Issue #103, January/February 1999


Cleaner, Greener Chattanooga

After a stunning environmental turnaround, can Chattanooga become a true resident-driven sustainable city?


Chattanooga, Tennessee, identified as the most polluted city in America by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1969, is now hailed as the crown jewel of the country's sustainable development initiatives. From Chattanooga's United Nations best practices citation to its inclusion in Utne Reader's listing of the ten most enlightened towns in America, this city of 150,000 has been widely recognized for its environmental progress. Chattanooga has not just cleaned up its air – it has passed EPA emissions tests since 1988 – but has a number of activities underway that put it leaps and bounds ahead of many American cities in trying to balance ecology with economic growth.

Advances in transportation perhaps best exemplify Chattanooga's commitment to sustainable development, according to Karen Hundt, Chattanooga's sustainable development coordinator. She said the city could have followed the conventional wisdom and just widened the road and added more lanes to fight congestion, but instead decided to look at alternate types of transportation. The Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority started exploring the use of electric buses and began running two electric buses downtown in 1992. Today, Chattanooga's electric bus fleet is one of the largest in the U.S., and Advanced Vehicle Systems (AVS), a local company, is now manufacturing the buses for other cities.

More Than PR?

Along with electric buses, officials in Chattanooga actively market its cleaner greener image. The Chattanooga News Bureau, created by the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, works to get the Chattanooga story out to the national media. A website provides information on and links to a number of institutions and groups involved in the city's sustainable development work. "Chattanooga, A City Worth Watching," the web site greets visitors.

It can't be denied that Chattanooga has taken significant steps since the 1984, when the local Lyndhurst Foundation and the newly formed Chattanooga Venture, a nonprofit organization that encourages citizen involvement, led a community visioning process, Vision 2000. During this series of weekly public meetings, Chattanoogans developed 40 goals for the city to accomplish by the year 2,000. According to Chattanooga Venture, a 1992 survey showed that 37 of the 40 goals were completed or partially completed. In 1993 Chattanooga Venture facilitated a second community-wide visioning process, a series of nine meetings during which more than 2,600 citizens generated 2,559 ideas, which were developed into 27 new goals for the city.

These meetings have helped initiate projects such as the restoration of the city's riverfront, downtown revitalization, affordable housing development, and creation of more job opportunities. The city is also redeveloping brownfields and bringing in green industries. Further, citizen activism in Chattanooga won a fight to keep wood chip mills from locating in the area.

Yet at least a few observers say the environmental and citizen involvement components of sustainable development initiatives in cities like Chattanooga and Seattle are not enough. Such initiatives "look to balance mainstream economic growth with a measure of environmental responsibility," said Ernest Yanarella, associate director of the Center for Sustainable Cities at the University of Kentucky, but they are often very top-down and piecemeal planning processes in which business and government have mainly called the shots.

In Chattanooga and other American cities, Yanarella said, the tendency is to take the easiest steps that can be implemented most rapidly first and to delay more difficult decisions. He said there's a danger in that because initiatives can quickly lose political support as more difficult steps are taken, especially if they're not built on a solid foundation of citizen involvement. While Chattanooga did provide a forum for citizen input, Yanarella said it has tended to be a skeletal participatory process and to marginalize African-American and Native-American populations.

Yanarella added that although Chattanooga may seem to have made strides in brownfields development, the concern has been mainly to transform these areas into targets for economic development. A better alternative, he said, would be to develop an industrial ecology program that seeks to create a closed loop in which the negative by-products of one industry become raw materials for another.

Yanarella points to projects in Hamilton-Wentworth, Ontario, and Vancouver, British Columbia, as examples of a more holistic approach to sustainable development. He said citizens and public officials in Hamilton-Wentworth are developing a 30-year plan for their city, and community development groups in Vancouver banded together with the city, fired their outside planning consultant, and turned inward to develop their own initiatives. Those initiatives are closer to the type of sustainable development that the Center for Sustainable Cities promotes, an approach that seeks to tie the development process in with the natural ecosystem and redevelop cities in ways that don't extend their capacities.

Many say that's exactly what's beginning to happen in Chattanooga, and Yanarella notes that the activities there are evolving, so his criticisms are not definitive. "There are a number of positive things taking place," he said. "But the good may become the long-term enemy of the better."

Hundt disputes the notion that the planning process in Chattanooga has not been open enough. "There's been an effort to get a lot of diversity in the initiative," she said. She readily concedes, however, that the city, which is home to a number of EPA Superfund sites, still has a ways to go in its sustainable development work. "There are a lot of areas where we're not so sustainable," she said. "But we're at least asking ourselves the right questions."

Copyright 1999


Contacts:

  • Chattanooga News Bureau, 423-756-2515 x142.