Sustainable Chattanooga 2.0

By Ernest J. Yanarella + Robert W. Lancaster

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Sustainability Dreams, Green Realities: An Urban Model Analysis of Chattanooga, Tennessee

The Sustainable Chattanooga story has many tellers. Most see it as an unparalleled success story of a former polluted industrial city of the South, pulling itself up by its bootstraps like Baron von Münchhausen and transforming itself into an award-winning sustainable city. Along the way, a replicable visioning model called the Chattanooga Way was designed to maximize public participation in a process of environmental improvement and downtown revitalization that would transform the face of Chattanooga’s city center and riverfront and offer other mid-sized cities key pointers for emulating that experience.

Critical to a proper and dispassionate assessment of Chattanooga’s achievements, however, is the necessary examination of (a) the underlying political forces that shaped this former industrial city, (b) the distribution and exertion of power emanating from models of urban power framing other case studies, and (c) the overriding goals sought after and pursued by the constellation of stakeholders who composed the key movers and shakers of Chattanooga’s two mobilization campaigns (1973-2001 and 2005-present) to restructure its urban and regional political economy guided by a vague and general blueprint for ecological modernization.

Chattanooga’s first campaign has been extensively reviewed, dissected, and summarized and a number of policy recommendations have been offered. The Chattanooga Cinderella story was juxtaposed against the deeper realities comprising the Chattanooga mirage. The version of pseudo-sustainability sketched in that critique was characterized as “enterprise sustainability” in order to highlight both the extent to which it was a creature of business elites organized around the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce and political elites whose downtown real estate investments allowed them to cash in on the center city renaissance comprising the keystone of Chattanooga’s urban growth machine, the so-called sustainability designs. It also demonstrated how the initial neglect and then reluctant attention to pollution problems in African American neighborhoods along waterways polluted by decades of industrial waste showed that this constellation of power largely ignored the third leg of the sustainability tripod until federal regulations and mandates and grassroots pressures forced treatment and serious mitigation of these public health hazards.

Finally, previous case analysis has cast doubt on the success of Sustainable Chattanooga 1.0 in establishing the foundations of a local or regional green economy, despite the ballyhoo over its downtown electric bus transportation system and its homegrown (and now defunct) hybrid and electric bus industry. While laying the groundwork for the emergence of Sustainable Chattanooga 2.0, the investigation of this second mobilization of private power and public resources in the name of sustainability only illuminated the dimensions of urban power deployed in Chattanooga’s green venture. There, it embraced Clarence Stone’s urban regime model (see below) as the best explanatory framework for understanding the evolution of Chattanooga from a mid-sized southern industrial town to the Environmental City to Sustainable Chattanooga and then to Chattanooga Green.

Chattanooga skyline
The Chattanooga, Tennessee skyline in October 2012.
Photo by Imilious (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

In what follows, we appraise the relative scope and strength of the growth machine, urban regime, and hegemonic models in explaining and understanding various facets of Chattanooga’s past and ongoing pursuit of the dream of sustainability.

Three Models of  Urban Power

Growth Machine /
Growth Coalition
Strengths Weaknesses

At the heart of the coalition that drives urban politics and governance is a set of mostly local players who loosely coalesce around their predominant interest in land development and allied players who support them.

  1. Highlights the power and centrality of growth imperatives
  2. Identifies key players shaping urban politics and policy making
  3. Demonstrates the limited options of cities and towns to raise revenues
  4. Offers a subtle analysis of clashes over land use in terms of the conflict between exchange value and use value
  1. Is really focused on economic, not urban, policy
  2. Treats the policy making arena as entirely local
  3. Represents the political economy of place through an uncritical treatment of community scale emerging from the agency-centered focus on local players supporting or opposing growth machines
  4. Marginalizes the potential role of those who have been powerless and estranged from the political process
Urban Regime Strengths Weaknesses

Urban regimes are defined as “informal arrangements by which public bodies and private interests function together in order to be able to make and carry out governing decisions.” Four regimes are identified: 1) Maintenance, 2) Development, 3) Middle-Class Progressive, 4) Lower-Class Opportunity Expansion.

  1. Reconceptualizes “economic development” as a political issue (“brings politics back in”) while simultaneously removing politics from conventional institutional processes and formal venues (e.g., city councils)
  2. Explores the existence and possibility of domains in which urban politics is contested that go beyond economic growth and land-use issues
  3. Offers a typology of urban regimes that reflect real and potential policy foci fueling urban politics
  1. Fails to take into account or incorporate the role of business and government players and key stakeholders and officials operating at state, national, and transnational levels
  2. Risks excluding groups marginalized or “silenced” from policy deliberations by local elites
  3. Tends to equate anti-growth coalitions as anti-property when such oppositional coalitions may be driven by efforts to protect or even enhance their property values
  4. Fails to account for policy “non-decisions” and the exclusions of ideologically impermissible policy options
Neo-Gramscian Hegemonic Strengths Weaknesses

This model argues that “the system’s real strength does not lie in the violence of the ruling class (n)or the coercive power of its state apperatus, but in the acceptance by the ruled of a ‘conception of the world’ which belongs to the rulers.” So, hegemonic power resides in the force of ideas saturating various institutions of civil society.

