Knoxville is Growing. How Do We Ensure the Growth is Smart?

Emiko Atherton, Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, Knoxville, May 2017

It’s easy to rattle off the various development projects recently completed, underway or planned in Knoxville and, particularly, in downtown Knoxville. We’re growing. Whether by our own design or simply by being the right kind of place at the right time, progress is happening. It begs several questions, however: Is all growth good? Is all growth smart? How do we tell the difference between good growth and something less? How do we ensure we have more of the good, smart kind?

Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville recently applied for and won a national award via Smart Growth America and its subsidiary National Complete Streets Coalition. The award carries with it technical support in the form of workshops for how to implement smart growth policies. Each of the three cities will receive three workshops tailored to each city involved.

The awards came with an acknowledgement that each of the cities has already made progress in pursuing the goals of smart growth and complete streets. “This award is a testament to the hard work that’s already happening in these communities,” said John Robert Smith, Senior Policy Advisor at Smart Growth America. “Our program was very competitive and each of our winners should be very proud to be included. We’re excited to help them continue on to the next stage of this work.”

While the approach in each case will be tailored to the specific strengths and challenges of each city in the cause of advancing, “economic, health, and community vibrancy goals,” a focus will also be maintained on grow the cities’ collaboration with each other. “Discussions will focus on how to create a safe and inviting transportation network for everyone in the community, including bicyclists, drivers, transit operators and users, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities. Each of the three participants will create a Complete Streets implementation plan as part of the workshop outcomes.”

“A region can’t thrive if some people are struggling just to get to the grocery store,” said Emiko Atherton, Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of Smart Growth America. “A lot of times, overcoming that challenge takes regional cooperation. This workshop series is the first time we’ve brought together multiple entities to collaborate on Complete Streets. We’re really excited to see what they can accomplish together.”

Emiko Atherton, Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, Knoxville, May 2017

Ms. Atherton was in town last week as a preliminary step in launching the project. She’s just getting to know us, but she got a nice taste of what we’ve got going. She attended Jazz on the Square last Tuesday night and walked through the Market Square Farmers’ Market on Wednesday morning. She had nice things to say from her brief introduction to the city, but also sounded cautionary notes.

If you don’t already, I’d encourage you to follow both @SmartGrowthUSA and @completestreets on Twitter. I do, and it is often through their links that I find the articles I respond to on this blog. I’d also ask that you consider looking for upcoming sessions on walkability (there’s one June 6, 6PM @ Central United Methodist) and the future sessions generated by the award. All are open to the public and the issues will determine what kind of city we’ll become in the coming decades.

Ms. Atherton, in her sessions last week, made a number of helpful points. She encouraged cities to consider the Return on Investment which, as she noted, is much higher in mixed use development. She summed up the goal of her work as ensuring, “transportation and housing choices near jobs, shops and schools.” She encouraged cities to, “build economic strength by reducing public spending on infrastructure.” It sounds counter-intuitive for someone who supports mass transit, but she pointed out that single use zoning and sprawl massively increase infrastructure spending over time and should be avoided.

While acknowledging that there are two very different groups driving our various markets – millennials and baby-boomers – she pointed out that each of them share some very similar goals. While millennials are split on the type of area they prefer (40% want a city or suburb with mixed use, 40% prefer a small town and 12% prefer single use zoned suburbs), they share a common ethic (88%) in valuing the quality of the neighborhood over the size of the house.

As a support she offered that 64% looked for a job after choosing a city. That reversal of sequence from previous generations is reflected in a similar reversal with industries which are now following the talent as opposed to assuming the talent will come to them. She pointed out that dense development is less expensive on the front end, less expensive to maintain and generates more tax dollars per acre, as we’ve previously discussed, saying there is a 38% savings with density.

She also pointed out that successful cities are capitalizing on genuine qualities they possess as people search for authentic places. Nashville, for example, is capitalizing on its “cool” factor with the music industry and they currently rank 3rd in the country for economic development. Tellingly, they have, “Nashville Next,” a twenty-five year development plan.

Emiko Atherton, Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, Knoxville, May 2017

Greenville, South Carolina, where our city administrators are currently set to spend several days, have focused on building their main street. She noted that their growth has been very purposeful and planned, they’ve activated their riverfront and they have demanded a mix of affordable housing from their developers. The payoff? 250 international firms from 26 countries call Greenville “home.”

She also made a compelling point that at one time, to be successful, a city needed a river. Later it was a railroad and even later, it was access to an Interstate highway. The current necessity is high speed broadband, such as that Chattanooga and other cities have embraced.

The upshot is that we are building the city our children and grandchildren will inherit. Will it make them proud of our efforts or will we saddle them with crumbling structures never built to last? Will we leave them with a sustainable infrastructure? Will they inherit a city built for everyone or built for the able-bodied and wealthy? It’s up to us, but realize we are making that choice every day. Get informed and get involved in order to lend your hand to making Knoxville a great city in the future.


  1. Bonny Pendleton says

    Congrats Knoxville! I think this award will help us be smarter about growth. Our mayor should be thanked for leading Knoxville in this progress. Better (not just bigger) things await.

  2. People can get involved in shaping their city by attending the first Recode Knoxville meeting (overhauling our 50+ year old zoning code) this Thursday at 6pm at Central United Methodist in Fourth & Gill neighborhood.

