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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Riding Chattanooga's Success

Air Date: Week of

Once one of America's most polluted cities, Chattanooga, Tennessee now rides on the electric buses it manufactures, has revitalized its downtown, and includes citizens in its planning. Still, Chattanooga has more work it plans to do. John Gregory reports.


CURWOOD: Since the United Nations last held a summit meeting on the problems of cities 20 years ago, a billion plus more people have come onto the planet, most of them into cities. For the most part this has not been good news for society or the environment. As people concentrate in cities, so do many of their problems. But there is some good news at this year's UN city summit now underway in Istanbul, Turkey. And that comes from certain cities that are putting urban ecology into their planning as they build or rebuild. A prime example is Chattanooga, Tennessee. Tucked into a narrow valley of the southern Appalachians on the Tennessee-Georgia border, Chattanooga was once one of the most polluted small cities in America. Today, after years of planning and dialogue, this city of about 150,000 leads the United States in environmental and sustainability initiatives. Producer John Gregory has our report.

(A brass band plays "Satin Doll" outdoors)

GREGORY: At noontime on a sunny, warm Spring day, downtown Chattanooga is bustling. People stroll the wide tree-lined streets, shopping or listening to music at one of the downtown plazas. With its new aquarium, theaters, parks, and renovated buildings, Chattanooga is being reborn.

MAN 1: I think Chattanooga's really got the right idea. It would be really great to see the whole downtown area, strictly a walking and shuttle commute type operation, rather than having vehicles downtown at all.

WOMAN: My mother was here 3 weeks ago, and we came down to the Aquarium and the IMAX and we loved it. It was great.

MAN 2: Just look around. All this comes out of Chattanooga's vision to become one of America's best midsized cities, with its environmental theme.

GREGORY: Chattanooga wasn't always so wonderful. With rich deposits of coal, iron, and copper nearby, the city once measured its prosperity by the number of smokestacks. But by 1969, that prosperity had given the area the worst air pollution in the nation.

CROCKETT: During that time we like to say we had a heart attack.

GREGORY: Chattanooga City Councilman David Crockett jokes about it now, but says the community was shocked into action. In 1969, before the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and before a wave of environmentalism swept the country, Chattanooga established strict air pollution guidelines.

CROCKETT: Frankly, when a problem gets so bad, it may be easier at that point in time to get consensus than when things are okay.

GREGORY: Despite the hard times, Chattanooga still had its long-standing atmosphere of civic responsibility. Rather than being scared off, many local businesses threw their weight behind the air cleanup campaign. City officials even held a contest to recognize companies that met the guidelines early. By the 1980s, Chattanooga's air was cleaner than Federal standards. But it was only the beginning.

CROCKETT: We laugh and say once we cleaned up the air, that we weren't so sure it was a good idea, because then you could see how bad everything else was that needed to be fixed.

GREGORY: Like many American cities in the 1970s, Chattanooga's downtown was dying. Business was moving to the suburbs, buildings were being abandoned, some 9,000 manufacturing jobs were lost, and crime was on the increase. But David Crockett says improving the city's air quality showed Chattanoogans what they could still accomplish.

CROCKETT: I think that that built confidence, oh, in the city. It also was something that took very diverse and at times opposing interests to come together on to address.

GREGORY: In 1983, Chattanoogans again convened to tackle the city's problems. They called it a visioning process, and the vision they conceived was to tie quality of life, the local economy, and education together with what they called sustainability, economic development fostering prosperity today without sacrificing the environment or the future.

(Children playing together: "Oh, look at that fish! That's a big old perch!")

GREGORY: The first step toward that vision was the Tennessee Aquarium. Built on a former industrial site on the banks of the Tennessee River, the privately funded $45 million facility highlights the river's freshwater ecology. Other downtown revitalization projects soon followed. A series of greenways along the river, improved housing for lower-income families, and a children's science museum. Connecting these pieces together is a new public transportation system.

(Sounds of public transportation.)

GREGORY: The whirr and clatter of battery-powered electric buses are replacing the roar and fumes of diesel buses here. Passengers can park in an outlying garage, then catch a free bus into downtown. Rick Hitchcock is the chairman of Carta, the local transportation authority.

HITCHCOCK: That decision to look at a clean, safe, quiet technology such as electric vehicles, rather than traditional diesel buses, represented an attitude that the community has that it wants to look for creative solutions to problems.

GREGORY: Hitchcock says that when the Transit Authority decided to invest in the battery powered buses, the equipment wasn't available. So a local businessman volunteered to design and build them. His company, Advanced Vehicle Systems, is now the nation's largest supplier of electric buses. And Carta has joined with the manufacturer to form an electric vehicle institute that draws engineers, transit managers, and mechanics from around the country. The buses exemplify the type of development Chattanooga wants to foster. Light manufacturing, built around innovative solutions to its own and other cities' problems.

CROCKETT: We've tried to use the city as a living laboratory, literally.

GREGORY: Again, city councilman David Crockett.

CROCKETT: We partner with the best we can find, whether they're architects or urban planners, and whether it's for transportation or housing or non-point source pollution or industries or factories. So that you can take things and try those technologies and designs and policies in a real place.

GREGORY: Chattanooga's latest effort is to chart the city's development path into the next century. There's great optimism here, but citizens do want to maintain control of the city's future. And there is concern that the benefits of revival aren't touching everyone.

(Children play. Man: "Hello, how are you doing?" Woman: "Fine, how are you?" Woman: "Fine.")

GREGORY: Gerald Mason and his wife Diane operate 5 learning centers for lower income children. He participated in the original visioning process in his work to improve the city's school system and promote cultural diversity.

G. MASON: We've done a lot of great things and made a lot of tremendous strides. But we have this little dark secret that nobody wants to talk about. How to help the lower economic strata of our community that hasn't. Most of the jobs that have been created are low wage jobs. You look at all the things that have come in this community, we brought millions and millions of people in here but we have not benefited.

CROCKETT: Don't come to Chattanooga thinking that people just skip down the street holding hands whistling.

GREGORY: City councilman David Crockett says Chattanooga is committed to making sure all citizens benefit from the city's future.

CROCKETT: To clean up the air, to shape a new economic strategy, to restore neighborhoods, to alleviate racial and social tensions and to fix the number of things that you fix. It's a little bit like shifting gears with no clutch. It makes an awful grinding sound, and it takes some real finesse, but eventually we do in Chattanooga.

GREGORY: Chattanooga will focus the next phase of its redevelopment on 2 former industrial areas and a series of Superfund sites in the city's poor and minority neighborhoods. Civic leaders hope to attract clean businesses to these recycled sites rather than have them eat up open space away from downtown. David Crockett hopes these eco-industrial parks will ensure Chattanooga's economic strength better than their predecessors did.

CROCKETT: Most of what we're cleaning up today was once prosperity. And the whole notion of sustainability is to build prosperity, generation to generation. In a total quality way it means that you do it right the first time. And you don't go back and have to redo it. And that you understand how each piece of the business relates with the other pieces of the business. Just like in an ecosystem, it has a balance.

(Traffic sounds)

GREGORY: Given the social, political, and economic pressures all cities face, it's impressive how Chattanooga has stayed focused on their goal of changing from a traditional industrial city to a model sustainable community. In the problems that they share with many other cities, Chattanooga is creating opportunities for its citizens and its businesses and redefining the nature of urban economies. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory.



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