have done to our country over the past seventy years to find my justification. In my estimation, the way in which we have built our transportation system is the single greatest physical problem facing the country. The problem is so great that it extends beyond issues of urban design and land use and has a very real impact in the realms of finance, physical and mental health, environmental quality, and food security. D’sOT at every level spend massive amounts of money with virtually all of it spent on the automobile- and this has been going on for a few generations. So, please forgive my initial flinch at another layer of transportation bureaucracy.

Our community has spent the last several years counting down the days until a new Mayor would take the helm. Mayor Berke has arrived on the scene with a massive weight of expectation- and to this point he has not disappointed. On Friday, he appointed Blythe Bailey as Administrator of Transportation- this is a win for our community. I say that not simply because Blythe is a friend, but because he comes to the position with a firm grasp of urbanism and an understanding of the important role that a well-balanced transportation system plays in the life a healthy community. I suspect that he will face a number of challenges from the various layers of bureaucracy (which are driven by the transportation/industrial complex), but I will sleep well at night knowing that he will be an advocate for balance and sanity.

In the spring of 2002 I was working for Stroud at the Design Studio. My cubicle mate was none other than our kid Blythe Bailey. We worked together for probably nine months before we realized that we were brothers in the bond of Phi Delta Theta.  After discovering that I was a Lobo, he told me about the time that he and his buddies stopped by our chapter house on their way to Arizona back in spring of ’92. We quickly surmised that we had indeed met each other ten years prior, a thousand miles away, under vastly different circumstances. That night, I returned home and dug out my box of old college photos (I really must remember to burn that), and rifled through images of my misspent youth until I found an photograph of a young C.Rushing posing with four brothers from Vanderbilt, a young B.Bailey among them…

C.Rushing and B.Bailey- New Mexico, 1992.
I can't begin to tell you how much I loved that hat,
though I can offer no excuse for the acid-washed jeans.

It is indeed a small world and all roads lead to Chattanooga. With Mr. Bailey in this new position there is hope that it will be not only roads, but bike paths, transit, greenways, trails and sidewalks that lead here as well.


Flick of the Finger

Well, the week got past me before I had an opportunity to come up with a cogent post. (That's not entirely true, I wrote a thousand words about how TDOT came to layeth the smacketh down by kickstarting US-27. But on this occasion I decided to channel my inner Herm Edwards and will keep my thoughts to myself for now). Last week was roundly horrible and my mind is scattered, so this post will reflect that. Without further ado, it's clip post time...

-It appears that the City is getting an organizational facelift. This has the potential to be a very good thing. I must admit, however, that the thought of a city Department of Transportation scares the ever-loving shit out of me. There is reason for optimism though, that this new transportation construct will be an agent of positive change.

-At Auburn's A-Day game weekend, they unveiled a redesign for Toomer's Corner. Please note that "historical character" is code for uninspired design fence-sitting. To be fair, that was to be expected, I couldn't really see them doing anything else. To be sure, a lost opportunity when you consider that they are dropping seven figures on it.

-A couple of my favorite bands are coming out with new stuff. To get fired up check out the new Beady Eye. The song contains one of the great revolutionary quotes of all time by Jean-Paul Marat:

“Don’t be taken in when they paternally pat you on the shoulder and say that there’s no inequality worth speaking of and no more reason to fight because if you believe them they will be completely in charge in their marble homes and granite banks from which they rob the people of the world under the pretense of bringing them culture. Watch out, for as soon as it pleases them they’ll send you out to protect their gold in wars whose weapons, rapidly developed by servile scientists, will become more and more deadly until they can with a flick of the finger tear a million of you to pieces.”

And to calm back down check out Junip's new stuff.

-A brief note on perspective. This weekend while prepping some mis en place for dinner I had an unfortunate encounter with my beloved Global 8" chef's knife. While in the emergency room talking with the nurse about whether or not my fingernail was going to grow back properly, there was a bit of a commotion in the ER. A few minutes later, the nurse returned and noted that a man had just come in with his (unattached) hand in a bag. Of course, at that moment I felt foolish and was reminded that no matter what problems I think I have, there is always someone who has it worse.


Back next week (hopefully on topic). Cheers.


Bright or Right?

