The Legacy of Chattanooga Urban Design and the Inspiration of Christian Rushing
How Urban Design Shaped Our City
The Legacy of Chattanooga Urban Design and the Inspiration of Christian Rushing
Urban design, the process of shaping a city by blending architecture and function to create thoughtful communities, hit Chattanooga earlier than many would expect for a town of this size. Decades ago, local visionaries saw the importance behind creating an inclusive and accessible environment downtown. Today, urban design is reemerging in our city, and it’s a force to be reckoned with.
By Andrew Shaughnessy | Photography by Rich Smith
Ryan Sandwisk, Roy Wroth, and Eric Myers discuss current design projects.
Past a floor-to-ceiling map of the city with areas of interest marked in red, and rough brick walls covered in designs by local STEM students, architectural drawings lie scattered on desks. Among the piles are streetscapes, buildings, whole districts re-imagined. These are dreams of possible futures set to paper – the Chattanoogas that could be.
This is the Chattanooga Design Studio.
At his desk in the center of it all, Executive Director Eric Myers is on the phone with another architect. This is his job now – rekindling a community conversation around good urban design, reminding everyone of the bigger picture, and helping craft a vision for the city. Myers is more than qualified for the task at hand, however, his position is one he just recently assumed.
The Chattanooga Design Studio was founded in 2015 by local architect, planner, and urban design leader Christian Rushing. It was his passion-driven project to restore to the city a common vocabulary of design and community. The city’s first urban design center, the Chattanooga Urban Design Studio closed its doors in 2005. Rushing passed away this past February after a long battle with cancer, but his touch is evident all over the city, and his dream of a new Studio is pressing forward with Myers at the helm.
Urban design and the “new urbanism” movement have played a significant role in Chattanooga’s history. We take a look back at the importance of the movement and honor its legacy and a man who played a large role in the narrative.
Four Decades of Chattanooga Urban Design
The story of Chattanooga’s decline and reinvention has become a familiar one. Once lauded as a manufacturing powerhouse and transportation hub, by the ‘70s and ‘80s Chattanooga had fallen to a remarkable low. The passenger trains had stopped, the foundries and factories had closed their doors, and the interstate highway had redirected traffic away from downtown. This combination of factors left Chattanooga an environmental and economic wasteland, its downtown emptied and its future seemingly bleak.
Fast-forward to today, Chattanooga’s rebirth as a thriving and vibrant city can be credited to a number of influences including environmental reform, the growth of the outdoor industry and tourism, an active and forward-thinking network of local foundations and non-profits, and the rebranding of Chattanooga as an emerging tech hub and fertile entrepreneurial ecosystem. But certainly one of the most significant factors has been Chattanooga’s incredible history of urban design and the role of the Chattanooga Urban Design Studio.
“Urban design has been a connective tissue across all of those factors,” said Myers. “And the Studio cemented that. It gathered so many people to the chapel of urban design.”
“Design is the language that the community speaks, and if we don’t learn the vocabulary of that language and implement it through good design then we’re missing a great opportunity… How we design our city, in particular the public realm, is our declaration to the world about how we see ourselves and how we see the world.”
– Christian Rushing In Loving Memory
The city’s first urban design center, the Chattanooga Urban Design Studio, was founded in 1980 as an avenue for architecture students to practice urban design – a hands-on program for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s College of Architecture + Design. Under the leadership of Chattanooga architect and urban design visionary Stroud Watson, and supported by the Lyndhurst Foundation, the city of Chattanooga, and eventually the Chattanooga Regional Planning Agency, the Studio grew far beyond a purely instructional enterprise and into a creative design engine.
For over 25 years, the Design Studio helped create the ideas behind some of Chattanooga’s most recognizable and impactful landmarks like the Tennessee Aquarium Plaza, Miller Plaza, the Creative Discovery Museum, and the 21st Century Waterfront. It fostered conversation and a positive feedback loop between the community, Public Works, and developers. It created a dialogue that worked to align new developments with the city’s overarching vision for an open and inviting downtown.
