Just Add Water

So there I was, all set to take the week off, and at the last minute a topic popped into mind...during Sunday lunch no less. Just when I thought was out…they pull me back in…

The meaning of Sunday lunch for me, has changed over time. As a youth, that was the family meal of the week. We had no consistent lunch type, but we typically alternated between eating at Baba’s and eating at Martin’s. Unassailable, however, was the notion that everyone in the family would be there. These days, food continues to play major role in my family. I cook every night of the week, and I insist that the four of us eat at the dining room table each night (with the exception of major sporting events when eating in front of the TV is encouraged). Sunday lunch, for whatever reason, is the one meal of the week that I don’t really feel like cooking. This is fine, but it begs the question of where the family will eat.  The challenges I face are that a) I am boycotting a number of restaurants for urban design reasons; b) the restaurants I like either aren’t suitable for children or aren’t open; c) I refuse to venture outside of downtown to eat; and d) the other palates in the household are underdeveloped (that’s the nicest way I can say that the other three like to eat at horrible places that turn my stomach). The upshot of this is a very short list of downtown restaurants that we can all agree on. Yesterday, we decided to go to an old standby- River Street Deli (I highly recommend the tongue sandwich).

Apparently, it is more fun to ride the tiger.

Surprise, surprise, it was another rainy weekend. After lunch, however, there was a brief break so we decided to spend a bit of time in Coolidge Park at the carousel. After the obligatory fight over who got to ride the tiger, we had a couple of spins and were ready to make for the house. Now when I think of my beloved boys (even at the best of times) the words “calm”, “restraint”, and “sane” do not immediately spring to mind. As we left the carousel pavilion, however, they outdid themselves in losing their ever-loving minds. Why? Water. Despite the fact that this substance has kept them inside for two months, has cancelled their soccer games and ruined their plans, the sight of it squirting out of a concrete lion’s mouth sent them into a frenzy.

That’s the fact. Kids and their parents love water in public places. Look at the most successful public spaces in our city- the one thing they have in common is water. Miller Park…water. Miller Plaza…water. Aquarium Plaza…water. Coolidge Park…water. 21st Century Waterfront…water. Renaissance Park...water. It’s not rocket science, if you want to create a successful and well-used public place, put a water feature in it. I think that’s one thing we could use in the Southside. Back in the day we (and by we I mean Eric Myers and Richard Rothman while I sat at a nearby drafting table) tried to incorporate a playful water feature into the 17th Street water tower, but that never quite panned out. As an alternative, I think the triangular public parcel at Main and Rossville (next to the fire hall) is an excellent potential location.

Anyway, big meeting in the morning so I’m out. Feel free to cogitate on the Southside water feature idea. I will probably take the upcoming week off...seriously....I mean it....really...


Each day is a little bit of history

Another semester has come and passed without my name popping on RateMyProfessors.com.  I suppose that is a blessing, I’m not sure my fragile psyche could handle criticism from a group of entitled millennials (or something like that). It is now time to enjoy a bit of respite between the spring and summer semesters. Yes, because of my surplus of free time (that’s sarcasm folks), I have agreed to teach an architecture history class during the summer semester at UTC. This is the first time the course has been offered, so I’ve been given the freedom to develop the course as I see fit. This is a ton of work, but they make up for it by not paying well. All jokes aside, I am seriously beside myself with excitement over the opportunity to teach this class.

Somewhere on the planet Christopher Mead just got a cold shiver and the hair on the back of his neck has stood up. Professor Mead is the greatest architecture historian I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Unfortunately, I was not one of his great students. The issue was that his history of architecture course was offered at 8 a.m. at a time in life when my ability to function fully that early was severely impaired. If there was one course from college I could do over, it would be Professor Mead’s. The man knows his architecture, he is a compelling lecturer, and the subject matter is of great interest to me. It has been interesting to note that as I prepare my lectures I have vivid recollections of Mead lecturing on some subject matter, but there are a few gaps where I don’t recall him at all. These gaps, no doubt, are the result of falling asleep in class back in the early 90’s. (In my defense, it was a large stadium classroom with comfortable, high-backed seating that was very dimly lit to accommodate the projectors. I’m getting sleepy just thinking about it.)