Several weeks back I wrote about the embarrassing state of the city’s pedestrian lights. More specifically, I noted that we now have nine (9) different types of pdestrian lighting fixtures. You can read the details here. How we use the lights to reinforce the concept of a shared public realm is very important- but let’s be frank, this is not a life and death matter. The primary implications are for whether or not we are living up to our standard of excellence for the public realm, and whether or not the city and EPB are being efficient. It appears, however, that our pedestrian lights are potentially about to become more overtly harmful.

I speak of the new LED lighting fixtures that are about to be installed in all of downtown. On the face, this seems like a good thing- a standardized, networked series of efficient lights that can be remotely dimmed or brightened. In theory, this can save in electric costs, and provide emergency responders an extra tool to help them do their job more efficiently. The lighting company noted that even turned down to half output, the new fixtures are brighter than the existing fixtures. This is all good right? Not so fast my friend. From the things I have read (granted, I have no firsthand experience) the emphasis with the new lighting fixtures is on the technology- not on the act of providing good light. To wit, their claims speak of making lights brighter to increase safety and touting that the lights are brighter than the existing pedestrian lights. That all sounds well and good, but it actually exposes a fundamental lack of understanding of how human’s see or of empirical lighting research.

A decade ago, Councilman Littlefield tapped the Design Studio to draft a lighting ordinance for the City of Chattanooga. As we all know, shit rolls down hill, so this project fell into my lap. I won’t bore you with the details, but in the process of drafting a competent piece of legislation (if I do say so myself), I learned a great deal about the in’s and out’s of exterior lighting. That story ended when, after a robust stakeholder process and numerous revisions of the draft produced no controversy, the work was never brought to council for action. But I digress, back to the new lights.

The human eye is a wondrous, marvelous thing. But like anything, it has strengths and it has weaknesses. Its strength is that it can detect subtle nuance in very low lighting conditions. Think about what you can see when you wake up in the middle of the night and walk through the house. The reason you can see well in that case is that the eye is very good at adapting to low levels of light as long as the level of light is consistent. The weakness of the eye is that it does not do well with high contrast- a phenomenon we call glare. Think now about what happens when you open the fridge or someone turns a flashlight in your dark house- your eye adjusts to the brightest object and your ability to see other things in the room is severely degraded. With this understanding, the goal of exterior lighting should be to create even lighting, not necessarily bright lighting. In fact, bright lighting can actually impair visibility. So when we hear the lighting producers touting the brightness of their fixtures, it hints at a lack of understanding of what the ultimate goal is.

As of the time of my little ordinance experience, there was not a single study that made the correlation between lighting and increased safety. In fact, there are actually a number of studies that show that reduced lighting can actually reduce crime. There is, however, a substantial link between lighting and the perception of safety. It appears that we are afraid of the dark. In our quest to increase the perception of safety, however, it is quite possible to make places more dangerous. The first way this is possible lies with the way our eyes work. With increased lighting levels comes an increase in shadows and a decrease in the ability of a person to see everything in their environment. This creates places from criminal to hide, and places of darkness in which nefarious activities can occur undetected. The second potential danger is to drivers. As the pedestrian lights are typically installed near roads, the debilitating glare of over-bright fixtures makes it more difficult for drivers to see what is ahead of them. Obviously, visually impaired drivers are not a good thing.

It seems that the new lights are built around efficiency, sustainability, and cost savings. Those are worthy goals, but should be co-equal or secondary to what should be the first goal of lighting- to provide an excellent level of visibility. Beyond the reasons stated above, the charge can be further illustrated by the fact that the proposed fixtures are not shielded or cut-off. Shielded and cut-off fixtures reduce glare, ensure that fixtures are lighting what they are designed to, and reduce light pollution and urban sky glow. Frankly, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to even find non-shielded fixtures (TDOT even uses full cutoffs fixture for crying out loud).

Despite my earlier assertion that aesthetics are not a matter of life and death, they are indeed still important. If you consider that the lights are actually seen more during daylight hours when they are off than they are while illuminated at night, this is very real issue. As I wrote a few weeks ago, we have fixtures that were designed specifically for Chattanooga. This contributes to our authenticity and uniqueness. The components of the new lights seem to be chosen from a stock catalog and are likely produced in Asia- there is nothing unique or authentic about them. I had heard rumor that they are trying to retrofit their components to the standard fixtures- if this is indeed the case, hurrah!

