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.

33 replies
  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Although, I will remark that comparing the liveability of a much-smaller metro area like Chattanooga (530,000 residents) to a metro area that is more than 10 times its size in Atlanta (5.9 million) is like comparing the liveability of a Greater Los Angeles (18 million) to that of a much-smaller San Diego (2.9 million). 
    There’s a huge difference in the amount of sprawl, overdevelopment, overpopulation, illegal immigration, traffic, crime, political influence (as Chattanooga is only the fourth-largest metro area in the state of Tennessee, as opposed to Atlanta, which is not only home to the Capitol of the 8th-largest state in the union in Georgia, but is also the largest metro area in the state of Georgia and in the entire Southeastern U.S.), etc between a much-smaller more-compact metro area with fewer municipal governments like Chattanooga and a much-larger, much more sprawling metro area with hundreds of municipal governments like Greater Atlanta.
    Needless to say, liveability is much-easier to manage for a smaller, more-compact metro like Chattanooga than it is for a much-larger and much more-sprawling metro area like Atlanta.Report

  2. Burroughston Broch says:

    Mr. Baxter, the company is Alstom, not Altstrom Power, and they make steam and gas turbines in Chattanooga – nothing to do with wind or solar. Alstom bought the old Combustion Engineering facility.Report

      • Burroughston Broch says:

        @mariasaporta  @Burroughston Broch Read the page again, and carefully. The information I posted is from this very web page. Alstom – not Altstrom. Steam turbines (for coal-fired and nuclear-fired generating plants), and gas turbines.Report

        • ScottNAtlanta says:

          @Burroughston Broch  @mariasaporta most renewable energy uses steam turbines…solar heats water to steam that moves the turbines. Wind uses kinetic energy, I believe not steam…and the technology for both is moving ahead in leaps and boundsReport

  3. TomBaxter says:

    Mr. Broch: I threw an extra “r” in “Alstom.” Fixed. Thanks. But while their facility in Chattanooga isn’t related to renewable energy sources, they’re keen on it.Report

  4. Burroughston Broch says:

    Tom, it’s still not correct – it’s Alstom, not Altstom.
    I know I’m being picky but I believe journalists should behave as in the Gospel According to St. Luke 16:10, “Whoever is faithful with very little is also faithful with a lot.”
    Also, Alstom is pulling back their renewable energy practice worldwide as they recognize the days of massive government subsidies are past. Germany is a prime example.Report

  5. Dave says:

    I moved to Chattanooga from ATL for exactly the reason stated here…Livability.  Commute went from 70 minutes to 7 minutes.  House cost less, is in a nicer neighborhood closer in and has another story on it.  We have a boat and go hiking 5 minutes from our house.  I enjoyed ATL for 15 years, but I think I’ll stay here for 50!Report

  6. JWK says:

    Why do you think that certain bills like SB313 are being pushed through our Legislature by the LEC’s and MSO’s and their toadies like Chip Rogers (yes, he of the great ideas). Big broadband pipes and “over the top” video is the future, it is what the Generation Y demographic wants. They own cell phones and do not want 300+ channels of Triple Play at $179.95/mo.
    “Much like similar laws passed in North and South Carolina, telecom companies like AT&T and Windstream are reportedly the ones lobbying the hardest for legislation that effectively kill public broadband. Which might be acceptable if any of these companies were actually doing anything to provide broadband service to rural areas in the foreseeable future.
    We’re not saying that Americans have any sort of right to publicly built broadband networks, but if a municipality wants to build one, it should not be stopped from doing so because large telecoms may eventually, someday, maybe get around to providing the same service.
    Windstream, AT&T Aim to Keep Georgia at 1.5 Mbps [] Georgia Bill Aims to Limit Investment In Internet Networks [] Bill would ban muni broadband if one home in census tract gets 1.5Mbps [arstechnica”Report

