North America’s First National Park City: Building the 100-Year Vision for Chattanooga’s Parks and Outdoors


Chattanooga is home to world-class parks and a breathtaking natural environment, but the city currently falls short of equitably delivering the life-changing benefits of parks. Some neighborhoods are better served than others, and for 25 years the city has lacked a strategic, community-supported vision to guide park investments.

That’s where the Parks and Outdoors Plan (POP) comes in. The landscape architect team took a critical look at the current park and outdoor system—including the quality and condition of existing parks; the facility count per population compared to current and future needs; and which communities lack basic access to the health and economic benefits of high-quality parks. Based on this analysis and thousands of community conversations, the POP offers a roadmap and path forward to reinvent Chattanooga as a city in a park.

Already the POP has launched the city’s bid to become the first National Park City in the western hemisphere; garnered $265 million in new funding for park improvements; and rallied people across the city around the promise of their parks and outdoors.


The POP is a community-driven document. The team asked Chattanoogans to envision their parks and outdoors in 100 years, and to describe how the current system falls short of meeting the needs of their families and communities.

The POP reflects what the team heard—that Chattanoogans envision a ‘city in a park,’ with restored natural environments and a green public realm; interconnected greenways and blueways; iconic signature parks that bring people together; and a high-quality system of neighborhood parks for all.

The POP is ambitious. It seeks to build on and complete previous City park visions; correct for past errors of discrimination, environmental degradation and unchecked development; anticipate future growth; ensure most residents have a high-quality park or trailhead close to home; and lay the foundation for a park and outdoor system that Chattanoogans feel proud to leave to future generations.

The POP is also realistic. POP projects are scored and prioritized using community-supported criteria, and plan implementation is broken into phases. These recommendations reflect public priorities in that some are practical and cost-conscious, and others far-reaching and aspirational. Put simply, the plan recommends the city Fix, Build, Connect and Preserve Chattanooga’s public spaces now and into the future.

Through public workshops; focus groups; pop-up events; online and random-sample surveys; a project website, StoryMap and virtual workshop; and Park Listeners interviews in Spanish and the Q’anjob’al dialect, the team heard from Chattanoogans from all walks of life and parts of the city. Local media outlets lauded the process and final plan, which was unanimously adopted by City Council. The positive energy built by the POP process has offered momentum for implementation and short-term victories.

A Visionary and Actionable Planning Framework

The POP has five principles informed by community needs and priorities and by the globe’s best urban park systems: Access, Equity, Nature, Place and Quality. These principles drove the planning process, informed the public conversation about Chattanooga’s parks and outdoors, and provide the organizational framework for the document.

First is the POP Vision Statement: What should Chattanooga’s parks and outdoors look like in 100 years? This is a bold and ambitious vision statement that captures Chattanoogans’ loftiest goals for their parks and outdoors.

Next are ‘Top of the POP’: What should the City focus on first? These six initiatives focus efforts on the parks and natural and cultural landscapes that Chattanoogans said are most important, and ensure adequate resources are dedicated to care for those spaces over time.

Then are the Big Ideas: What are the specific actions that can bring the vision to life? These 17 Big Ideas and their associated action items create accountability and are organized by principle:

  • Access, meaning all Chattanoogans can easily reach the city’s parks and outdoors, and they feel welcome and safe when they get there.
  • Equity, a commitment to justice, fairness and the premise that everyone deserves access to a great public park.
  • Nature, the protection of the iconic Southern Appalachian landscape that is one of the most biodiverse in the world.
  • Place, or the ability of a park to authentically amplify the character and identify of its neighborhood.
  • Quality, meaning all parks across the city are designed, constructed and maintained according to a well-defined, consistent and high standard of quality.

And last is the Vision Plan: What and where are the physical improvements that will be built over time to create a city in a park? The POP’s community-driven prioritization model breaks into three phases the following:

  • 50 park reinvestment projects to bring all existing parks to a high standard of quality and ensure they serve as well-loved and well-used neighborhood parks.
  • 34 new neighborhood parks to fill access gaps and create community anchors across the city.
  • 17 major new recreation facilities and complexes based on public feedback and national and peer-city metrics, to ensure an appropriate level of service for the current and projected future population.
  • 118 miles of greenways and 52 miles of blueways to boost citywide connectivity and access to nature, while protecting urban habitat, cooling the urban environment, and daylighting long-hidden streams.

Building on the Past…

With its river access and railroads, Chattanooga has been an industry hub since the 19th century. The same mountains that provide Chattanooga’s scenic backdrop have also served to trap industrial pollutants—in 1969, the federal government declared that Chattanooga had the dirtiest air in the country.

By the 1980s, the city was in the throes of de-industrialization, with job layoffs, deteriorating city infrastructure, racial tensions and social division. But today the city’s population growth is strong, with new residents attracted by knowledge industries and Chattanooga’s scenic beauty and outdoor opportunities.

For the POP, the imperative created by this historical trajectory is clear—to protect the lands and waters that sustain Chattanooga’s quality of life and attract new residents and visitors, and to reclaim those sites that are still contaminated by its industrial legacy.

Though Chattanooga had been without a parks plan for 25 years, the POP picks up the mantle of older planning efforts that led to some of Chattanooga’s beloved parks and outdoor environments, including the ‘Nolen Plan’ of 1911, a model of early-20th-century park system planning in the tradition of Fredrick Law Olmsted.

…and Adapting for the Future

The POP team provided dynamic tools that will allow the City to adapt implementation priorities and practices over time as public values, park conditions and Chattanooga’s climate evolve:

  • The Equity Investment Zone Mapping Methodology uses weighted overlay analysis to identify parts of the city with a history of environmental degradation, underinvestment in parks and other public improvements, and greater need for the life-changing benefits of parks. Its data inputs were selected with City and stakeholder input. POP projects serving Equity Investment Zone communities were weighted more heavily in the prioritization model, resulting in a short-term focus on projects that serve these communities. The City will use this mapping model to prioritize other public investments, and it can be updated over time as new data and priority areas emerge.
  • The Park and Outdoor Project Prioritization Model uses community-supported criteria, weighted according to values expressed during the engagement process, to score the POP projects and divide them into phases. This helps the City and its partners focus resources and first steps on projects that are best positioned to advance the public interest. The criteria and scoring process are transparent: They can be adapted as part of future plan updates as priorities evolve, maintaining the utility of the model as a rational, community-driven tool to guide City and partner investments in parks and outdoors.
  • The Total Asset Management 1.0 Inventory and Matrix offers the City a new high-level understanding of its existing park assets and deferred and ongoing maintenance needs. Field inventories and condition assessment of park assets plus desktop analysis of maintenance needs by park landcover shed light on the park assets the City has, what condition they’re in, how much investment is required ‘right now’ to get all assets to a good condition, and how the City should plan its capital and staff investments moving forward to maintain the quality of existing and future park assets. This data and analysis was shared with the City, laying the groundwork for a more sophisticated use of this approach in the future that is fully integrated with other City asset management software and systems.
  • The Vacant Land Suitability Methodology established criteria based on parcel size, context, edges and environmental resources to identify City-owned vacant land that should be set aside as future park preserves. As a result of this work, the City dedicated more than 500 acres of its vacant land as a ‘down payment’ toward the POP’s long-term parkland preservation goals. The methodology remains of use in the City’s ongoing evaluation of new parkland protection and acquisition opportunities.

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):