Public spaces are a vital component of a thriving community. When considering favorite spaces in Chattanooga, Coolidge + Miller parks or the walkable Southside might spring to mind. While the parks, sidewalks, and patios have their own flair, there are a few key components that make them special to locals + visitors alike: places to sit and socialize, a showcase of public art, enough room to play, and safety measures.
According to the Public Realm Action Plan, a study conducted by Chattanooga Design Studio, The Enterprise Center, and Gehl Studio + local stakeholders, Patten Towers holds downtown’s densest residential population and its most sociable public space. For a populated, social corner of Chattanooga, it currently lacks many of the key components that make a public space welcoming + functional.
That’s where the team at Chattanooga Design Studio steps in — we spoke with Lindsey Willke, Beverly Bell, and Tina Vance about the Porch Project, a pilot project that aims to bring a fresh new look to the corner of Georgia Avenue + Market Street.
In summer 2019, the design studio worked with Gehl Studio to add a social studies component to understand public spaces in the Innovation District. Building on that study, in fall 2019 the pilot project was launched, with community engagement sessions led by local artist Genesis the Greykid to gather data from the residents of Patten Towers using creativity + art and WMWA Landscape Architects to create the design concept.
Chattanooga was one of five cities in the country to receive funding through the Made to Move Grant Program from Degree Deodorant + Blue Zones, an innovative effort to help communities build healthier environments. Way to go, team!
This money is helping fund the Porch Project + matching city capital funding designated to the studio for pilot projects. The larger team stewarding the project and grant is a collaborative group including the Chattanooga DOT, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga, The Enterprise Center, and the Chattanooga Downtown Library.
The project’s start
The team started by having coffee talks in fall 2019 with the residents. They set up bistros and offered free coffee + breakfast and listened to residents and other community members passing by. This phase was all about relationship building.
This allowed the team to start from a point of understanding. They noticed throughout the talks that people would avoid walking through that space and some residents said their children + grandchildren rarely visit. They mentioned wanting to see more color, landscaping, and a safe place for kids to play.
During this phase, Genesis also spent a lot of time just listening — afterwards, he was able to come into the conversation with understanding + empathy. “People want to be heard,” said Genesis.
Gathering this data, mostly by listening to the people, was essential in designing an amazing space for the most social corner in the Innovation District.
After listening to the residents, the team started building a plan. They continued to include the residents so they wouldn’t lose track of what the people want.
Genesis started having micro-sessions + larger conversations — Words in Grey. The micro-sessions were one-on-one conversations, and Words in Grey used poetry and art to get to the emotional core of what the project should reflect. For example, Genesis had the residents write a poem from the perspective of their shoes.
“They shared all this beautiful language that this shoe has to go through,” Genesis said.
From there, they were asked to paint a version of their poem, among other art directed by Genesis that elicited an emotional, intimate response. This intimate response will drive the project to its fullest potential.
The architects at WMWA worked with Genesis and synthesized the feedback from the sessions into a design concept. The concept ideas were shown to the residents and they were asked to give feedback. One resident wanted to see a pool, so part of the proposed design is to add the color blue to Georgia Avenue for an element reminiscent of a pool.
Ultimately, the plan of the new design is to boost residents’ feelings of ownership and pride in their space + provide a space for all the downtown community to socialize.
After listening to feedback from residents and the community, the plan was refined into one final design. Think a lot of color, more seating, sidewalk paint, sculptural swings, and landscape planters. They are also installing a free payphone for calling friends and family — which will help many residents who are on fixed incomes — and free WiFi through EPB’s NoogaNet.
Through the pandemic, another issue that became apparent was how tight the seating is outside Patten Towers. The new furniture will be moveable so residents can stay connected in a safe way. Eventually residents would also like to see Georgia Avenue closed to motorists on Saturdays so the street is safer.
The design is all about integrating and innovating space to create a happier and healthier community.
COVID-19 has caused many delays in development. Initially, the project was to be implemented over summer, but now the team is aiming for an install by the end of October.
This is meant to be an ongoing, long term project, hence categorizing this as the pilot. The pilot is intended to have a two-year duration in which the designers will observe, measure, and adapt the space.
“If we’re going to have an innovation mindset, we have to test ideas, learn from them, and perhaps if some of the ideas fail, we make adjustments to make the next iteration even better.” Lindsey said.
The long-term goal is to create a permanent project based on observations throughout the pilot. The designers hope to identify capital funding for the project to support the permanent implementation.
When asked if Genesis has hope that the project will be all it can be for the downtown community, he said “I wouldn’t have done the project if I didn’t have hope.”