Chattanooga plans to add hundreds of acres of new park space in coming decades

Staff Photo by Alison Gerber / Scott Martin, left, administrator for Chattanooga's Department of Parks and Outdoors, shows a 1911 plan for a parks system while Mayor Tim Kelly, right, looks on Tuesday at a meeting at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The 1911 comprehensive parks plan was created by landscape architect John Nolen, Martin said. The citys second parks planning process took place in 1985, when the Tennessee Riverwalk was developed. Chattanooga officials are planning the city's third parks plan.

Chattanooga's original parks plan was developed in 1911 by a well-known landscape architect and planner named John Nolen, who is also recognized today for his design of the cityscape in Madison, Wisconsin.

In Chattanooga, the plan contemplated a trail system along the Tennessee River, a park at Moccasin Bend, a greenway along Chattanooga Creek and three parks in the urban core.

"There was a time in America where getting these designers into your community was the same as getting an NFL franchise today," Scott Martin, administrator of the department of Parks and Outdoors, said in an interview Tuesday. "We're going to try to build on this. That's aspirational, but dagnabbit, you either shape the city you want or you get the city you get. If we've learned anything, it's about being proactive and leaning into your space that matters most."

Hoping to stay ahead of population growth, boost park acreage per resident and eliminate barriers that make it difficult to access public green spaces, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly is unveiling a long-term plan that would improve existing recreation facilities while also adding hundreds of acres of park space over the next few decades. Staff presented the plan Tuesday to the Chattanooga City Council. The panel will vote on it next week.

The updated document would extend the original vision of Nolen's plan — created before the advent of the automobile — to outlying, fast-growing parts of Chattanooga while also helping the city secure eligibility for state and federal grants, which have previously gone to peer cities like Knoxville. Kelly said officials aim to leverage assets that no other city can boast: Chattanooga's parks and natural green spaces.

"It's a very ambitious plan that is intentionally ambitious to cement into place our greatest competitive advantage," Kelly said in an interview Tuesday. "We do have a great economic package, we are growing at a fast rate, so we have one chance at this — to preserve this space and enshrine sort of what amount to our family jewels."

Noting that Tennessee officials have provided hundreds of millions of dollars to Memphis and Nashville for respective stadium projects, the mayor intends to make a $100 million ask to the state to help fund this effort in Chattanooga.

"These are not stadiums that will have to be torn down in 20 years," Kelly said "This is property that will forever be there, so I think it's a rational ask, and I expect it to be taken seriously."

Chattanooga lags in some indicators. The city spends $65 per person on its public park system, which is less than some comparable cities. Knoxville spends $72, Huntsville, Alabama, $49; Boise, Idaho, $190; and Des Moines, Iowa, $128, city officials say.

The city also has 8 acres of park space per 1,000 residents, short of the national average of 10.4. To fill the gap, the city would need to add 443 acres today and 1,222 acres by 2050 to account for population growth. Chattanooga officials hope to bank land now so they can invest in new parks in the future.

The plan recommends a number of steps over the next few decades to repair existing parks, build new ones, better connect the system to residents, and preserve wildlife and local cultural heritage. That will include doubling down on the city's park volunteer stewardship program, creating private-public opportunities for park upkeep and adding six to 10 employees who will help with park care.

The city also intends to establish a parks and outdoors advisory commission, create a donor support program and fully embrace an effort to have Chattanooga earn a designation as a National Park City, a brand demonstrating the city's commitment to its park system but that officials could also leverage for additional grant opportunities.

"This moves us into a very high level of national grant-making that you wouldn't see without it," Martin said.

In the short term, Chattanooga intends to create 16 miles of new greenway trails, develop seven new neighborhood parks, conduct upgrades at 19 parks, add four new facilities and add 28 new miles of paddle trails.

Those steps, which would encompass phase one of a three-part plan, would increase the proportion of city residents who live close to nearby parks and trails from 32% to 55% and bring park conditions to a B+ standard, which is based on a grading scale used by an outside consultant called the Design Workshop. Chattanooga currently has a C+ grade.

Chattanooga would also set aside 500-plus acres of existing city-owned land as urban preserves.

"That will get a little bit of attention around the nation because I believe that'll be the largest urban conservation system built in the United States in about the last decade or two," Martin told council members Tuesday. "And people may not expect that little old Chattanooga, Tennessee, but we've got something to show them."

Over the course of the three-phase plan, the city intends to add dozens of miles of new greenways, create 27 new neighborhood parks and develop 13 new facilities. The plan would bring the percentage of Chattanoogans living close to a park or trail to 90% and eliminate all deferred maintenance needs across the system.

Fundamentally, the city wants to ensure it's delivering the same level of service to people who live in Chattanooga as those who are visiting from out of town.

"What we advertise and deliver to our guests who visit from out of town is significantly different than what we deliver to our residents in many places in our city," Martin said. "I don't really care about being on the cover of 'Garden & Gun Magazine.' I really don't care about 'Outside Magazine.' What I want to do is in 50 years be the best place in the nation to raise a family."

Contact David Floyd at or 423-757-6249.