  7. ScottNAtlanta says:

    Since I am originally from Chattanooga I feel like I can comment on this.  I remember when I was in high school, at 5:30pm you could shoot a gun down market street and nobody would even know…it was a ghost town (1983…fyi).  To see it now (my parents still live there), its like night and day.  To say Atlanta is an apples/orange comparison is  wrong.  There are a lot of things Atlanta can learn.  The TN legislature isnt exactly thrilled with the progressiveness of CHA.  They passed a law after CHA broke ground on their fibre network that effectively keeps it from expanding to adjacent areas that really want it, and it limits any new muni networks from being built. I am green with envy when I go to visit and use their internet.  Its BLAZING fast, costs half what I pay and the customer service they get is wonderful and provided LOCALLY.  The jobs stay there and dont go to an out of state company that doesnt have local ties.  The difference is CHA’s leaders have been on the same page throughout.  They have the same racial problems (in many ways worse than ATL), but they all made the decision to do what they had to do to make the city better, and they had a plan to do it which they executed.  Atlanta has had more plans and studies then could be listed.  The problem here is a big lack of execution.  I think ATL’s leaders have realized that they will be on their own now if they want things to be done.  There are, however, many more limits placed on the local areas in GA imposed by the stateReport

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       {{“To say Atlanta is an apples/orange comparison is  wrong.  There are a lot of things Atlanta can learn.”}}
      Good points and I very much agree that no matter the size of the cities, Atlanta can definitely learn something from Chattanooga when it comes to liveability.
      Though, to say that it is wrong to say that comparing Atlanta to Chattanooga is like comparing apples to oranges ignores some very major differences between the two metro areas as Chattanooga is only like less than 1/10th the size of Atlanta.
      Whatever social and political ills that a Chattanooga may deal with, Atlanta will deal with much more of (likely 10 times more of) simply because Atlanta is a heckuva lot more larger with more than 10 times the population, which means 10 times more traffic, 10 times more crime, 10 times more sprawl, 10 times more poverty, etc.
      Not to mention that Atlanta is the illegal drug distribution center of Eastern North America for Latin American drug cartels.
      Even if Metro Atlanta were somehow able to take the best of what Chattanooga is doing and somehow apply it on a large-scale, there would still be a difference in how it could be applied and there would still be a huge difference in how the liveability could be managed in a metro of 530,000 people like Chattanooga, which made up of only a handful of municipalities, and in a metro of nearly 6 million people like Atlanta, which is made up of hundreds of municipal governments and has added more than four times as many people as the enitre population of Metro Chattanooga since the end of the Olympic games.Report

      • ScottNAtlanta says:

        @The Last Democrat in Georgia  @ScottNAtlanta 
        Then shouldn’t we have 10x the revenue to help mitigate the difference?  Just sayin’…lots of studies…little in the way of execution is the problemReport

        • ScottNAtlanta says:

          @The Last Democrat in Georgia It makes you wonder where all the money goes and to whom.  I think if our leaders could focus on one thing at a time and see it through we would be ahead of where we are now.  By the time they are ready to act on something the parameters have changed so much they have to start over with another study, or worse they try to go ahead with something that is well past its time of being usefulReport

        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          Metro Atlanta may actually have 10x the revenue of a Metro Chattanooga, but then Metro Atlanta also has 10x the amount of pressing needs for that revenue to be spent on.
          In addition to the example of Metro Atlanta (most specifically, ultra-diverse Gwinnett County) being the illegal drug distribution hub for Eastern North America, other examples of the pressing needs that the increased revenues might need to be spent on are homelessness (as Atlanta has a massive problem with homelessness that is being fed directly by what are arguably unconstitutional banishment policies in New York City) and child prostitution (as Metro Atlanta is a well-known international hub for child prostitution and human trafficking).
          Metro Atlanta has also historically been ranked consistently as one of the top five metro areas for overall crime.  
          I totally agree that execution of a vision is a major problem, but then again so is the execution of governance of those in leadership positions who would be responsible for executing that vision.
          But, as we witnessed with the T-SPLOST debacle last summer, executing a vision in a metro region of 5-6 million people is much more difficult that in a region of only 530,000 people, especially when there are so many more numerous municipal governments each with their own agendas and there are large swaths of the population that still in live unincorporated county areas as if it was 30 years in the past.
          Another major problem is state leadership that is geared much more towards governing a predominantly unincorporated suburban, exurban and rural population than they are towards governing an increasingly urban population in counties like Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb, Gwinnett, etc.Report