All of that is to say that a) please bear with me if I start dropping references to the Propylaea, Erechtheion, or an opisthodomos (can you tell that the Greeks are up this week?), and b) this looks to be a very busy summer, so I may take some time off from the blog. I don’t really have a plan for how often I will write- it may be every week, it may be once a month. I’ll keep you posted.  Now back to Chattanooga.

I had the great pleasure of hosting a group of out-of-town clients in our fair city this past week. Their city, like so many others in our country, was once a thriving place but one that suffered decline with the rise of post-WWII suburbia. Some of the challenges they face are ones that we have overcome in the past- a dead river’s edge, large transportation elements that block downtown from the water, a major one-way street pair, a 9-5 downtown, and a communal lack of confidence. As a part of our ongoing work to bring their downtown back, I invited them to Chattanooga to see first-hand how our community overcame some of the challenges that they now face. I took them on a whirlwind tour of downtown, introduced them to some of our players and conveyed the familiar stories of our rebirth while highlighting the projects that are of greatest significance to them. From what I could see the group was genuinely impressed with what they saw and will hopefully take back some of the lessons and philosophies that worked so well for us.

As informative as (I hope) the trip was for them, it was also a great exercise for me. Having them in town, visiting the venerable places that transformed our city, and retelling the tales of our success was refreshing. Over the past few months I have been somewhat preoccupied with our deficiencies and missteps as it relates to the built environment- to be sure that list is long and ever-growing. However, hosting folks who have never been here, showing off what the community has accomplished in thirty years, and seeing the spaces through the eyes of our visitors gave me a fresh perspective. We have indeed done some awesome things. (Of course, I planned the tour to mitigate the visual impact of BWW, Applebee’s, the dreadful new lighting, the cut-rate new intersections on Broad Street, some poor building rehab’s, some buildings that need to be rehabbed, the dilapidated barge on the north shore, etc., etc.)

I am partial to the Nick Saban approach of immediately forgetting past successes and focusing on the things that can be improved. Life, however, is not college football (although I will sometimes argue that college football is life). I think its good to pause from time to time to look at the good that has been done in the city and to celebrate it. So, go look at all the cool the stuff that the community has accomplished…see it? Good. Now, let's go back to making history.


The Good in the 'Hood

The past weekend saw the end of the season for my favorite English team. My Blues finished exactly in the middle of their league after a dour season. Our owner 's  assets have been frozen while he is on trial for money laundering, so I doubt we will be in the market to add quality to the squad this off-season. I will now have to get my soccer fix much closer to home. Fortunately, the season is in full swing for young Spence Rushing. He is currently playing for the CFC Academy and playing in a rec league as well. I love watching Spence play, it is one of the great joys in life. Of course, I’m incredibly biased, but the boy possesses a silky left foot and does the beautiful game justice.

My little Cryuff

The relative downside to his participation is the fact that we have to drive all over Chattanooga to get him to practice. It is a minimum of twenty and thirty minutes one-way to drive to the two fields we typically practice and play on. I don’t leave downtown Chattanooga very often (for the purposes of this post, let’s define it as I-24 to the North Shore and the River to Holtzclaw). I drop off and pick up the boys from school here, my consulting work is done from the Southside, my teaching work is done at UTC, my design/build work is done at Collier Construction on Main St., I shop here, I bank here, I go out to eat here, I go out for a drink here, I buy my cigars here as well as my groceries. In fact, the only regular activity that draws me away from downtown is soccer practice. (Practice!)

Unfortunately, I have spent much of the spring teaching Spence to deal with the anguish of having sports cancelled by inclement weather. I suspect that fully half of our practices and games have been called due to rain or wet fields. Early last week we got the word that the fields were (once again) closed, but that our CFC Academy coach had secured Finley Stadium for our practice. What a joy. The playing surface and the stadium are far superior to the grassy fields we usually play on in the ‘burbs. The boys also enjoyed playing on the same field that the “big boy” CFC players use. The greater value for me, however, was that we were playing in our own neighborhood.

