Technically, Rick Wood has been urban planning since he was 10 years old.
His first project? A three-sided cabin in the forest behind his childhood home. But before Wood and his older brother could break ground, they had to ask permission from the landowners — their parents.
"As a parent now I'm like, I can't believe they let us do this," Wood says.
Equipped with a hatchet and an ax, the boys turned downed trees into walls and bundled pine limbs to make a roof. They even found an abandoned, working wood stove which they drug into the cabin. Then, on a nearby tree, Wood and his brother nailed wooden slats which they used to climb into the tree's branches, their lookout tower.
"How did we not cut our fingers off and burn the forest down?" Wood muses.
Decades later, Wood would make a career out of project planning and landowner-networking. For the past 17 years, he has worked with Trust for Public Land's Chattanooga chapter to connect some of the city's natural and cultural resources through a web of trails and greenways. His projects have included building the trails on Stringer's Ridge, a section of the Tennessee Riverwalk and the South Chickamauga Greenway, which connects the Riverwalk to neighborhoods nearly as far as Camp Jordan.
In April, Wood announced he would retire as executive director in order pursue a new venture with Chestnut Real Estate, a local commercial real estate investment firm.
"I just felt it was time. If I am going to do something else, now is the time to do it," says Wood, 48, whose legacy is already as well-worn as the trails he helped created.
Though, Wood's own path was not always so defined.
"I could not have written it or planned it. I had no idea what I wanted to do, even in college," Wood says.
At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Wood's first major was political science. He was active in student government — which is where he helped formulate the plan for his second project: an amphitheater on campus. Like the cabin, it was a collaborative effort between Wood, his older brother, also a UTC student, and two other students. Their idea was to convert an old railroad bed alongside Vine Street into an event space.
"We sketched out a little drawing, organized a group of people and went to the administration. We cast this vision and UTC helped get the funding and helped us build it," Wood says.
Over 25 years later, the amphitheater, commonly called UTC's Oak Street Amphitheater, still regularly hosts rallies and lectures.
"It is really cool to see stuff that," Wood says.
The experience gave him a more concrete example of what urban planning is all about. But Wood, who graduated from UTC with a sociology degree, says it was still a concept he did not fully understand until attending Georgia Tech.
There, he says, "I learned that urban planning was about much more than where a building should go" — that it could transform a community.
Take greenways, for example, which can be used as recreation or transportation, Wood says. Not only do these public spaces promote health and well-being, they help protect the environment, conserving floodplains and wildlife habitat.
"I think about how I grew up, roaming those woods. A greenway can give an experience similar to that," says Wood. "Public spaces are really important to how cities grow."
And as Wood knows firsthand, public spaces, particularly green spaces, can be the foundation for building a better quality of life. Or, at least, a child's dream fort.
A few years after Wood graduated from Georgia Tech with a master's degree in city planning, he became project manager at Chattanooga's chapter of Trust for Public Land. His first project? The South Chickamauga Greenway, a multi-use trail and boardwalk that, upon completion, will stretch 14 miles from Camp Jordan to the Tennessee River.
In those early days, Wood's responsibility was to meet with landowners along the proposed route and ask permission to build. It was a matter of getting the community to trust him, Wood says — much like he had to do with his parents at age 10. And again, he was almost always given the go-ahead.
Today, the South Chickamauga Greenway is more than 70 percent complete.
"When it finally gets finished, it will be unmatched," Wood says.
But the work he says he is most proud of is on Stringer's Ridge, a network of trails crisscrossing 90 acres of urban forest near downtown Chattanooga.
"It was very hands-on. I really enjoy getting out and doing things: negotiating real estate with landowners, raising money, recruiting volunteers, watching the trails get built and even helping get them built," Wood says.
"It's one thing to protect a piece of land for conservation, but to make it accessible to the public, that is fascinating. That makes it a true adventure."