Caleb Racicot, Keep Knoxville Beautiful Sustainability Summit, East Tennessee History Center, Knoxville, November 2023
Cities will have asphalt, concrete, and other hard surfaces for as long as they exist into the future. It wasn’t always that way, but with the advent of cars, asphalt dominated cities as the demand for paved roads and parking exploded. There is a reason they are called “asphalt jungles.” Beyond serving automobiles, these oceans of asphalt make our cities much hotter than would otherwise be the case, create blocks of eyesores, and contribute in multiple ways to environmental degradation.
So, if asphalt surfaces are inevitable for the foreseeable future, why expend energy discussing them? Why waste time? The Keep Knoxville Beautiful Sustainability Conference on Friday attempted to address that question from multiple angles. The conference, “Reimagining the Asphalt Jungle,” opened with a word from Mayor Kincannon and featured speakers from Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville detailing a wide range of projects those cities have engaged to mitigate the damage caused by hard surfaces.
Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of driving through Atlanta. If you’ve done so, or looked at map of the city, you know a web of Interstates (I-75, I-85, I-20) all collide in the city, involving all the massive interchanges, exits and entrances required. I-75, particularly, slices the city in half so people in Knoxville (and Ohio, etc.) can travel directly to Florida. For students of the Urban Planning efforts of the 1960s, it comes as no surprise the Interstate removed large swaths of black communities and now neatly separates predominantly black Atlanta from predominantly white Atlanta.
One solution to the separation formed by this asphalt and concrete divide, and to the fact that it renders a massive portion of downtown Atlanta unusable and untaxable, is to cover it. A proposed project, The Stitch, would do just that, while literally stitching the city back together. Jack Cebe, a landscape architect from Atlanta, discussed the project and the potential benefits.
Essentially, a stretch of I-75 would become a tunnel with the new project above and plans to include 14,000,000 square feet of new development. The development would include 3,000 to 3,400 new homes with about 1/3 designated affordable housing and 2/3 at market rate (integrated together), grocery stores, and other building blocks of community which were removed by the Interstate. Significant effort would be devoted toward reducing heat, runoff, and energy usage through smart design. With major funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and other sources, the project joins a list of sixty-six highway capping projects nationwide.
It’s just one way of reclaiming space lost to highways. City Walk Birmingham has reclaimed a large swath under I-20 inside the city and installed skate parks, dog parks, pickle ball courts and other amenities in a now-attractive space. Memphis and Chattanooga have eliminated highways along their riverfronts and replaced them with public space.
For long-term readers of this website, imagining similar ideas applicable to downtown Knoxville should come easy. A person writing under the name “Just John” wrote an extensive series starting in 2014 about reclaiming spaces around the city by covering them. He started the series in July of that year with a proposal to cover the tracks between Gay Street and Broadway, allowing for development around the edges and greenspace in the middle.
We’ve already constructed a notable project – the Transit Center in air space over the unfortunate James White Parkway, could we extend that idea to cover more of the parkway and reconnect the heart of downtown to the hillside across that concrete canyon? Just John had ideas for that, as well. I’ve advocated for the removal of half of Neyland beside the river, which would allow for true riverfront development. When the Henley Bridge was closed, one idea floated was to cover a lower portion of Henley to allow pedestrians and other reclamation of that auto-barrier on downtown’s western edge.
Other cities are thinking big and dealing with the same issues we face in very big and creative ways. Do we have the political will to do the same? Mr. Cebe pointed out that our small downtown area is roughly the same size as the dead zones we’ve created around it by adding highways. Imagine doubling the size of our downtown or at least reclaiming some of what was lost and doesn’t have to remain so.
Short of massive undertakings, how about quick wins — making small, inexpensive, sometimes temporary changes that can shift thinking and perhaps open long-term solutions to some of these problems? Urban Designers Kate Vavazza from Charlotte and Eric Hoke from Nashville, focused on just such efforts. Instrumental in Charlotte’s Urban Arboretum Trail, Kate’s work emphasizes tree canopy preservation and reconnecting parts of the city, primarily using existing infrastructure and reclaiming areas under the Interstate.
Eric works with the Civic Design Center in Nashville engaging in tactical urbanism projects like a temporary road diet through block parties (think Park(ing) Day on steroids). In some ways his work resembles our new exploration of closing the 400 block of Gay Street on several upcoming weekend nights (starting this Friday night!) which will give business owners, residents, and visitors to downtown the opportunity to experience the change with very little outlay or obligation.
What about Inside of Knoxville readers’ favorite topic, parking? Caleb Racicot, Urban Planner from Atlanta, who has lived in Atlanta without a car for three decades, pointed out that parking lots increase ambient temperature by 20 to 40 degrees and cause disproportionate amounts to stormwater runoff. He said that what cities do best, bringing people together and creating vibrancy, are destroyed by parking lots. Parking lots represent lost opportunities for engaging businesses or housing which generate taxes, in addition to the negative environmental impact.
He also tuned into one of the points I tried to make in my most recent article on the topic, that providing large swaths of parking is at odds with promoting affordable housing. The cost of a parking space ranges between 25K and 50K (80K to 100K if under the building) and that cost is passed on to rent prices regardless of whether the tenants own a car. He pointed out that 11.3% of Knoxville households do not own a car.
Advocating for a removal of parking mandates (so many spaces required for each new building), he pointed out that Atlanta has had no minimum mandate since 1982 and the market seems to have taken care of the need. Apartment developers and commercial space developers know how much parking they need to make their projects successful. There are caps in place, and he suggests they be relatively low.
If a city isn’t willing to eliminate minimum parking regulations, he suggests at least exempting historic areas, allowing businesses to share spaces to meet their minimums, and only allow construction of parking decks that can easily be converted to housing in the future (or at least other uses). For existing parking lots, he argued for allowing buildings at the street corner, for requiring landscaping on the edges, and where possible, to cover them in solar panels.
Can we imagine a Knoxville with smaller streets, less radiant heating, fewer blocks blighted by surface parking, and more tree cover? If we can imagine it, can we take steps to make it happen, even if incrementally? We know we can, the more pertinent question is: Do we have the will to make it happen?