Vibrant, attractive cities that enrich their citizens’ lives and attract new businesses generally are those that excel in what city planners call “creative place-making” — the creation of interesting public spaces that naturally attract people because they comfortably and easily fill diverse needs. That’s been a touchstone for Chattanooga’s renaissance along the Riverfront. Yet few of the city’s public spaces quite capture the essence of creative place-making as cogently as the new Main Terrain, the linear Southside park that officially opened last Thursday.
This narrow, two-block-long park has it all, and it has it all in a place that most of us would have overlooked: a narrow abandoned railroad spur between warehouses that, until just a few months ago, lay barren and unused for years.
The Main Terrain has given this long forlorn space a new life, and a broad and lovely vista that visitors are sure to find enchanting. It is especially charming in the way it combines interactive public art, casual outdoor recreation, serious adult exercise stations, and quiet Haiku contemplative reminders with other double-duty functions.
One of these functions lies in the grassy greenspace areas that serve alternately as storm-water detention ponds that empty into a buried 44,000-gallon storm-water-runoff holding tank. Over a typical year’s time, the unseen tank will divert 1.5 million gallons from the city’s sewer treatment plant, and provide 44,000 gallons of storm water for irrigation of the park.
Another key function is the park’s service as a delightful connecting corridor — and a useful economic catalyst — between the city’s urban core and the Southside’s traditional industrial center on West Main Street.
That the Main Terrain does this all so well, and seemingly so simply, is remarkable. A visitor drawn to the lovely fun side of the park would have to pause to consider all of its useful functions. Chances are, most visitors will simply enjoy the urban park’s fitness center stations and broadly acclaimed interactive art.
The park lies a block west of Broad Street between 13th and Main Streets. It’s entrance on 13th Street flows gracefully into the park opposite The Chattanoogan’s plaza garden. The center green runs to the other end, to Main Street, and is stepped down several feet from the level of the wide perimeter walkways that encircle it. The long grassy fields invite play, a picnic, lounging or a Frisbee toss in dry weather, between their wet-weather service as a storm-water detention pond on rainy days.
Outside the perimeter of the park’s wide, encircling concrete path are five adult-level exercise stations: gymnastic rings that challenge athletic hand-walking from ring to ring; metal exercise mushrooms at different levels that invite stationary jumping; an eight-foot-high climbing wall that will test bouldering skills; a series of chin-up and hanging bars; and a double-set of parallel bars for gymnastic exercise.
The interactive public art that crowns the 1.7-acre site includes three 26-foot-high pylons, equipped with LED lights and rising as spheres to hold metal-truss bridges. These reflect the city’s industrial era, and call to mind the iron truss-work on the Walnut Street Bridge. This nationally acclaimed monumental art, designed by the internationally renowned artist Thomas Sayre in partnership with Christian Karkouu, gives visitors the further exercise of turning the 18-inch spoke replica “steam wheels” at the base that rotate the bridges.
As has become the norm, large and small donors and sponsors made The Main Terrain possible. Contributions toward the $1.2 million park came from the National Endowment for the Arts, which awarded a $250,000 “Our Town” grant; this city’s Lyndhurst Foundation, Public Art Chattanooga, Ross/Fowler Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and city government. Playcore’s principles saw the novel challenge of an urban fitness park and designed and installed the adult exercise stations.
The artwork of Sayre and his team, selected by a local arts panel, has already won recognition by the NEA as one of the top seven new interactive art works for public spaces. Visitors may not remember the sponsors, builders and artists who created this park, but they will find themselves returning to it, and embracing the linkage that springs from creative place-making and a city that encourages it.