Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA: schools as a catalyst for precinct revitalization (2000-2)

Many civic authorities and politicians in the cities of the United States (and elsewhere) now recognize the importance of the quality of the built environment in attracting private investment and middle-class residents. Chattanooga is a city that has relatively recently come to this realization (Naylor, 2003). Much is being invested in the capital web to encourage private investment. The whole riverfront is being rejuvenated. $US120 million will have been invested in its redevelopment by 2005 (the Tennessee Aquarium was completed in 1992). The streets and streetscape are being improved both in response to and as a catalyst for the upgrading of older buildings and the development of new residential units. Private financial resources are being put into public facilities both as philanthropic gestures and as a catalyst for the further creation of private investment opportunities. Using schools as a catalyst for urban upgrading may be unusual but it is not unique.

Public schools are usually built and abandoned in response to population demands represented by the number of school age children in a precinct, or district. As downtown residential populations dwindled in number and/or became restricted to single people and empty nesters, so schools were closed down. A number of U.S. cities, recognizing that good schools attract families to live in their districts, have recently taken a different approach. They have built schools in downtown areas to attract middle-class families back to the city as part of a public policy to create more diverse populations. In Chattanooga, Tennessee two elementary schools opened at the beginning of the 2002-3 academic year, 17 years after the last school had been closed.

The development of the schools is a product of aggressive policy formation, community support, civic leadership and philanthropy combining to achieve a social goal. The improvement of the quality of the physical environment was a vital component of the scheme. The urban design process began with a decision in 2000 by the Department of Education of Hamilton County (population 308,000 people) to create a K-5 magnet school downtown. The objective was to provide a local school for about 400 students who were being bused out of Chattanooga to suburban schools. Civic activists saw an opportunity for a more ambitious scheme.

The Planning and Design Studio in Chattanooga is officially an office of the joint Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency which both funds and staffs it. The studio also receives funds from private philanthropic organizations. Karen Hundt, its head, perceived that one school would cater only for the existing poor in the city and that to attract more housing into the downtown area you needed an additional school, at least. The Department of Education did not have the financial resources to foot the $US8 million cost of a second school. A number of civic boosterism and philanthropic organizations came to the Board of Education's aid. The RiverCity Company, a non-profit organization committed to the revitaliza-tion of central Chattanooga raised $US4 million. Two local foundations, the Lyndhurst Foundation and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Foundation, provided an additional $4 million. The latter donation is typical of the concern that a large number of centrally located urban universities in the nation have for the settings around them. To attract good staff and good students the universities need to be located in pleasant settings with good community facilities. To further this end, the Board of Education opened the enrolment in the schools to both local children and the children of downtown workers, a procedure that immediately created a diversity of students.

The most important concern in site selection was cost. One school, the Herman H. Battle Academy for Teaching and Learning, was built on city-owned property while the other school is located on property dedicated to the city by the University of Tennessee. The Battle Academy is located in Southside, a 600-acre (240-hectare) brown-field site formerly a blighted industrial zone that, as part of the city's 1997 plan, was designated a revitalization district. In its plan the city hoped to increase the residential component of the area by about 200 units. Battle Academy has been built as a catalyst for attracting the additional residential population. Other incentives used to induce the middle income to live in the city are the creation of cultural facilities in the area (e.g. the Tennessee Aquarium).

The sites of both schools are small in comparison to the typical 13-acre (5.2-hectare) sites of suburban schools. Battle Academy is 3.3 acres (1.3 hectares) in size and the other school, Tommie F. Brown Academy of Classical Studies, is only 2.5 acres (barely 1 hectare), so the architects (TWA Architects, at Battle Academy and Derthick Henley at Brown Academy) had to design buildings taller than the norm. Even so, at Battle Academy recesses have to be staggered, but the playground, although tiny, also acts as a neighbourhood park after hours. Brown Academy is located adjacent to an abandoned railroad line that will be turned into a linear park and provide a playground for the school.

The city administration's policy is to encourage sustainable development. As a result the architects strove to reduce energy costs in both schools. The Battle Academy uses as much daylighting as possible, 'a roof garden for insulation and a water recycling system for filtering storm-water runoff to irrigate trees and other landscaping' (Kreyling, 2002: 33). Such designs are part of the, as yet, small involvement with designing sustainable environments on the part of architects and urban designers.

Both schools provide field experiences for education students at the University of Tennessee and their pre-school programmes are attracting teachers who might otherwise be reluctant to teach in a downtown school. The long-run catalytic effect of the schools remains to be seen, but initial reports are optimistic and enthusiastic.

Major reference

Kreyling, Christine (2002). New Schools for downtown Chattanooga. Planning 68 (7): 32-3.

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