Opinion: Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly’s bold parks plan revolutionizes urban spaces and honors John Nolen’s 1911 legacy

Staff File Photo By Olivia Ross / Blake and Mason Worthington perform at a City of Chattanooga Park Spark event at Tatum Park on Sunday, March 19, 2023.

The parks plan unveiled by Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly Tuesday likely will be thought of by some the same way the city's 1911 plan by renowned landscape architect John Nolen was.

It is too expensive, too ambitious, too unrealistic. The Chattanooga Daily Times ran several articles at the time in which local citizens mocked the plan.

But you know what? Many aspects of the plan Nolen created came to pass over the next 112 years, perhaps not in the exact way he foresaw them but in very similar ways.

Doubt us?

› Olympia Playfield: Nolen in his preliminary report to the city said "this will be the principal recreation center and playground for games and sports. The ground is level and well adapted for the purposes and centrally located. There appears to be no other area that would answer so well."

Today, what he foresaw is Warner Park, home of softball fields, a swimming pool and The Chattanooga Zoo, among other features.

› Tennessee River Park: The designer envisioned "a new park of 150 acres or more on the Tennessee River at the mouth of South Chickamauga creek."

Beginning in the 1980s, the Tennessee Riverpark was created initially on about 10 miles of the river between Chickamauga Dam and Ross's Landing, with a more expansive park nearer the northern end. It since has grown to 150 acres, with the 13-mile paved urban greenway popularly known as the Riverwalk connecting downtown Chattanooga to the dam, running eight miles to the east and four miles to the south to the St. Elmo neighborhood.

› Moccasin Bend Park: Nolen proposed a 160-acre park at "the point ... at the bend of the Tennessee River."

Talk about such a park bubbled up in the early 1950s but did not get legs until it was seen as an eventual part of the 768-acre Moccasin Bend National Archeological District, which did not begin to take shape until the 2000s. The point itself is still occupied by a state mental health hospital, but it is one day expected to be a part of the district.

› Stringer's Ridge: The parks planner visualized "a large tract of mountain land which would make an admirable outlying reservation for the future."

Not until the 2000s was the Stringers Ridge Preservation Easement created, which is a 92-acre urban wilderness park of rolling and steep hills in North Chattanooga overlooking the North Shore, Tennessee River and downtown Chattanooga.

The above are four of many aspects of the plan Nolen imagined. Another aspect was the widening of "main avenues," where possible, or otherwise "be rendered more attractive." That's, in fact, what River City Co. has in mind for Broad Street, a plan which would make the downtown thoroughfare safer, greener, wider and more welcoming.

The landscape architect said at the time when Chattanooga envisioned a population of 100,000 (which it had reached by the 1930 census), it would justify a park system of about 500 acres. He said the average provision for parks and public grounds for American cities was about one acre for every 200 in population (now it's about 10.4 acres per 1,000 residents). To purchase land and construct such a system, he said, would require an outlay of $500,000, with annual maintenance of $25,000 eventually rising to $50,000.

Nolen said the principles guiding the selection of park land should be "accessibility for all classes of citizens by walking, driving, riding or by means of cars" (the automobile was in its infancy), adaptability of land for the particular park purposes, economy in the selection "of inexpensive lands and lands which would least disturb the natural growth of the city" and "early acquisition" of property in advance of the settlement of a neighborhood.

The designer whose professional work at the time already included projects in Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Missouri, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Madison, Wisconsin, characterized the city as "backward in the matter of parks" (with fewer than 100 acres) but one with "great natural assets."

However, he said, for too long the city had relied on "God and the [federal] government" for park land. A parks system, he said, might have a few prime movers, but "the masses must be interested and get behind the project if it is to see a successful outcome."

Nolen also said something that Kelly seems to instinctively understand: "No city that ever adopted the better and more progressive method of city improvement ever retreated from it afterwards. On the contrary, it always wondered why it hesitated, for it found the gains over-balanced many, many times the cost."

In an interview with Times Free Press editors and reporters Tuesday, the mayor said of the parks proposal, which was presented to the Chattanooga City Council Tuesday night and will be voted on this week: "It's a very ambitious plan that is intentionally ambitious to cement into place our greatest competitive advantage ... so we have one chance at this — to preserve this space and enshrine sort of what amount to our family jewels."

One hundred and twelve years ago, Nolen was onto something important for our city, but the city never fully implemented the plan at the time. Now that we have the 21st century update, let's embrace it.