In the 1930’s, more than one in three Chattanoogans worked in manufacturing, earning the booming town the affectionate nickname: Dynamo of Dixie. By the 40’s, Chattanooga had become one of the largest cities in the country with a vibrant and dense downtown, but the growth was not to last. Like many cities, Chattanooga suffered from deindustrialization, and the 70’s and 80’s were especially difficult decades. Between 1980 and 1990, manufacturing employment declined by 28%, which led to a 10% decline in the city’s population. With minimal job opportunities, an empty downtown, and smog-filled air, the future seemed bleak.
Were it not for visionary public and private partnerships, dedicated architects, urban designers, developers and city planners, our collective experience as Chattanoogans would be markedly different than the one we experience today. Consider not having pedestrian access to the downtown waterfront; consider driving with your car headlights on all day through thick pollution; consider no Coolidge Park or Stringers Ridge or Miller Plaza.
Chattanooga’s investment in its downtown through urban design has contributed substantially to the city’s transformation from the “dirtiest city in America” to one recognized for its great public spaces and quality of life. The cumulative impact of urban design is powerful, and also difficult to quantify because of how deeply its processes are interwoven across our collective economic, cultural, and psychological experience.
When ill-considered, urban design is associated with socio-economic stratification and environmental degradation. For example, urban freeways demonstrate the devastating and long-lasting impacts of poor urban planning. As the Atlantic has written“Urban freeways displaced communities and created air and noise pollution in downtown areas...They also encouraged a reliance on cars that has led to the traffic problems and commuting woes that are motivating a return to city cores.”
Well-considered urban design makes a city’s buildings, public spaces and neighborhoods more functional, engaging, attractive and sustainable. Good urban design helps ensure that a city’s growth and development is accessible, diverse, and above all else, that it preserves the broader public interest at the heart of its many considerations. Our city’s history of urban design is fundamentally connected to the better quality of life so sought after in our corner of Tennessee.
The first Chattanooga Urban Design Studio opened its doors in 1980 under the leadership of, and eventual Jefferson Award Winner, Stroud Watson. Starting off as an instructional workspace for students, the studio grew into a design powerhouse for the city, extending into a semi-branch of government with heavy influence over the design of downtown development. For over 25 years, Watson and his team worked closely with city stakeholders on projects such as the Tennessee Aquarium Plaza, Creative Discovery Museum, Coolidge Park, Chattanooga Theatre Center and the 21st Century Waterfront. These pivotal projects reconnected the town back to the Tennessee River, “the spine of the city” as Watson referred to it. Miller Plaza, a complement to Miller Park, opened in 1988, and quickly became a “living room” experience for downtown professionals, serving as a place for people to meet outside of work. Miller Plaza eventually became the site of Nightfall, a free Friday night concert series that continues to run from May to September. Early Investment in the downtown’s public spaces and urban design spurred tourism and helped instill a sense of pride and confidence which the downtown lacked at that time.
Although tourism helped fuel the economy, city leaders made a deliberate decision to build the downtown for Chattanoogans. Some of the most popular areas today (Miller Plaza, Frazier Avenue, Walnut Street Bridge, the Riverwalk, and Main Street) were primarily about reimagining and reinvigorating the fabric of the city for locals. Watson sought to encourage residents to come together to celebrate and enjoy the heart of the city, and in so doing serve as good stewards for our community. Through the studio, Watson educated civic leaders about the principles of placemaking--principles whose aims are to inspire and enable citizens to take active responsibility in the city’s efforts to become more vibrant and livable. Civic community, quality of life, economic abundance, environmental vitality, a rich public realm, an investment legacy, sustainable development, our experience of nature, indigenous place relationships, social equity. These principles were integral to Watson’s notions of quality design and were applied to many of the defining decisions associated with planning our urban environment.
To see a timeline of the Chattanooga Urban Design Studio’s collective works, visit this archive.
After a ten-year hiatus, the Chattanooga Design Studio reopened in 2015 under the leadership of the late local architect, planner and urban designer Christian Rushing. Rushing, a former employee of Watson, sought to apply the lessons he learned from the first Chattanooga Urban Design Studio to launch the studio’s second iteration. His goal: to reconnect the community to the city’s designers through an open dialogue that allowed honest conversation, this time as an independent entity. Some would argue today that the downtown waterfront is “finished,” but Rushing believed spaces are never complete; there is always more opportunity to improve upon them, to create more density and to enhance quality of life. Rushing passed away in early 2017 after a long struggle with gallbladder cancer.
Today, long-time architect and urban designer, Eric Myers oversees the Chattanooga Design Studio as its Executive Director. Myers, also a former employee of Watson, is building on Rushing’s mission and legacy to reignite the community to rally behind urban design and to craft a future vision for the city. Like Rushing, Myers believes it is important to function primarily as an independent community resource. Through an advisory resource role, rather than regulatory, he believes the studio can build stronger collaboration and respect with public citizens, and strengthen relations with the city’s various developers, designers, regulators, politicians and community groups. Another advantage of working independently from government is the removal of term-limits; it is hard to establish a vision for the city if it changes every four years with newly elected officials.
Myers currently leads a staff of two, which includes a Design Director and an Urban Designer. The studio offers two main components:
1) Urban Design Institute - which educates varying levels of students about urbanism, and also consists of a range of educational programs including a lecture series, an urban design forum, academic studios, and a “Friday Film Series” (held on the third Friday of every month) aimed at initiating regular conversation surrounding urban design.
2) City Research and Development - which engages the city departments and community stakeholders to improve public spaces.
Chattanooga’s issues have changed since the 1980’s and will continue to change. With impending growth and more development downtown, the Chattanooga Design
Studio is more important now than ever to continue to provide context and be a resource to the community. The conversation never ends, the work never
stops, the city is never complete. How we grow and build today will impact our city’s appearance, functionality, and ultimately, the happiness of future
generations for years to come.
As Jeff Pfitzer, Benwood Program Officer, writes, “Design matters. Place matters. It is essential to who we are as a community and reflects our values
as well as our aspirations. Stroud challenged us to hold ourselves to a high standard of quality in all of our actions and be excellent stewards of
this place we call home. We have an ongoing responsibility to carry forth this inspiration and the principles of good place-making; that is both his
legacy and our challenge!”