Chattanooga: Eating our lunch in liveability

By Tom Baxter

When Atlantans look around for other cities to compare theirs with, they think major league all the way. They measure their growth against Houston and Dallas. They travel to Denver and Seattle to find civic inspiration and worry that Charlotte and Nashville are gaining on them.

But as we contemplate the hotter, wetter future we discussed last week, we might be better off taking a look at Chattanooga.

Yes, Chattanooga. Seldom do we think of our neighbor across the Tennessee line as much of a competitor. When they built an aquarium, we just built a bigger one. But for nearly three decades, since a group of civic leaders got together in 1984 and committed themselves to doing something about Chattanooga’s image as the dirtiest city in America, and in the view of some the dullest, they have been eating our lunch on the playing field of liveability.

From that original effort grew the initiatives to turn an abandoned factory district into Riverwalk, the centerpiece of a revitalized downtown. CARTA – their MARTA – invested in a no-emission, electronic bus system. The site of an abandoned TNT factory became an ecoindustrial park.

These efforts were instrumental in attracting Alstom Power, a huge French energy and transportation company which has placed a substantial bet on wind and solar, and the Volkswagen assembly plant, one of the most coveted industrial plums of the last decade. When the recession hit, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield rejected the suggestion that, having bagged some big fish in industrial recruitment, the city back off on its environmental commitment.

“Our environmental story, the transformation of Chattanooga from the dirtiest city in America to one of the cleanest and most liveable, is what put us on the short list of progressive communities. We intend to stay on that list,” Littlefield wrote.

Littlefield has continued to push for things like smart street lights and “green”  — that is with vegetation – roofs for government buildings. Last year he upped the ante again with an executive order that the city government reduce its overall energy consumption 25 percent by 2020. He claims the effort will ultimately save the city $2.85 million a year, but to reach that goal the city will have to invest again in energy-saving measures, from the high-tech stuff to simple measures like overhauling air conditioning systems and turning off the lights.

Over time, efforts like these take on a collective energy. Volkswagen recently opened a 33-acre solar park which supplies close to 12 percent of its energy needs. A local design group has proposed taking advantage of the city’s smokin’-fast public broadband system to build a five-story “Search Engine,” to provide super-wired office space to high-tech companies.

Chattanooga’s broadband system, the fastest in the Western Hemisphere,  could run at a gigabyte a second, if anybody could really use that kind of speed. Meanwhile, in Georgia, there’s a bill currently proposed which would prohibit public broadband carriers like the one in Chattanooga from expanding into any area if even one consumer in an entire census block has private broadband service of 1.5 megabytes a second or larger. (A gigabyte is equal to 1024 megabytes.)

The Chattanooga story hasn’t been all uphill. Littlefield has drawn the ire of both Tea Party and poverty rights groups over local taxes, annexation and other issues, and escaped a recall effort last year only after a court ruled the recall petition invalid. But the former urban planner has held the city on the course those leaders set back in ‘80s.

Having a fiber-optic broadband system like Chattanooga’s  in 2013 is like having an airport like ours was in 1963. And in 2057, given recent climate projections, having several decades of experience in energy efficiency and green growth will be priceless.

We ignore this at our peril. Cities we used to ignore, like Chattanooga and Greenville, S.C., have made enormous strides over the past few decades because they’ve tried harder. That’s what they used to say about Atlanta.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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