Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with the editor of an alternative weekly in Atlanta. He’s in the process of writing an article concerning Chattanooga and how we’ve worked to prevent brain drain. He talked to a number of folks while he was here (no doubt all smarter than me), and I’m excited to see what they had say about the topic. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for you, you don’t have to wait to hear what I had to say…
When I first moved to Chattanooga, the city’s turnaround was well underway. In fact, it was at a point where the Design Studio was already hosting groups of visitors from other cities who wanted to learn how we did it. Our usual suspects addressed these groups and explained various aspects of our work: economic development, sustainability, infrastructure provision, the role of the public realm, the role of public input and the importance of partnership. As I sat in those meetings listening to my heroes tell their stories, however, I was stuck with one compelling consistency. Virtually everyone mentioned that the driving factor of all of work was to create a place that our young people would return to. This is one of those instances where a very complex set of issues can be boiled to a simple statement that everyone “gets”. Not everyone understands (or cares to understand) the somewhat esoteric urban design concepts we employed, but everyone understands the concept of creating places where people want to live.
“We want to create a place that our young people will return to.”
The statement implies that there is opportunity. Whether a young person is graduating from some level of school or simply making their way into the adult world, they all look for their chance. Healthy communities find a way to provide a range of opportunities for young people to support themselves, chase their dreams, and make their mark on the world. Where those opportunities don’t exist, young people leave in search of places that provide them. Heartbreakingly, for some leaving isn’t an option and the choices those young people have to make are desperate indeed. The promise of our simple statement is that the community will dedicate itself to creating opportunities for ALL of our young people.
The statement implies authenticity. For the last half of the twentieth century, sub-urban development thrust American cities into homogeny. The mall, highway, and chain stores of a sub-urb in one city are virtually indistinguishable from those of another. This is a direct result of the chain store philosophy that design supports brand, not place. When you hear me tilt against the Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebees of our downtown, this is the heart of the matter. Yes, there are issues with architecture, aesthetics and density, but the killer is a lack of authenticity. Those buildings say nothing about downtown Chattanooga, they contribute nothing to the unique character of our city, there is nothing special about them on any level. What we have seen recently, especially among young people, is an overwhelming preference for authentic places. Back in the day, we understood this and did a fantastic job of maintaining our identity despite the temptation of a quick buck. How easy would it have been to sell every corner near the aquarium to McDonald’s, Dollar General, or 7-11? What would have become of us had that happened? The promise of our simple statement is that we are dedicated to the notion that our city is Our City.
The statement highlights the familial relationships that are the foundation of community. Taken literally and personally, this panders to the heartstrings- we all love our children. I would love for Spence and Stern to leave Chattanooga and have fantastic experiences and adventures across the globe. I also want them to come back so I can be with them and (I can’t believe I’m writing this) my grandchildren. From a broader perspective, whether they are biologically related to us or not, I believe that children are our future. Pop culture references notwithstanding, the long-term sustainability of the community depends on the young people of the community growing and taking up the mantle of those that came before. The promise of the simple statement is that we value family and community and understand that they are key to the long-term viability of the city.
For as much as I have played up the importance of the “the statement”, in practice you could strip the children portion and it would still ring true. We have endeavored to create that people will return to- whether they be our children or not. We attract people because we are authentic and have nurtured our unique qualities. People come here because there is a range of opportunities for people who want to make their mark on the community and on the world. Young people come here because their contributions to the community are valued. We can talk all day about the billions of dollars invested, the design awards, and our advanced infrastructure, but the truest metric of what the community has accomplished is the number of people who are proud to call Chattanooga home.