All of that having been said, I think there is tremendous potential in a “smart” street lighting network. It is my sincere hope that the city, and/or EPB, and/or the manufacturer establish a set of best practices to ensure that we’re not actually doing more harm than good. If untrained individuals have the ability to adjust the lighting as they see fit, it is not inconceivable that downtown will be a glare bomb from dusk to dawn. If you have a chance, wait till it gets dark and take a trip to Frazier Avenue. The glaring lights that threaten to burn out your retinas are the new fixtures. Hopefully, this is not the future of downtown.


Size Matters

This post doesn’t really have a conclusion and I’m not sure it has anything to do with urban design in Chattanooga specifically. It is about scale and how we live, however, so I suppose there is a tangential connection. Be forewarned, it's another downer...

I must admit that I’m a bit worn out on basketball. Every year when the men’s NCAA basketball tournament rolls around, we get to listen Dickie V and his peers talk about parity in the sport. Every time our bracket gets busted because a team from a mid-major conference upsets a traditional power, we talk about how the playing field has been leveled. Every time a five seed makes it to the final four we hear that in the modern era any team could win it all. That is now an accepted concept and one that we hear incessantly. The only problem is that it is complete and utter bull-honkus. If the playing field is level, and if any team can win it all, then surely it would have happened at least once since I’ve been seriously following the sport (1986). Read through this list of the last 27 champions and see if you can find the Cinderella:

Louisville (also playing in this year’s championship game)


Kansas (twice)

Michigan (also playing in this year’s championship game)


Duke (four times)

North Carolina (three times)



Kentucky (three times)


UConn (three times)

Michigan State


Syracuse (mad this year’s final four)

Florida (twice)

You will find that there is no Cinderella in that list. You will find that power teams from power conferences dominate the sport to the exclusion of others. So next year, when East Bumble State University gets to the sweet sixteen and folks roll out the tired story of parity- please feel free to call bull-honkus. This is not limited to college basketball, however. If you look at our society, you will find the same thing happening all around us.

Our financial system has been essentially hi-jacked by a few private institutions. They have even elevated themselves to the point where they are “Too Big To Fail”. That is capitalism Nirvana- becoming an entity that a system cannot operate without. (Kunstler does a decent job of writing about this from time to time).

Our society is driven on oil and gas. Virtually every activity we undertake on a daily basis has involved fossil fuels at some point- what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, where we live, how we move around, etc, etc, etc.

Our food supply is the hands of couple of large companies. My Facebook feed has blown up over the past couple of weeks with articles on the “Mansanto Protection Act”, seed security, and the (now proven) dangers of GMO’s. I feel awkward writing about this because I am frankly ignorant on the subject and it reeks of conspiracy theory. But if even a small percentage of the theories are true, it does not bode well for us.

Oh, so you’re an off-the-grid locavore who grows their own food, makes their own clothes and rides a one-speed everywhere? That’s fantastic and I applaud you, but there are 500,000 “typical Americans” for every one of you.

Americans are capitalists, and if you are a true capitalist, then the big companies are good things. They are the pinnacle of the capitalistic system- companies that have vanquished their competitors. Those corporations did things well enough and made enough money to beat their competition. They then use the money they made to be able to influence others to help them prevent competition and thereby make more money.

As promised, there is no moral to this story and I'm pretty sure I still believe in capitalism, these are just my observations. It seems to me, however, that the endeavors that impact human lives most  directly (I'm not talking basketball) are ones where there is the least amount of competition.  I think that's depressing.


