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Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / At temperatures reached the 90s on Sunday, visitors stay cool in the fountain in Coolidge Park on Sunday, July 25, 2021.

Chattanooga and Hamilton County have always been ambitious about parks and greenspace. It's why we have double digits of greenway miles along the Tennessee River with sidetrails from Camp Jordan to South Chickamauga Creek, and from Ross's Landing to the Southside, and someday soon into St. Elmo and the foot of Lookout Mountain to connect with national military park trails. Smack in the middle of all that, we have the Riverfront.

It's also why we have Coolidge Park, Greenway Farm and Enterprise South Nature Park.

But city officials say we've waited too long of late — about 14 years — to make a new park system master plan. After all, our city and our population are growing, but our parks aren't keeping up.

The goal now, officials and future thinkers say, is to reinvent Chattanooga as "a city within a park"— where a system of parks and protected open spaces connect people to each other, where all neighborhoods have well-loved and well-used parks, and where nature and its benefits are integrated throughout the city. Put another way, to ensure everyone in Chattanooga is within 10 walking minutes of a park.

"Central Park in New York is of course probably our nation's greatest urban park, and it didn't get there by accident. It got there because it had a good plan, and that's what this plan is attempting to do is design the next 100 years of parks for Chattanooga," Scott Martin, administrator of Chattanooga's Department of Parks and Outdoors, told the Times Free Press on Tuesday.

Yet despite our good start with the Riverwalk, Riverfront, Riverpark, et al, we're behind in more ways than one. Measured against other cities across the country, Chattanooga has 6.9 acres of park per 1,000 residents compared to the national average of 9.9 acres of park per 1,000 residents.

Chattanooga would need 540 more parkland acres to match the national figure, and 14 more playgrounds to match the national ratio of residents to playgrounds. That national average is 3,607 residents per playground vs. our city's 5,030 residents per playground.

With that, city leaders last week began seeking public input to draft a new master plan to keep us busy and playing for the next century.

The planning process will assess the current state of our parks and outdoors, and will start a public conversation about what we have that we love, as well as an examination of the barriers that keep some communities from using parks more often.

There will other opportunities for input, like "meetings in a box." Those are opportunities for you and your neighbors to request and set up small dialogs. Check it out at chattanoogaparksandoutdoorsplan.com. There also will be a summer opportunity to see the draft plan before the City Council receives a report in the fall and begins deliberations on it sometime near Christmas.

As a starting point, the planning team identified six types of parks and four types of citywide park networks.

The six types of parks are community parks, single-use facilities and neighborhood parks like the Brainerd Park and Recreation center, Summit Softball Complex and East Lake Park; signature parks like Sculpture Fields at Montague Park; pocket parks like Main Terrain Art Park; and regional parks like Greenway Farm and Stringers Ridge parks.

The four types of citywide park networks are greenways like the Tennessee Riverwalk; blueways like South Chickamauga Creek; public realm sidewalks and bike lanes like Miller Park and much of downtown, as well as natural resource corridors like the Cumberland Trail.

Combined, these park sites and these recreational and ecological networks are the foundation for a park and outdoors system. And that parks system functions as an essential natural and social infrastructure for the City of Chattanooga.

Okay, so that's lots of planner words. The bottom line, however is us — we city residents. And why we — us — need to care.

Parks are fun, pleasant, relaxing, sure. But also: Youths are 26% more likely to be regularly active in neighborhoods with parks. Every $1 in park funding generates $2,000 in local public and private investments. In cities that had declining populations during the 1990s, neighborhoods with more parks saw 54% less population loss. One acre of trees absorbs the amount of carbon dioxide produced by driving a car 11,000 miles.

Again, city workers will gather feedback through the end of the summer, develop a draft report in September or October and have the plan ready for the City Council to consider in December.

Chattanooga's greatest competitive advantage is its outdoor spaces. As one city official put it: "You can build an aquarium in another city, you can lay fiber optic cable in another city. You can't build our mountains, our lakes, our valleys, in another city."

Chattanooga's next best advantage is a relaxed, healthy and educated population. Great and better parks get us two-thirds of the way there.

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