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.
A-Hundting We Will Go
In your experience, what is the greatest obstacle to smart urban development? In other words, what is the biggest reason it’s not being done in more places? — Tommi Makila, Des Moines, Iowa
Public policy and regulations — national, state, and local. At all levels, the funding of roads and highways fuels sprawl. At the local level (and this is true for almost every city), zoning codes make smart urban development more difficult than greenfield development. We need to level the playing field by overhauling our local codes.
How do you work against gentrification of cities? How do we keep cultural — and economic — diversity alive in a redeveloped city? — Kathi Kitner, Charleston, S.C.
To some extent, gentrification is a normal part of the evolution of cities, but you’re right — maintaining cultural and economic diversity is important. You have to identify the “products” the market won’t take care of on its own and find incentives to encourage those things. One solution won’t fit every community, but here are some suggestions: Once again, examine your zoning codes. They must allow higher density, multi-family and mixed-use development around commercial centers. Diversity in housing sizes and types (including rental) can go a long way toward promoting diversity. Some cities require that housing developments include a certain percentage of affordable units. In other areas public subsidies may be necessary.
In Chattanooga, we have a nonprofit agency, Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, that draws from a palette of creative financing tools to build new affordable housing, renovate existing buildings, and provide rehab loans to home owners.
Could you explain the environmental importance of mixed-use developments? What has Chattanooga done to encourage this type of development? — Warren Karlenzig, San Anselmo, Calif.
Simply put, mixed-use development means housing, shopping, employment, and other daily needs are located in close proximity to each other — sometimes in the same building. This proximity means people don’t have to drive as far (if at all) to get to work, buy groceries, or take the kids to school. Less driving means less dependence on oil and less air pollution. Compact, mixed-use development means fewer roads and therefore less impervious surface and more natural areas, etc. It’s the way all cities used to be built. Studying historic development patterns in the older parts of your own city is a good place to start.
In Chattanooga, we are gradually changing some of the codes that stifle mixed-use development, providing some tax incentives for rental housing and redevelopment projects, and aggressively marketing certain properties for mixed-use development.
What is the role for design professionals in the public sphere, outside of the projects they are hired to work on? — Raphael Sperry, San Francisco, Calif.
Planners, architects, and other design professionals have a very important role to play. We should be educating our clients about the effects of sprawl. You won’t always win them over, but don’t stop trying. Influencing local politics is also important. Get involved with local initiatives, volunteer to serve on the planning commission, or run for public office. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “The world is run by those who show up.”
Concrete examples of smart growth always help. People need to see what you’re talking about, and design professionals are in a unique position to illustrate these ideas visually, whether through drawings, computer simulations, models, or built projects.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle to increased public transportation and pedestrian facilities? — Frederick Quinn IV, Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
The funding disparity between highways and other modes of transportation is the biggest obstacle to increased transit and pedestrian facilities. Examine any government transportation budget — federal, state, or local — and you’re likely to find a very small (probably single-digit) percentage dedicated to transit, bicycles, and pedestrians.
Citizens need to lobby their elected officials who vote on those budgets for more transit funding.
Is sustainability still a significant part of Chattanooga’s progressive planning dialogue and analysis? — Marty Rose, West Windsor, N.J.
The term “sustainable development” isn’t used as much in Chattanooga these days. We still promote it, but we just call it something else: smart growth, good planning, compact, pedestrian-friendly development, etc. All of these terms have the same basic goals in mind. Unfortunately, I think the term “sustainable development” scares some people. They associate it with tree huggers and Greenpeace (not that I think those are bad).
While I personally think it’s a good term, I know that many people disagree. I’d rather just call it something else that they find more palatable and be able to accomplish our goals.
Do you ever incorporate agriculture into your urban plans? — Lance Howard, Clemson, S.C.
We do encourage small-scale agriculture, or community gardens, in the urban area. They have great environmental, health, and social benefits. We are also recommending the transformation of our interstate rights-of-way into urban forests (a different type of agriculture). Cloverleafs and highway medians take up a large amount of land. Instead of spending money on mowing grass, our transportation departments could lease the land for planting trees, which could later be harvested to supply our urban areas with street trees and landscaping for parking lots. We haven’t convinced TDOT to do this yet, but we keep talking about it. One day it will catch on.
I agree that redeveloping the inner cities and older suburbs is very critical, but there seems to be less focus on protecting the greenfields. What do you think would be the best steps to insure not only renewing our cities, but also protecting our open spaces? — Chris Wright, Ukiah, Calif.
The Trust for Public Land has one of the best track records for land conservation. Much of the land in the U.S. is privately owned, so we have to work within those limits. Few people are willing to “give away” land. We need incentives that encourage conservation. Continuous education, of course, is vitally important. Environmentalists must be able to show the value of protecting our open spaces, not just in environmental terms, but in terms of monetary value.