“What we were able to do we did by sharing visual images of what Chattanooga could be, and sticking steadfastly to our principles. We were focused on the urban public realm, and the community came to understand that,” said Watson.
It was that context of furious creativity and rapid urban innovation that drew a young Christian Rushing to Chattanooga.
The Urban Design Legacy of Christian Rushing
For Rushing, urban design was the melding of twin dissatisfactions into joyous productivity. He studied architecture first, falling in love with the drawing and design aspects, but he was frustrated by perpetually looking at sites in isolation, with little regard to their context. In response, Rushing pursued a graduate degree in city planning, the opposite end of the spectrum where the overall view of the urban area is always considered. This led to a job with the Regional Planning Association in Chattanooga.
“That was my first job out of graduate school,” said Rushing in an interview conducted in the weeks before he passed away. “Chattanooga had this reputation in the planning world for having done these great urban design projects – this was on the heels of the completion of Miller Plaza and the Aquarium and all of the public improvements that went along with that. To be able to get my first job here out of graduate school was a bit of a coup for me.”
When he first met Rushing, Myers was working as the Urban Design Coordinator at the Studio. One day Rushing stopped by after work and began to ask questions.
“He came in asking, ‘Hey what is this streetscape?’ and ‘How does this work?’ and ‘What are you guys doing over here?’” said Myers. “And I told him, ‘We do concept drawings for how the public realm could be built, and then we share them with Public Works and talk about them with the community, back and forth like a seesaw.’ And he said, ‘That is so cool.’”
Rushing came again after work the next day, and the next. He started drawing concepts, and before long Urban Design Studio head Stroud Watson had convinced Rushing’s boss at the RPA to plant him there as a permanent employee.
“And so it was there that I cut my teeth in urban design,” said Rushing. “To be able to take design, which I love and am passionate about, and then apply that in a contextual way – looking at the whole instead of the parts, that’s when everything clicked.”
1986 // Rendering of Miller Plaza from the Urban Design Studio Retrospective, Koetter Kim Associates
“He had a very unique depth in planning and architecture that not a lot of people have,” said Myers. “He understood how to make policy from his planning education, but he also had a passion for architecture that was unparalleled.”
In the years that followed, Rushing worked with the Urban Design Studio on significant projects like the downtown plan and the 21st Century Waterfront design under Bob Corker. He witnessed firsthand what an organization like the Studio could accomplish, not only in terms of casting vision, but also in coming alongside the city of Chattanooga, River City Company, developers, and the public, to complete major projects.
“It was a tremendous learning opportunity for me,” said Rushing. “We were an interface between the designers and the will of the community. Just being able to be a part of that process, and to see how it works, how public comment is distilled into actionable design items, these are huge opportunities that don’t come along very often. I was incredibly fortunate to be there during that time to soak up all that mileage and information and all the good things that were going on here.”
After the original Studio closed its doors in 2005, Rushing went into private practice, but his dedication to public participation and intentional, community-oriented urbanism never faltered. He designed the Madison Street Project and Jefferson Heights Park Pavilion, both on the Southside. He built homes, including his own, to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) sustainable, green standards and worked on downtown development planning nationwide. He was prolific, successful, and inspiring. But the melding of form, function, and community which he had found at the old Urban Design Studio never left. The experience inspired his current work, and stoked dreams for the future.
“In his time, he gave everybody that he touched a deeper sense that we could all build better, no matter what it was that we were building. He understood that design is for everyone.”
“The Chattanooga Urban Design Studio was such an important entity in the community, such a valuable resource,” said Rushing. “At some point we needed to find a way to bring it back, but in the meantime we needed to find a way to keep the public dialogue about design open.”
So Rushing began to do just that. He started a blog, writing about urban design, life, and ultimately his battle with terminal cancer. He worked with the River City Company on the year-long Urban Design Challenge in 2012, a competition focused on creating positive futures for major downtown sites. Next, he spent a year working on the Urban Design Studio Retrospective, an interactive exhibit that told the story of the first Studio’s 25 years of work through drawings, notes, models, and photos.
