Imagine riding your bicycle through downtown city streets and your t-shirt becomes black with soot from the nearby factories. What if you had to keep your car headlights on during the day just to see through the pollution? How would it feel to turn on the six o'clock news and hear that your city is the dirtiest city in all of America? Well, this is exactly what happened during the 1960s in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It wasn't exactly a place to be proud of, nor a place you'd want to visit.
If you go to Chattanooga today though, you will find a completely different scene. Saying that the city has had a facelift is an understatement. As I began my research, I found articles citing it to be the "most livable" and the "most walkable" city in all of America. How did this city change so drastically?
Many cities are trying to come to terms with the poorly-planned development that is threatening our environment, our health, and our quality of life. Let's dig around in the dirt a bit to discover how this all came to be in Chatanooga.
Back in the early part of the decade, Chattanooga was developing as an industrial city. As a part of Roosevelt's New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created in 1933, and it decided to start building dams around the area. By building dams, not only would flooding be controlled, but cheaper electricity could also be brought to the rural, southern states. In a time when the Tennessee Valley was being hit hard by the Great Depression, the TVA's presence brought more jobs and cheaper electricity to the people of the Valley. Unfortunately though, by the 1950s, the TVA also built coal-fired electric plants to keep up with the growing need for electricity. At this point, problems were quickly arising. The combination of factories, steel mills, and coal plants meant nothing less than a valley full of polluted air.
However shortly after being declared the country's dirtiest city, Chattanooga wanted to change things. The state eventually set up an Air Pollution Control Board, which worked to instigate a broad transformation. Local businesses changed their ways and by the early 1970s, the city met or exceeded all air quality standards. Pretty impressive, huh? They weren't out of the clear yet though, as by this time, downtown had become run-down with abandoned buildings, large parking lots and a neglected riverfront. So although they had begun to clean up their act, the city still had the problem of an American epidemic known as "urban sprawl."
Peanut Butter, a Trekker's Best Friend
Sprawl happens when city centers become more crowded and polluted, causing many people to flee to the suburbs. They want to escape the traffic, pollution, crime, lack of green spaces, and poor schools in the city. There are people who make a lot of money off of people building new roads and houses in the sprawling suburbs, so they encourage this. Some of those people are the people who sell cars and tires, as Becky has noted. The rest of the people pay more in increased taxes for the new sewers, police, firehouses, and schools, but they don't each pay as much as those other people make, so they don't do much to discourage it.
So the open space and farms around the city slowly get eaten up by the suburbs. And as people with more money leave the city, the quality of life declines further for those who stay behind, leading to even more people leaving, and the downtowns begin to feel like somewhat of a ghost town. (Having grown up in the suburbs of Lost Angeles, I know a thing or two about sprawl. I watched as the track housing and strip malls took over the last remaining open spaces of the San Fernando Valley.)
Sprawl in Chattanooga meant that more people were driving into downtown to get to work, and thus car pollution took the place of factory pollution. Air quality had improved for now, but what about the quality of life for Chattanoogans?
Steph and I decided that we needed to take a walk around downtown and explore this changed city. The first place we came to was the Walnut St. Bridge. We read from its placard that this old bridge was at one point destined to be torn down, but the citizens of Chattanooga decided to take the money it would have cost to demolish the bridge to instead restore it as a footbridge. This was indeed lucky for us, because it led us right across the river; straight to one of the coolest carousels we had ever seen! We felt like little kids again as we climbed these magical animals. I rode the rainbow fish while Steph fell for the ferocious tiger. We came to find out that these whimsical creatures were all hand carved by local Chattanooga residents. How cool is that?
Afterwards, as we strolled along the riverfront we ran into some construction. We discovered that a greenway is being built along the 75 miles of riverfront that will connect downtown to the surrounding areas. Local non-profit groups and residents of the area have already completed 15 miles of the project. Parks are also being built throughout the city, and some of the surrounding region has been set aside as national and state parks. I learned how important parks are to a community when I did my dispatch on National Parks and Monuments.
I had previously read about Chattanooga's electric buses, so we definitely couldn't pass up the chance to take a ride on one of those while we were here. Offered as a free service to get around downtown, the buses help cut down the amount of traffic. (And for a trekker, they helped cut down on our expenses for the day!) With a rechargeable battery, this solution gets rid of the dirt, smoke and smell of traditional diesel motors. Los Angeles could sure take a clue from this!
Chattanooga also has plenty of admirable architecture. First of all, I love old buildings (one of the reasons I love living in San Francisco!)! To my delight, I discovered that as a part of its "facelift," downtown Chattanooga has many that have been restored. One of the best things about restoring old buildings (aside from how nice they look) is that they then become safe and fit to be used again. The Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE) is a non-profit organization that helps create affordable housing for all Chattanoogans. By helping residents with low interest loans, the CNE is not only bringing people in need together with accessible space, but it is also setting an example for the private sector as well. More businesses, like restaurants and low-income housing projects, have begun to use converted buildings.
Another thing that impressed me about Chattanooga was the careful attention paid to its citizens. As I scrolled through past newspaper articles, I came across various public opinion polls. From education to city crime, the City Council considers and listens to the concerns of the community… even teenagers. About three years ago, local businesses were annoyed with the teenagers who would skateboard through the sidewalks of downtown. Some of the kids went to the city council and said, "Hey, we love to skateboard. We're not doing drugs and we're not corrupting the streets, we just want a place to skate." And sure enough, the city leaders listened. With funding from the city and support from the City Council, a skate park was built! Teens used their voices to make themselves heard, and someone was listening.
Young people are being heard in many different ways in Chattanooga. Just this past October (2000), a Teen Summit was held. According to Patrick Miles, the YMCA Director of Teenage Development, over 500 students were surveyed. When asked what their five biggest concerns were, teens responded:
1) dating and relationships
After the surveys were taken, five students were selected from each school in the county to participate in discussion groups to address the survey results. And just in the last month (February, 2001), with the support of Councilman Yusuf Hakeem and the drive of students who attended the Youth Summit, a new Youth Council was created. This council will meet with the City Council to give voice to the concerns of young people in Chattanooga.
2) career and future
4) places to go with friends
5) personal health and safety
This certainly is evidence of a new movement in Chattanooga: Teenagers are speaking out and the city is listening. Creating a city where teens are proud to live and will want to return to after college is important to city leaders. Maybe you don't feel like your city is as open as Chattanooga. If you don't, Miles (who works with teenagers everyday) gives the following advice to you: Decide what problems you think are important to your community and come up with strategies. Then voice them! Don't just sit there and complain. Present your ideas to anyone who will listen.
Check out these websites for more information on how to improve the quality of life in your community!
Cleaning up Your Water
The Sierra Club's "Challenge to Sprawl Toolkit"