What are the three biggest challenges facing smart growth, and why? Relatedly, what major city do you believe is the best advocate of smart growth? — Ben Redmon, Bloomington, Ind.
Again, public policies in the form of development codes and transportation funding are two of the biggest obstacles. Education — or the lack thereof — is the third.
Portland, Ore., always comes to mind as a progressive city. The state of Maryland also initiated some good smart-growth programs under former Gov. Parris Glendening.
Do you think that your approach to urban redevelopment in Chattanooga would be applicable to Boston, Mass. — despite the difference in geography and economy? Can you describe some of your organization’s successes and failures over the years? — Toby Frost, Lincoln, Mass.
Yes. Sound urban planning principles are applicable to any city. The details of how you carry out those principles should vary based on each community’s unique qualities, but the principles remain the same.
Our downtown was languishing 15 years ago. Everyone went home at 5 o’clock. You couldn’t find a good restaurant, and the riverfront was lined with abandoned industrial buildings. Today, downtown is the place to be. Restaurants, museums, and movie theaters enliven the downtown into the evenings and on the weekends. Free electric buses transport people around downtown, and the riverfront is undergoing a $120 million transformation into world-class parks and mixed-use development. Our biggest remaining challenge is housing, especially a diverse range of housing. We’re on our way, but we still have a lot to do.
How can we make human-unfriendly developments look and feel more like cities, with centers and pedestrian-friendly designs? And why try to recycle inner-city infrastructure that is so old and creaky and leaky that it needs to be rebuilt anyway? — Sarah Vradenburg, Akron, Ohio
Good urban design is necessary to transform developments into pedestrian-friendly places. Buildings built up to the sidewalk, parking in the rear, “skinny” streets, and a host of other elements contribute to a vibrant, walkable environment.
Repairing old inner-city infrastructure can be expensive, but the benefits do outweigh the investment. You have to look beyond the simple comparison of the cost of replacing an existing sewer with the cost of building a new one. The more efficient use of land, reduction of vehicle miles traveled, water quality and quantity, clean air, and the social benefits of living in a place where you’re not stuck in your car for hours each day must be factored into the equation.
How do you work with the one or two large landowners in your community who are entrenched within the power structure and want to develop all of their property and make a bunch of money, which is not necessarily in line with what is best for the community? — Harry Kemp, Jackson, Tenn.
I think the answer lies in the word “community.” Hold public meetings; host community visioning workshops. If the citizens really want something other than “paving over paradise,” they can make it happen by pulling together and establishing a common vision for the community.
What three books on the environment, or urban planning, would you recommend for the average citizen? — Vaughn Cassidy, Jackson, Tenn.
Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature has some chapters that are too cerebral and wordy, but his basic approach to environmental planning is still sound today; it’s a classic. Another book is The Next American Metropolis by Peter Calthorpe. Peter teaches planners how to design good cities, which are necessary if you really want to save the countryside from sprawl. A third book would be The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs — another classic. A fourth book I would recommend is James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere; it’s an easier read for the average citizen.
What advice would you have for a young person interested in working on urban planning and green development? — Chad Thompson, Atlanta, Ga.
Take some planning courses. Never stop learning. Look for positions with good private firms that include architecture, landscape architecture, and planning if public jobs are limited. Visit other cities and read everything you can. Planning Magazine and Urban Land are good sources for current projects and best practices. The Southern Environmental Law Center and the U.S. Green Building Council are also good resources.
For home owners looking to build a new, efficient house, would you suggest purchasing inexpensive suburban land (more acreage at a lower cost, but more commuting and environmental impact) or expensive urban land (small lot at high cost possibly requiring leveling an existing structure to rebuild, but with more convenience to work)? — Erika Henry, Spokane, Wash.
Where you live is a very personal choice. Urban living is not for everyone, but we need more urban living options than most cities have today. My choice would be the urban option, but I wouldn’t tear down an existing building. Renovating an existing structure can still give you all the modern conveniences and efficiencies if done well, and it will probably have a lot more character than a new house.
I don’t think I can say enough about living close to where you work, shop, and recreate. We’re busy people, and our personal time is very important. Everyone I know who has recently moved from the burbs, or the country, to a downtown location, says the time they save is the best benefit of urban living.
How do you feel about Oregon’s recently passed Measure 37? — Sasha Pollack, Portland, Ore.
Balancing private property rights with the public good is an issue that will be with us for a long time to come. Working in the public sector, I’m always concerned about the impact of laws like Measure 37. While I believe protecting private property rights from unjust takings is important, I also know the government needs the ability to adopt measures that promote and protect the public good. As a society, we sometimes forget that property ownership comes with civic responsibilities as well as rights.
I am glad to see that Measure 37, as I understand it, puts some burden of proof on the property owner to show that a specific land-use regulation has lowered the value of her/his property. We should watch closely as cases are brought forward. The success or failure of Measure 37 could set a precedent for many other communities.