  3. Alexis Tudor says

    This is important stuff. I know San Francisco was a paradise in the 80’s and some of the 90’s until all the people who made the city have a lot of charm were bought out by demanding ‘dot commers’. Now the “charm” is still there will no charming people left in it who created the charm, which are usually artists and social visionaries. Sadly people obsessed with money who buy things out seldom create charm though they want to purchase it.

    Another thing to consider is traffic. As a city gets desirable everybody wants to move there. California has pretty much become unlivable where you spend a hour just to go off to the local store to go buy a quart of milk. It’s a nice place but who wants to sit in traffic all day and pay $1500 for a dinky loft, or $3000 for a two bedroom house. I see broadway and Kingston showing the signs of a infrastructural nightmare that I saw in California. The rush hours get longer and longer til eventually it becomes all day.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      One goal of Smart Streeets is to make sure that there are multiple ways to “get there,” and that as many spots as possible are walkable, hence a trip to the local store for milk, would be a short walk, not an hour drive. I think anyone who has thought about these issue for a few minutes would agree with the Kingston Pike example: An endless stretch of low density, car-centric, non-walkable infrastructure sucking development. That kind of development is not sustainable for cities.

  4. tthurman says

    The 75/40 merger through Knoxville isn’t getting any better, how long will a solution to this get kicked down the road? Seems reducing truck traffic through downtown is long over due.

  5. Knoxville seems to be adding new pub or brewery every couple months. It’s good for business but is it truly good for the residents? Alcohol tops the chart of most harmful drugs.

  6. Josh Perkey says

    Lots of interesting challenges here between refurbishment of the older downtown area and its nearby neighborhoods as well as managing efficient growth of the booming western suburbs.

    Perhaps a different perspective could be used near the end of the article. I propose changing the tone of the printed question asking if our children “… will iinherit a city built for everyone or built for the able-bodied and wealthy?” I see the point, but perhaps we can promote a more constructive vision.

    I prefer to discuss a growth plan that promotes opportunity for folks from a variety of backgrounds and with different abilities. Not all weathy people are able-bodied, and not all able-bodied people are wealthy. More importantly, neither of these groups is the enemy of smart growth. Let’s not beat up those who work hard and earn a great living or those who are fortunate to enjoy good health.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Hey Josh, Thanks for the comments. I doubt we really disagree. My point wasn’t that wealthy and able-bodied people are the same. My concern, which perhaps I didn’t address as well as I might, is that as we build car-centric cities, only those with cars can really thrive, which cuts out a large portion of people who can’t afford a car. Additionally, it was a reference to the fact, noted earlier in the article, that Greenville has insisted on housing for a range of incomes as they have developed. We aren’t doing that and, particularly as prices rise downtown, that can leave a zone reserved for the wealthy. The reference to able-bodied was to note that we need to consider people who don’t have cars, can’t drive and/or need a built environment that allows them to thrive, as well.

      • Actually this follow up comment helps me connect the dots.

        I totally agree Urban Guy. As a transplant from Chicago, I’m kind of surprised at how expensive the rental properties are DT. It’s more than my budget will allow. At one point I entertained the idea of living in a newly renovated building downtown and the rent per month was $2700 for a two bedroom apartment! That’s over $32k a year alone for housing. If you can afford that on top of other living expenses, then you’re wealthy.

        Not only the wealthy should be allowed to enjoy DT, smart living!

        I’m glad these efforts are being made. And as for people with disabilities, I had a friend who lived on Gay street and worked in Market Sq. He ended up moving to Nashville because having partial blindness prevented him from driving. He “outgrew” Knoxville’s tiny city center and the opportunities it afforded.

  7. How interesting ! I live and work in Bearden and very much hope managing pedestrian and vehicle traffic and bettering walkability for us makes it onto Smart Growth and the city’s radar.

    Homberg absolutely needs sidewalks, crosswalks and maybe even traffic calming built. Shop hoppers and daytrippers pack Homberg Drive to the point that they’re regularly parking along the road, forcing pedestrians further into traffic. Dump trucks and other large vehicles speed through too fast to stop quickly. I worry someone will be seriously hurt before the city takes notice and this is now, not considering how the neighborhood might grow if (and hopefully when) more residential/mixed use zoning might be put in place down the road.

    And Northshore desperately needs a continuous sidewalk stretching from Morrell Rd. to Kingston Pike. We live less than a mile from either Lakeshore Park (and the only bus stop left on Northshore) and Rocky Hill Center. Rocky Hill Elementary isn’t much further. None are safely accessible by foot, which is a shame.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      I think everything you mentioned is on the city’s radar. I know the Homberg area is discussed as one of the most likely places to get a pedestrian-friendly retrofit. I used to live in Rocky Hill and you are so right about the lack of pedestrian access. The upcoming budget dramatically increased the allotment for sidewalks, so maybe that part of town will get some of the benefit of that.

      • That’s very welcome news, thank you. Do you by chance have a link or date for the Health Dept. meeting in June?

        I found an open house for the MPC draft Walkability Ordinance at the Bearden Panera but it isn’t clear if they’re related.

  8. Steven Sarasky says

    What really needs to be done. Is tough laws on drivers who put their turn signal on just before they turn. ..have to be a mind reader when I’m driving here also tough laws on tailgating.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Interesting shift in topic. I’m not sure how much the traffic laws are up to the city, though enforcement is. And the most recent change statewide has been in the opposite direction – the “slowpoke” law making driving too slow a crime. Locally I would like to see enforcement of the legal protections afforded cyclists.

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