Having a practice for which travel time was 20% of the norm got me thinking about the value of neighborhood institutions. Consider the logic in having a community where people who live in close proximity to one another can send their children to the same neighborhood schools, shop at the same neighborhood grocery store, recreate at the same local park, and eat and drink at the same neighborhood restaurants and pubs. The need to drive is greatly reduced, your interactions with your neighbors are deeper and more frequent, there is “found time” during the day, and the money one spends tends to stay in the community.

Our society, unfortunately, doesn’t operate that way. We live in isolated housing subdivisions, shop in generic national chain stores, eat at generic chain restaurants, and organize life based on the concept of economies of scale.  In fact, a sober look at society shows that we have contempt for traditional neighborhood structure. Those who favor bussing children across the county to massive, mega-schools administer our educational system. Our civic recreation philosophy has been one of creating large, regional-scale facilities. We are told that a grocery store can’t exist unless it’s a minimum of 45,000 square feet and serves at least 4,000 people. Spending at chain restaurants (that operate at regional and national scales) represents the lion’s share of that market. The problem with each of these things is that they are being considered in isolation and the wrong metric is being used to judge whether or not the technique is prudent.

The problem lies in judging everything by its monetary value without a consideration of the complexities of life. The argument for bussing children to mega-schools is based on cost. The argument for fewer and bigger parks is based on cost or providing high-level experience for a specialized activity. The scale of grocery store is based on cost. The ability of chain restaurants to succeed is based on their economy of scale. In each case, the various facets of our lives are being considered in isolation and decisions are made based on what makes the most economic within each of those silos.

The fact is that most of the important things in life can’t be quantified economically. The overarching goal should be to improve to quality of our lives. Is there no value in a neighborhood where parents and kids can walk/bike to their neighborhood school, walk/bike to their neighborhood park, walk/bike to their neighborhood grocery store, and walk/bike to their neighborhood restaurants? What is the cost of a lifestyle where the average American spends 2.5 hours a day in a car and spends an additional 2 hours a day working to pay for it? What could you do with a free 4 and half hours a day? What is the cost of land lost to the monotonous monoculture of the sub-urb? What is the cost of repairing and maintaining our crumbling automobile infrastructure? (the better part of $2.2 TRILLION) What is the cost of an obesity epidemic created by sedentary lifestyles and an unhealthy food supply system?

We are told that it costs more money to organize life a neighborhood scale- but I suspect that when the total picture is considered the economic difference isn’t that big. Is it worth paying a few cents extra for groceries in your neighborhood if you pay less for gas and save time? Is it worth forgoing the specialized play equipment at the mega-park to have a neighborhood space you can use as you at your convenience? Is it worth paying a few extra dollars in taxes for a neighborhood school to save dozens of hours and gallons of gas?

A brief example: Compare the trip to the (still relatively close) St. Elmo Bi-lo we used to frequent with a trip to our new neighborhood market- Enzo’s. The Bi-lo trip is a 6-mile, 20 minute roundtrip drive- or in economic terms $3.39 for the drive (based on the GSA rate of .565/mile) and $__ for time (fill in the hourly value). The Enzo’s roundtrip is a 1.6 mile, 10 minute drive – which costs .90 for the car and $__ for time. In hard costs (car) I can afford to spend 2.5% more on my groceries at Enzo’s. In soft costs I have 25% more to spend on groceries, or 10 minutes of life to enjoy. At the end of the year I have an extra $130 in cash plus 9 hours free hours.  Beyond that, the money I spend at Enzo’s goes to my friends who live in Chattanooga while the money I spend at Bi-lo goes off to Jacksonville, FL. Now figure the same for life’s other activities (restaurants, pubs, schools, trips to the park, etc) and you can begin to see why urbanism makes sense from both economic and quality of life standpoints.

Unfortunately, there are a great number of Chattanoogans who don’t have the choice to live in urban neighborhoods with the amenities I've outlined. I don’t believe that the benefits of urbanism should accrue only to a privileged few. I see no reason why every person in the city should not have the opportunity to live and raise their children in a neighborhood with access to great schools, appropriately scaled public space, and healthy food. That is nothing less than the promise of urbanism and the essence of the American Dream.