NextStep Case Study

Case Study: Chattanooga Shapes a Sustainable Future

Although in many respects a very traditional Southern city, Chattanooga has lifted sustainability as its beacon for the future, illuminating both its long-range planning and daily decision-making. The theme of sustainability grew naturally out of extensive community visioning efforts throughout the Chattanooga region aimed at addressing critical environmental problems.

Without Vision The People Perish

In the words of civic leader David Crockett, Chattanooga needed "triple bypass surgery" to deal with its critical air pollution problems. By 1969, the Environmental Protection Agency had designated Chattanooga as the most polluted city in the nation. These overwhelming air pollution problems required a $40 million investment by local industries to install pollution control equipment. However, local entrepreneurs moved beyond purchasing expensive smokestack scrubbers to create a profitable new industry by building them in town, discovering in the process that environmental quality, economic development and quality of life were not mutually exclusive.

Just as it was addressing the worst aspects of industrial pollution, Chattanooga increasingly had to cope with the growing effects of post-industrialization. The Seventies saw many American cities losing all types of manufacturing industries, and Chattanooga proved to be no exception. Meanwhile sprawl was weakening the physical and social fabric of the region even further. Balkanization reinforced long-standing class and racial divisions in the community, and deepened the sense of powerlessness among the urban poor.

With nothing to lose, Chattanooga undertook a series of community visioning efforts in order to change course for the future. In 1982 the Moccasin Bend Task Force studied the 22-mile corridor of the Tennessee River that snakes its way through the region. Thousands of residents participated in the meetings, leading to the Tennessee Riverpark Master Plan. In 1984 a visioning effort called Vision 2000 involved nearly 2000 citizens in a series of public forums that identified 40 community goals and nearly 200 projects and programs. In 1993 Chattanooga undertook a new community visioning effort called ReVision 2000. This time the community meetings were held in local neighborhoods and communities rather than downtown, helping to deepen the sense that the vision really grew out of the community itself.

By involving groups and individuals from the entire Chattanooga region, the community was able to create a clear and comprehensive community revitalization strategy. The Chattanooga vision collectively focused on a "cleaner, greener, safer city" with affordable housing and nonpolluting, living-wage jobs. Moreover, the visioning process that evolved over the past two decades has become an integral part of Chattanooga's civic culture. Because Chattanooga's problems involved environmental, economic, and social dimensions, efforts to address these problems forced its citizens to find integrated, therefore sustainable, solutions.

A River Runs Through It

Returning to the Tennessee River and protecting its natural environment clearly emerged from the community visioning efforts as the foundation for Chattanooga's new strategy. Development of a 23-mile riverwalk, legacy of the Moccasin Bend Task Force, allowed citizens to reconnect to the long-neglected Tennessee River. For example, citizens began to get involved in an annual cleanup effort called River Rescue and saved the hundred year-old Walnut Street Bridge as a pedestrian pathway. A countywide network of greenways was assembled to protect natural areas along creek corridors leading to the Tennessee River.

Connected once again in a meaningful way to their Tennessee River, Chattanoogans began to revitalize their downtown waterfront in a variety of innovative ways. They restored historic buildings on the bluffs overlooking the river, then began to add affordable in-fill housing. A Riverfront/Downtown design center was established to guide downtown development efforts.

Beautification efforts directed at improving environmental quality then extended from the waterfront into the historic downtown district. One of the most noticeable improvements involved lining downtown streets with trees for both beauty and to filter pollutants from the air. Another project emphasized reducing stormwater runoff from downtown streets through attractive street pavers. Electric vehicles carry workers and visitors around downtown, minimizing traffic and auto pollution. Public sculpture and fountains also displayed the city's commitment to making downtown a fun and attractive place for its citizens.

Construction of the enormously popular Tennessee Aquarium, devoted to the ecology of the Tennessee River, brought all of these program elements into a powerful synergy. A work of public art in its own right, the Aquarium brought people downtown, back to the river, and gave environmental quality a vital new role in Chattanooga's development.