        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

           {{“I think if our leaders could focus on one thing at a time and see it through we would be ahead of where we are now.”}}
          That’s a good suggestion, but as we witness in Georgia politics on a continuing basis, the big issues and pressing needs often don’t present themselves one at a time, they often hit at all once and keep hitting harder and harder.
          That means that our political leaders have to be able to juggle the most-pressing issues (water, transportation, education, public safety, etc) while worrying about making long-term investments in the future.
          Another thing about your point is that maybe our leaders might be able to focus more on the important issues if they were not always needlessly distracting themselves with what is often time-wasting and meaningless legislation on non-issues, not to mention the continued pre-occupation with legislation that enriches the already-deep pockets of wealthy special interests.Report

  8. scfranklin says:

    I couldn’t agree more that Atlanta can learn much from Mayor Littelfield and Chattanooga and the choices made to improve the city’s quality of life. And access to the Tennessee River is another advantage. Thanks for reminding us about the opportunities Metro Atlantans have to enhance our quality of life. If we seek to better the quality of life in Atlanta, we must consider what we can do for the lowest income residents, the lowest performing students and the aging residents who live on fixed incomes as well as infrastructure investments. Like Atlanta’s awarding winning Beltine launched during the Campbell administration with the leadership of Cathy Woolard and vision of Ryan Gravel, the project benefitted from the hard, smart work of many – Ray Weeks, Cal Darden, Terri Montague, Tina Arbes and others. No major success is likely without a team effort. Individuals count but teams of committed folks are more important in my view. Such is the case for the Beltline and my other favorites – the transformation of East Lake Villages and Atlanta’s public housing, the launch of MARTA, the Atlanta Stretcar, the Centennial Olympic Games, the 1895 Cotton States Exposition, the Regional Commission on Homelessness and the Atlanta Clean Water project. When we work together, when we listen to all the voices and consider all the research, when we understand the history of the place and people, when we make objective assessments of problems and opportunities and when we set collective thoughtful goals, we win BIG.
    One of my favorite news headlines of the last 5 years is one from the New York Times describing the economic challenges Atlanta faced during the Great Recession. It read “Don’t Count Atlanta Out.”
    We have everything we need to compete successfully in the region and globally, if we use it.Report

  9. Landon Brown says:

    These are exactly the type of things that will define the city of the 21st century, an attract people and businesses. Livability a.k.a quality of lifeReport

  10. SteveSaenz says:

    Good article, I had no idea CHA had turned things around so much. I have lived in ATL for 29 years and have to say that that the old moniker of being “the city that’s too busy to hate” is basically true. Just got home from a nice walk on the new section of the beltway and it is teaming with people this afternoon. I am encouraged by recent events like Atlanta Streets Alive! That should be a weekly event instead of semi-annually. I would really like to see Atlanta become a “Compassionate City” ala, Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion —

  11. UTOPIAnet says:

    Tom:Chattanooga isn’t the only network that makes residential gigabit service possible. UTOPIA, my employer, can provide gigabit service in any of our service areas (involving 11 Utah cities). For an example of what people do with those speeds, check these recent blog posts: Would be nice, eh?Good luck in ATL.   – See more at:

  12. UTOPIAnet says:

    Tom:Chattanooga isn’t the only network that makes residential gigabit service possible. UTOPIA, my employer, can provide gigabit service in any of our service areas (involving 11 Utah cities). For an example of what people do with those speeds, check these recent blog posts: Would be nice, eh?Good luck in ATL.   – See more at:


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