Cinderella Story

Once upon a time, Chattanooga was called the dirtiest city in America. Then, not long ago, it discovered the concept of sustainable development.

  • Daniel Glick
  • Feb 01, 1996
By the 1950s, the pollution in Chattanooga matched its gritty industrial image—personified by its famous smoke belching choo-choo. Its air was so polluted, reported the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that when women wearing nylon stockings walked outside, their leg wear was apt to disintegrate. The Tennessee River curled through an industrial no-man's land along the downtown river front—and its in-town tributary, Chattanooga Creek, was so polluted from toxic dumping by coke foundries and chemical factories that in 1994 the EPA proposed 2.5 miles of the creek as a Superfund site.

Current mayor Gene Roberts recalls returning to Chattanooga in the mid-60s after spending some time in notoriously smoggy Los Angeles — only to find the air was dirtier in Chattanooga. Finally, Chattanoogans got fed up. "It was so bad that people couldn't stand it anymore," says Karen Hundt, an urban designer who has been involved in the city's turnaround since those dark days in the 1960s when headlights were sometimes required at noon. "It was just gross."

It's not gross any more. By almost any account, Chattanooga has transformed itself from a choking, polluted city into a vibrant southern metropolis that The Washington Post called in 1993 the "alluring Cinderella of the Tennessee River." But Chattanooga's story is not simply about a successful environmental cleanup. While the city still has plenty of problems (polluted Chattanooga Creek, for example, was designated a priority Superfund site in September), it has also become a stand-out example of how environmental protection and economic development can coexist because of rather than despite each other. Using a range of innovative approaches—from enticing zero-emissions industries to relocate to Chattanooga, to building a freshwater aquarium that became the centerpiece of the city's downtown renewal—the city has become a glowing recommendation for the sustainable-development movement.

Chattanooga is one of 21 case-study communities that have caught the attention of the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD). The council was established in June 1993, with the mandate to "identify and implement policies that will meet the needs of the present without compromising the future." In August, the PCSD praised the "creative work unfolding inside the communities we visited" and promised that its final report would include "practical policy recommendations and concrete measures of progress" to help other communities adopt sustainable-development strategies.

Still, the council has had a hard time agreeing on what "sustainable development" means, much less on how to achieve it. Some conservatives see the concept as a Trojan horse that environmentalists will use to infiltrate big businesses and to slow growth. Some environmentalists, on the other hand, worry that enticements for corporations to act responsibly end up sacrificing conservation principles.

In order to expand the middle ground in this argument, the PCSD shaped its membership from the business, environment, labor, government and civil-rights communities — with participants ranging from Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, to Chevron Corporation Chairman Kenneth Derr, to Executive Director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Theodore Strong. Their mission: to figure out how small towns and large cities can become greener while at the same time boosting the local economy. But sustainable development, like world peace and homemade ice cream, is easier to imagine than it is to crank out. The main idea is simple enough, says Lynn Greenwalt, National Wildlife Federation vice-president for conservation programs. "Don't eat your seed corn." But when that means altering manufacturing practices at a cost of millions or reducing resource extraction to sustainable levels, change can be difficult to achieve. "Getting from here to there is a tedious, uphill, Sisyphean chore," says Greenwalt, who has also served as principal liaison for the President's Council.

But as the President's Council has found, examples from Chattanooga and other communities around the country are proving that sustainable development can work. In projects ranging from homegrown cranberry preserves made from local produce, to furniture constructed in an inner-city factory from landfill-bound wood palettes, enough endeavors have succeeded to encourage others to follow.

In Chattanooga, civic leaders first mobilized widespread community involvement with town meetings. The intent was to encourage public-private partnerships (which have accounted for $739 million in investments and 1,300 new permanent jobs) and to consider the environmental costs of just about everything. The effort began more than a decade ago with a "Vision 2000" process, which brought together citizens from all walks of civic life to identify the city's many problems. They named 40 goals, ranging from improving the availability of affordable housing to cleaning up the river.

Next, they found solutions. To improve the city's infamous poor air quality, for example, Chattanooga researched and developed a cutting-edge, electric-bus public transportation system. The city is now gradually replacing all its diesel buses with the new, emissions-free models. To encourage the use of public transportation, the city constructed three satellite parking areas on the outskirts of town, and it now uses the parking revenue to finance shuttle buses that riders use for free. These days, the city is selling its homemade buses to other cities around the world. The local economy gets a boost, citizens are discovering public transportation and air quality is vastly improved. Says Molly Haniss Olson, executive director of the PCSD, "There's a small revolution going on out there."

Electric buses are just a start. To help reclaim the Tennessee River front, the city built a freshwater aquarium, featuring the river's ecosystem. The aquarium has helpedtransform downtown from an industrial waste dump to a tourist attraction that generated an estimated $133 million to the city in 1992, its first year, and has drawn an average of 1.3 million visitors annually since opening.

