A quarter century after last setting a vision for public parks, Chattanooga officials have a new road map for the city's park system, aiming to develop dozens of miles of new trails and hundreds of acres of recreational space over the coming decades.
The Chattanooga City Council unanimously approved a new parks and outdoors plan Tuesday. The plan is part of an effort to leverage the region's natural resources while ensuring all city residents can easily access recreational opportunities, city officials said. It also commits to fixing current park facilities and adding new park land, and officials expect it will enable Chattanooga to boost its competitiveness for state and federal funding.
Council Member Chip Henderson, of Lookout Valley, said the words to the song "Big Yellow Taxi" came to mind as he was mulling the document: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," sang Joni Mitchell.
"Then the lyrics go on to say, 'Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got until it's gone,'" Henderson recited during the meeting Tuesday. "I think what this plan does is help to preserve some of the paradise that we have here in Chattanooga. It's a bold plan."
Only a third of the city's population lives within a 10-minute walk — or a 15-minute bike ride if they live in the suburbs — of a park or trail. Chattanooga has 8 acres of park space per thousand residents, short of the national average of 10.4. To bridge that gap today, the city would need to add 443 acres, and to account for population growth, the city would need to add 1,222 acres by 2050.
In the short term, the city plans to set aside more than 500 acres of existing city-owned land as ecological preserves. The plan also aims to address deferred maintenance needs across the park system, which would include doubling down on volunteer stewardship efforts, creating more opportunities for public-private partnerships on upkeep and hiring additional employees to assist with park care.
The city would create a parks and outdoors advisory commission to boost resident engagement, and Chattanooga leaders are pursuing a designation as a National Park City, branding that would assert the city's commitment to its recreational spaces but would also place the city in a higher tier of potential grant funding.
If successful, Chattanooga would be the first city in the Western Hemisphere to receive that designation. The designation is handed down by the National Park City Foundation, based in the United Kingdom.
"It's a Michelin star that affirms what's special about your community, which is why London got it and Adelaide got it as well," Chattanooga Parks and Outdoors Administrator Scott Martin told the City Council during a presentation June 20.
Council Vice Chair Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, said during the board's meeting last week that Martin's presentation brought tears to her eyes. She was especially pleased with the focus on improving connectivity between neighborhoods.
"Let's figure out how to fund this," Hill said. "Let's get people excited about this."
Council Member Darrin Ledford, of East Brainerd, said one of the lessons he has taught his 14-year-old son is the importance of taking good care of one's belongings. That's something the city is now doing with its parks, Ledford said.
Ledford said his district has the densest population of all nine council districts. It has one park — Jack Benson Heritage Park. There's also a new pickleball complex in East Brainerd, which Ledford said the city built after a tornado tore through the area in 2020. It had previously been a set of rundown tennis courts but is now a popular spot.
"I've been going by there every day — sometimes at night because I want to see what it looks like," Ledford said. "You know what I'm seeing? People playing, people outdoors, people laughing."
He also sees people enjoying a better quality of life because of the city's investment in that space.
"The energy and the passion that you're bringing forward is an integral part of not only bringing us out of the post-COVID funk that we all have experienced, but helping us to come together and heal," Ledford told Martin after his presentation Tuesday.
The city is already investing in new park space. Officials broke ground in April on the new Lynnbrook Park on a 1.4 acre parcel in the Oak Grove neighborhood. Council Member Marvene Noel, of Orchard Knob, represents that community, and although she's enthusiastic about the new facility, she said there's still plenty of land that remains underutilized, pointing to Carver Recreation Center.
As is, Noel said, many of her constituents don't live near a park, and their next-best option for capturing that kind of communal feeling would be attending a potluck dinner at their neighbor's house.
"Every neighborhood needs a park," she said in a phone call. "It doesn't need to be a very large park, but it should be a park where you can go just hang out — make new friends."
PHASES OF NEW PARKS AND OUTDOORS PLAN
Chattanooga's new parks and outdoors plan establishes a set of specific goals across three phases.
— Phase one (short-term): Create 16 miles of new greenway trails, seven new neighborhood parks, four new facilities and new amenities along 28 miles of paddle trails. The city also intends to undertake 19 park upgrades or redevelopment projects.
By the end of phase one, the city hopes to bring park conditions up to a B+ standard and the percentage of Chattanooga residents living near parks or trails from 32% to 55%.
— Phase two (mid-term): Create 31 miles of new greenway trails and connectors, 10 new neighborhood parks, nine new facilities and new amenities along 16 miles of paddle trails. The city would also conduct 31 park upgrades or redevelopment projects during that period.
— Phase three (long-term): Create 71 miles of new greenways, 17 new neighborhood parks, four new facilities and new amenities along 8 miles of paddle trails.
By the end of phases one and two, the city aims to bring park conditions up to an A standard and the percentage of Chattanooga residents living near parks or trails up to 90%.