The Question is Moot

Before we get started, I'll offer the latest in soap opera that is New Mexico Basketball. Not one week after inking a ten-year contract extension, our coach has jumped ship to be the man at UCLA. Unbelievable. But, he was crap when it counted most this year, so happy trails. In happier news, Alabama kicks off against Virginia Tech in 152 days, 14 hours, 22 minutes and 37 seconds.
When I was about twelve, my friends and I discovered Saturday Night Live. I do not recall how I got to watch it, as it was (and is) on well past my bedtime. Although I can’t remember if I did this with parent’s approval or on the sly, I have vivid recollections of seeing some great skits (even if some of the humor was over my head at the time). The next morning at church, my buddies and I would reenact the scenes and tell the jokes we saw the night before. Most of the really funny skits involved Eddie Murphy. Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, the Little Richard Simmons Show, Buckwheat, and Gumby (dammit) are all classics. One of my favorites skits, however, had nothing to do with Eddie, it starred Jesse Jackson and was called “The Question is Moot”. (You should go watch it- its funny, and it will give a frame of reference for this post). To this very day, the image of the Right Reverend saying that phrase pops into mind when I see that a point has been missed.

In the continuing saga of the P-word on North Market, it now seems that the public and the C-7 Review Committee feel that they have been duped. It appears that the community and Committee were under the impression that the sub-urban building they approved was to be built entirely of brick. However, the plans that were approved show CMU’s being used for large portions of the building’s exterior. When faced with the prospect of being forced to use brick throughout, the developer threatened to cut back on landscaping citing the fact that he is spending over a million dollars on design requirements. In the end, the committee agreed to accept some brick columns on one of the block walls. After reading Ellis’s account of the situation (Lord knows I didn’t attend the meeting), it appears that there are a few questions... each of them moot.

1. Will the shift to a more modest building material now make this a bad project? The question is moot. What the building is made of, is in this case, far less important than how it is configured and sited. Once the decision was made to allow the current sub-urban configuration in violation of the C-7 guidelines, the real battle was lost. The few plants, a brick front facade, and non-functioning windows are merely lipstick on the proverbial pig. A sub-urban building is a sub-urban building, no matter what material it is rendered in.

2. Why would the developer use cheap concrete blocks on what is supposed to be a “quality” development? The question is moot. There are no innate qualities that make brick “good” and concrete block “bad”. There is certainly a perception that brick is better and perhaps this is simply because it costs more. What makes a building material “good” or “bad” is all in how it is used. If a material is used in a way that takes advantage of the inherent properties of the material and mitigates against its weaknesses and is done so in way that it is sustainable, isn’t that good? I happen to think that concrete block is every bit as beautiful as brick when it is executed properly. I also think that much of the brickwork out there fails to live up to the potential of the material.

3. Why is the committee trying to make developer spend more money on design? The question is moot. The act of design need not cost more money. In fact, good design can address a problem and actually save money both in terms of first costs and life-cycle costs. It is a fault that these concepts are not brought to the fore before the process starts when design and solutions are cheapest. Unfortunately, many developers do not recognize that design is an integrated process and not simply an appliqué to be layered on top to make something pretty.

4. Should the developer put his money into brick or landscaping? The question is moot. Once again, the elements of a project should be considered as an integrated whole, not as an a la carte menu. Trading off one window-dressing for another based on cost is not a means to achieve good design. How on earth did the C-7 guidelines end up in a place where the developer now dictates the conditions of the development? (That question is also moot. It is clear that our design review committees are more likely to bow to political pressures than they are to stick to their guidelines).

5. Why didn’t the committee fully understand what they were approving in the first place? The question is moot. As I have written about again, and again, the design guideline concept is fraught with peril. In order to create a piece of legislation that everyone will agree to, it has to be watered down to the point that it really only exists to stop the most egregious examples of bad design. And even in those cases, sufficient political or economic pressure can circumvent the watered-down guidelines. It is nigh upon impossible to create a system that is both widely accepted and that prevents things from falling through the cracks. (As a side note, I applaud the Downtown Design Review folks for developing an innovative process that is based on a points system rather than prescriptive guidelines. The downside to that process, however, is the overwhelming potential for unintended or unknown elements coming to light as projects take shape. I suspect that we will end up hearing an awful lot of “I didn’t know we approved that”.)

Despite the fact that I have written about it, again, I’m not really fired up about the P-word. I happen to think it’s a poorly designed project, but I have an ambivalence borne of the fact that my neighborhood is very close to having a locally owned, neighborhood grocery store in a well-designed, urban building. For my part, I choose to frequent establishments that share my values. So, will I end up spending money at the new P-word? The question is moot.