Karen Hundt, Chattanooga urban planner, answers questions
What work do you do?
I am the director of the Planning & Design Studio in Chattanooga, Tenn. We are a division of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, but the design studio focuses on downtown and riverfront redevelopment.
How does it relate to the environment?
The biggest environmental issue facing this country is the way we’re building our cities — suburban sprawl. I taught a Regional Environmental Management course at our university this fall and told my students that if they wanted to save the wetlands, the rivers, and the old-growth forests they had to understand and be able to impact human settlement patterns.
We try to make downtown a great place to live, work, and play so people will want to move back to in-town neighborhoods and slow suburban sprawl. Every downtown across the country has streets, sewers, sidewalks, and buildings already in place. We need to reuse those resources instead of gobbling up more countryside for the same thing. Downtown redevelopment is the ultimate form of recycling.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
We have lots of meetings. And I answer questions from anyone and everyone who is doing anything downtown.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I started my college career studying architecture. While I find it to be an invaluable background to have now, during college I felt something was missing. I was designing buildings that had nothing to do with the context in which they were located. After the first day in a required urban-planning course, I realized that planning was where I could put the buildings and the spaces around them together.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
I realized in answering this question that I get about one email per minute each day. It’s insane.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
People who are just trying to get around all the development rules so they can do shoddy work and make a quick buck with no concern for the public good or the environment.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Developers are sometimes thought of as the bad guys (paving over paradise), but I find the ones we work with downtown to be pretty amenable to environmental concerns.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I’m from Chattanooga.
What’s been the best moment in your professional life to date?
Five hundred people attended a recent public presentation of our just-completed Downtown Plan. It was a 7 a.m. presentation, and it was raining. We were overwhelmed at the great turnout.
What environmental offense infuriates you the most?
Clear-cutting every tree in a new subdivision and then naming the subdivision something like Forest Acres or The Orchard.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
I think political change can sometimes happen faster than widespread cultural change. Elected officials tend to operate on two- to four-year time frames, so if you can find a champion and get your message out there effectively, political change can have expedient results.
Getting people to change their habits can take a long time. That’s not to say that individual action isn’t vitally important. All change starts with one person.
What are you reading these days?
A Time-Life publication about great buildings of the world.
What’s your favorite meal?
Macaroni and cheese. It’s my comfort food.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
That’s a tough choice. I truly love some of our national treasures like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, but if I had to pick one favorite ecosystem it would probably be some of the mountain streams in the Tennessee/North Carolina area. We have some beautiful and diverse ecosystems right in our back yard.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Tying environmental issues to inner-city issues is a real plus. Once again, we need to recognize that saving rural natural areas is directly related to how we build and expand our cities. Only if we do a better job of growing inward, rather than sprawling outward, can we ultimately preserve and protect our natural resources.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Get everyone to ride the bus, walk, or ride a bike to work or school at least one day in the next year. Once a year doesn’t sound like much, but that would be a really big deal to some people.
What’s your favorite TV show?
Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m a bit of a trekkie.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Buy a bus pass.