Both events were intended to rekindle and empower that meaningful community dialogue about urban design, to look back and show what had been done, and simultaneously look to the future and show what Chattanooga could become.
Rushing’s experience at the original Design Studio had shown him the kind of architect he wanted to be, and ultimately compelled him to open the new Chattanooga Design Studio in 2015, a decade after the original studio shut its doors. Even after receiving his terminal gallbladder cancer diagnosis, Rushing pressed on. He knew how to live intentionally, why should dying be any different?
“Christian and I were very close professionally and personally,” said Myers. “In his time, he gave everybody that he touched a deeper sense that we could all build better, no matter what it was that we were building. He understood that design is for everyone.”
Beyond Innovation,Stroud Watson, circa 1983
The Future of the Studio and the Cityscapes Project
According to Watson, “Developers, public personnel, and institutions all have their own agendas, but an urban design studio’s agenda is the quality of the city as a whole, the knowledge that each thing we do contributes to its sustainability.”
“The need [for the Chattanooga Design Studio] is probably more critical than ever,” said Myers. “We’ve begun trying to understand the city from the public realm again.”
Two components make up the Chattanooga Design Studio – the Urban Design Institute, which teaches high school STEM students about urbanism, and the City Research and Development, which works with city, stakeholders, and public works to improve public spaces.
One of those Research and Development projects, which Myers inherited from Rushing, is the Cityscapes Project, an assessment of the public realm in Chattanooga’s downtown core, aimed at creating a baseline from which to build further designs that shape the community. Volume I of a three-part project, entitled “Chattanooga Streetscapes: Current Conditions,” was completed last summer.
“This can be a roadmap for where we need improvements most in our city,” said Myers. “It inventories and values things like streetlights and benches and sidewalks and pleasant storefronts, all of those things that go into making a quality public realm. And where those things are missing, that’s where the scorecard gets dropped a little bit. It helps us look at where we need improvements.”
The next two volumes will dive deeper into downtown building typologies and streetscape assessment. The hope is that the data gathered in the Cityscapes Project will allow the Chattanooga Design Studio to support business owners and developers. For example, it might create a retail guide map showing the simplest place for a business to open by organizing inviting storefronts based on classifications.
(l to r) Ryan Sandwick, Roy Wroth, Eric Myers in the Chattanooga Design Studio
“We want to provide tools and assessments that are useful to the business community, local retailers, developers, and city officials as they make their decisions,” said Myers. “We need a shared understanding of how we improve our streets together, how we can build together, and I think these assessments are going to give us the data and support that we need to push that forward.”
Myers himself first came to Chattanooga as an architecture student in 1994, working summers at the Chattanooga Urban Design Studio during the day, and waiting tables at the Southside Grille at night. In 1997, after a few years with a large Nashville company, he moved back to Chattanooga, taking a position as the Urban Design Coordinator before going into private practice shortly after the groundbreaking of the waterfront project. In 2006, he started Elemi Architects, LLC, a firm that grew rapidly and made a definite mark on the Chattanooga architecture scene.
The Chattanooga Design Studio’s mission is an ambitious undertaking, but Myers, with his long experience in the field, solid connections to area architects and developers, and strong ties to the old Studio’s foundation, seems uniquely equipped for the job.
“I made the decision to come on board for many different reasons,” said Myers. “But I’ve found that I’m closer to Christian doing this than I would have been otherwise. His fingerprints are all over this place. He laid the foundation for this organization. So that gives me a drive to do this – to live out his goals and aspirations for this place.”
When you first walk into the Chattanooga Design Studio, one of the first things you see is a quote by Stroud Watson hanging on the wall by the door. It reads: “Cities, like forests, are in a constant state of renewal. While forests recycle in rhythm with natural laws, the city is recycled by the collective will and conscience of its citizens.”