Doing Good and Doing Well

Rather than pitting economic development against environmental protection, Chattanooga effectively combined them to generate some highly productive and profitable new industries. As previously mentioned, Chattanooga responded effectively to industrial pollution and even developed a local industry exporting its smokestack-scrubbers, while a private nursery has cultivated the city's market for hardy and attractive downtown street trees.

Chattanooga's highly popular electric vehicles, an idea that also grew out of the community visioning processes, provide another excellent example of market synergy with sustainability. The local firm Advanced Vehicle Systems manufactures the electric vehicles right in Chattanooga, which then exports the vehicles and technology all over the world. Revenue from parking garages on the edge of downtown, where commuters from throughout the region park their vehicles and are then shuttled around downtown by electric vehicles, helps defray the cost of operating the vehicles. New businesses are also clustering around the highly popular parking garages.

The Tennessee Aquarium attracts over a million visitors annually, pumping external revenue into the local economy while carrying out its mission of educating people about the critical importance of understanding and protecting our freshwater ecologies. At the edge of the downtown area, Chattanooga is developing the South Central Business District as an eco-industrial park. The district is designed to become a zero-emission zone (or industrial ecology), in which the waste products of each industry become resources (inputs) for another within the district. Needless to say, this concept also grew out of Chattanooga's sophisticated visioning process. Not even ideas seem to be wasted in Chattanooga.

Finally, the Chattanooga Institute has become an international resource center for businesses and communities seeking ways to make the transition to a more sustainable way of doing business and conducting civic life. In the alchemy of sustainability, Chattanooga has taken its experience over the past three decades and transformed it a post-industrial commodity of enormous market value. Chattanooga makes the green and gold of natural capitalism a very attractive combination indeed.

Let Justice Roll Down Like a River

Like Chattanooga, many communities are now wrestling with how to make environmental protection economically viable. What makes Chattanooga's sustainability emphasis unique among major communities is that it also regards its people as a natural resource to be cared for and cultivated in the process. First and foremost, the highly successful community visioning processes transformed civic culture and brought citizen concerns and ideas to the forefront of civic life. As the South Central eco-industrial park concept illustrates, the design charrette is now viewed as the cornerstone of the city planning process. The United Nations Habitat II Summit in 1996 concluded that "this civic culture of community visioning is the key to Chattanooga's successes and future."

Chattanooga formed the Neighborhood Network in 1990 to help neighborhoods become more sustainable, healthier places to live and work. Since that time, the number of neighborhood associations has risen from ten to over fifty, while the police department cites the efforts of these associations as a major cause of the city's declining crime rate.

One of the stated goals of the community "to provide for all Chattanoogans decent, fit, and affordable housing." Using a combination of foundation donations, government grants, and low-interest loans by local lenders, the Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise housing corporation has helped more than 3000 people buy or renovate homes, fixed up hundreds of rental units, and built new in-fill housing within city neighborhoods.

Sustainability reaches into all levels of Chattanooga's society and culture. At the Orange Grove Recycling Center, about one hundred mentally challenged adults do the labor-intensive work of separating recyclable materials from nearly 60,000 homes and municipal drop-off sites, processing more than one million pounds per month. The workers receive wages and job satisfaction, and few if any materials are ever rejected due to mis-sorting. Jack Murrah, President of Chattanooga's Lyndhurst Foundation, told me that each morning the workers shout and cheer waiting for their work to begin. While Chattanooga could have used industrial machinery to separate recyclable materials, instead it kept the often-ignored human element of sustainability in clear focus.

Civics 101

While many communities (including quite a few in Minnesota) have created excellent sustainability projects and programs, few, if any, have thought or acted so comprehensively as Chattanooga about sustainability as a whole new way of life. As its motto states and illustrates, "It takes everyone, and it takes forever." By effectively integrating the ecological, economic, and equity aspects of sustainability, Chattanooga sets the standard for sustainable community development.

---written by W. Arthur Mehrhoff, formerly Professor, Dept. of Community Studies, St. Cloud State University

For another perspective on Chattanooga's sustainability activities, see