The riverfront face-lift also includes ongoing plans to create a public greenway along the river, with parks and mixed commercial and residential-use buildings. Even the city's recycling center employs individuals with disabilities. "It's not one particular project," says urban designer Hundt. "It's a series of things that are happening simultaneously."

A different kind of test for the notion of sustainable development is taking place in rural areas—especially where dwindling timber, minerals or other now-scarce resources have historically supported the local economy. One example is southern Washington's Willapa Bay, which attracted the attention of the President's Council after local citizens formed the Willapa Alliance in 1992.

Change in the region was inevitable: Oyster harvests from the estuary's productive beds were shrinking, in part because a nonnative grass, spartina, had infiltrated aquatic wildlife habitat. Salmon runs had slowed. Developers stalked the beachfront property, threatening to overburden the county's rural infrastructure with vacation homes. Unemployment rose while per capita income fell. Residents grew concerned, but didn't know what to fix first. "We had never heard the term 'sustainable development,'" says Dan'l Markham, executive director of the Willapa Alliance, a coalition of local interests. "We just knew that our ecosystem was the goose that laid the golden egg. And that was beginning to be threatened."

Enter Ecotrust, a nonprofit organization with roots in international conservation and development. Ecotrust Director and southern Washington native Spencer Beebe wondered if some principles of sustainable development might work in the United States. Ecotrust helped organize the alliance of local fishermen, oystermen, timbermen, cranberry farmers and civic leaders that launched a conservation-based development plan. "We had to move from 'hunt and harvest' to 'managed resource,'" says Markham. The process has meant a lot of "cussin' and discussin'," with "some oxes getting gored," he says. But the community has realized that if the bay dies from being overextended, so does the community.

For now, all the extractive industries have agreed to more closely monitor their harvests as the development plan unfolds. The alliance has helped fund a $500,000 stream-restoration project and has helped get loans for small industries like a specialty cranberry business that makes jams, condiments and even cranberry fudge. Markham's hope is that the economy eventually will be based on sustainable harvests. "To us," says Markham, "ecology is economy."

Elsewhere in the Northwest, the Sustainable Seattle Project, which began in 1990, highlights the use of environmental and social indicators to track progress. Project leaders count such indicators as the number of salmon running wild in rivers and the number of children living in poverty. In Eugene, Oregon, citizens formed the Eugene Car Co-op in 1993 to cut down on automobile use and share the expense of operating cars. And in Portland, a group called The Energy FinAnswer has been encouraging the construction of energy-efficient buildings.

Proponents of sustainable-development strategies have discovered that if communities take an open-minded look in a mirror, ideas for projects can follow. Jacksonville, Florida, for example, developed 74 quantifiable gauges, called "Quality Indicators for Progress," to keep the community abreast of how positive and negative trends affect the quality of life. With "gold-star indicators," such as lower infant mortality rates, and "red-flag indicators," such as higher rates of lung-cancer deaths, city planners can focus efforts where they are needed most. In response to a red-flag indicator that water quality in the St. Johns River had been declining, for example, citymanagers speeded up sewer-line hookups to reduce the need for new septic tanks.

Even on the 'neighborhood level, reassessments of local resources can pay off. In New York City, a program called Bronx 2000 has a Big City Forest project to recycle wood palettes that manufacturers use to transport goods, saving city businesses $150 million per year in waste disposal costs. At the same time, it also gives workers 15,000 board feet of hardwood to make flooring, furniture and new palettes. "It's a way for conservation and good business to come together," says Director David Muchnick.

Although these and other examples are encouraging, to talk about sustainable development without tackling global issues like overpopulation is like trying to wash a car in a sandstorm. Political realities like entrenched subsidy programs can skew markets—and development strategies—beyond recognition. "There have been a lot of unanticipated and unintended consequences because of how we've conducted our business since World War II," says Olson of the PCSD, citing everything from the hole in the ozone layer to the long-lasting effects of the banned pesticide DDT. But, she adds, "Now there are opportunities to do things differently so they are much more profitable and more environmentally sound."

For longtime Chattanooga resident Gaines Hobbs, who is now an assistant to Mayor Roberts, doing things differently has meant rewriting a few local jokes. Civic promoters have always claimed that the view overlooking the city from Lookout Mountain takes in seven states. "There was always a lot of yuk-yukking about that," says Hobbs, who recalls that coming down from the mountain into the smog in the 1960s, one was lucky to see one state—Tennessee. On a recent trip to the mountain, however, Hobbs says he experienced the same thrill he felt as a kid up there in the 1950s before things got bad. As for whether one can really see seven states these days, Hobbs demurs. "In any case, there's a lot less yuk-yukking about it," he says. "It's exhilarating again."

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