Chattanooga, Tennessee: The Sustainable Blue-Collar Town

When the Clean Air Act went into effect in 1970, Chattanooga was dubbed the most polluted city in America, a place where people drove with headlights on in the daytime and came down with tuberculosis at three times the national average. So it comes as quite a surprise that Chattanooga (population: 152,000) is now being hailed in environmental circles as a model of sustainable community development. This blue-collar town’s transformation began in 1984, when the local nonprofit agency Chattanooga Venture assembled 1,700 citizens for Vision 2000, a 20-week series of meetings, in which they brainstormed thousands of ideas for improving the city and came up with 34 concrete goals and 223 doable projects. Public/private partnerships met 85 percent of the goals by 1992; the process was so successful that in 1993 the group staged ReVision 2000, which enumerated 27 more goals.

Early achievements included a revitalized downtown characterized by historic theaters, small inns, and a five-mile waterfront park where abandoned factories once stood. Known as Riverwalk, this park eventually will be part of a 75-mile network of city greenways. The $45 million Tennessee Aquarium, opened in 1992, attracted 1.5 million visitors its first year to a former no-man’s-land. Every bag of popcorn consumed in the new downtown multiscreen cinema helps fund the free electric (quiet, no exhaust) downtown shuttle bus system. (The model plan has been exported to Costa Rica.) And now that Chattanooga has cleaned up its air, there are plans for a zero-emissions industrial zone that would transform a blighted industrial area into a mixed-used district of homes and business.

Environmental racism has been a sorry chapter of Chattanooga’s story; a 1991 report noted that a day care center in a predominantly African-American community was within 300 yards of six toxic waste sites. And grossly polluted Chattanooga Creek ran through other black neighborhoods. The Vision projects tapped community activists, both black and white, to tackle some of these problems. And the African-American community has been highly involved in setting the themes and goals for Chattanooga’s sustainable agenda.

Current projects include reclaiming the 7,000-acre Volunteer Site, once the world’s largest TNT plant, designated for reuse as the ecoindustrial park. An older TNT site is now a testing plant for natural biological technologies such as the use of cattails and elodea to cleanse contaminated groundwater. The long-defunct Ross-Mehan Foundry, a 1920s-vintage eyesore, will become an open-air public pavilion, part of the revamping of the poor Southside neighborhood.

Chattanooga’s progress, past and present, demonstrates that problems, however onerous, needn’t defeat people who care.

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