  1. Understands systemic power in terms of cultural hegemony (coercion and consent)
  2. Is capable of incorporating local-state, local-national, and local-international dimensions of political struggle and contestation
  3. Considers the changing strategic contexts in which urban actors shape urban fortunes through its inter-scalar theoretical-empirical grasp of shifting politics
  4. Is sensitive to the way the balance of coercion and consent is juxtaposed against the never entirely stabilized interplay of hegemony and resistance
  1. Has a propensity to embrace class essentialism or its residues in framing hegemonic relations and change agents
  2. Tends to neglect or downplay the function of counter-hegemonic institutions as anticipatory expressions of the new political arrangements of future society
  3. Replicates in its conceptualization and implementation the same depleted binary logic of “friends” and “enemies” that its strategy putatively seeks to overcome
  4. Frames ideological or cultural hegemony in ways that legitimize an elitist, rationalist rendering of “false consciousness” that explains away the beliefs and actions of supposed subordinate agencies that are not grounded in their “real interests” or some “true consciousness”
  5. Poorly explains why subaltern groups consent to self-domination

Our argument is not that one or the other of these models is superior, but that, beginning with the onset of the Chattanooga sustainability story, each should be seen as partly incipient, partly overlapping, partly directing models of urban power-making that sometimes foreground peculiar explanations of the patterns and structure-making of power and sometimes operate in the background of explanations of emerging patterns and structures of urban power.

In the Beginning: Chattanooga 1.0 and the Preeminence of the Growth Machine Model

Nestled between the Appalachian Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau in southeastern Tennessee along the Tennessee River, Chattanooga still bears the imprint of its settlement and early commercial growth. Halfway into the 19th century, Chattanooga became a major railroad hub, which helped to catalyze its tourist and commercial industries. Its present-day African American population derives at least in part from the migration of blacks to Chattanooga induced by a more favorable racial climate and better living conditions stemming from white paternalism, the need for domestic servants, and the existence of manufacturing jobs.

With the growth of its manufacturing sector through the early part of the 20th century, heavy industry began to take a toll on the area’s environment and public health. Industrial pollution from metal plants and factories as well as chemical pollutants from its textile industries fouled the air, soil, streams, rivers, and other waterways.

By 1969, the then U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare declared that the city had become the worst polluted city in the United States. The following decade, Chattanooga fell into further noncompliance as new federal regulations mandating stricter standards for particulate levels in amendments to the national Clear Air Act passed in 1977 became law.

Between 1978 and 1985, a rash of industrial closures and the loss of some 11,000 jobs took place. Accompanying this economic downturn was the decay of the downtown and the flight of (overwhelmingly white) downtowners to the suburbs. This hollowing out of the center city triggered a shift toward lower-paying jobs in the service and retail trade industries.

Despite these dramatic changes, urban politics remained largely in the hands of Chattanooga’s old-moneyed elites who weathered the economic shifts and changes and maintained relatively tight control over the city’s politics.

Tennessee Aquarium.
The Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga.
Photo courtesy Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The Growth Machine and the Local Crisis of Deindustrialization

While deindustrialization was a national phenomenon across America in the 1970s, it was acutely felt in Chattanooga, given the number of factory closings and the rise in unemployment. The response of the city’s key power-holders and local-regional allies bears many of the earmarks of the growth machine model (see table above). Faced with an acute crisis threatening local-regional growth and capital accumulation, the usual cast of characters identified in the Molotch-Logan model reacted in a manner characteristic of patterns and policies evidenced by other local growth-oriented coalitions.

One key actor distinctive to Chattanooga was the Lyndhurst Foundation. An offspring of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company and T. Carter Lupton, the Foundation was established in 1938 and has concentrated its philanthropy on improving the natural and built environment in the Chattanooga region and southeastern Tennessee. During the early phase of the growth coalition’s economic renewal campaign, the Foundation’s executive director, Jack Lupton, played a significant role in shaping and investing in that revitalization program.

In 1980, the Lyndhurst Foundation took the initiative in investigating causes and solutions to Chattanooga’s prevailing economic doldrums and hired a team from the Institute for Environmental Action (IEA) to study the underlying sources of the city’s downward economic spiral and environmental problems.

The IEA report blamed many of the city’s prevailing woes on communication problems between citizens and their elected leaders and representatives. It also pointed to the weaknesses in its civil society realm deriving from a poverty of community and neighborhood groups and the few opportunities for social interaction or nightlife in the declining downtown area.

A second key component of the growth machine politics in Chattanooga was its local Chamber of Commerce. The Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce’s contribution to the deindustrialization crisis involved the formation of the Civic Forum Task Force, sponsored by the chamber’s downtown businesses and economic development council. Formed to uncover the reasons for Chattanooga’s industrial stagnation, the task force reached the conclusion that, in comparison to other Tennessee cities, Chattanooga had become an “invisible city” lacking a distinctive brand either to set it apart from other mid-sized cites or to lure new industry. Unless it worked to refashion itself into a livable city characterized by balance, variety, and an improved quality of life, the taskforce concluded, Chattanooga risked plummeting even further into the economic margins and becoming a mediocre, nondescript entity.

These sobering diagnoses catalyzed other major economic partners in Chattanooga’s future to follow the lead of a number of organizations brought into being by the financial largesse and organizational leadership of the Lyndhurst Foundation and the local Chamber of Commerce. As ideas and proposed projects for downtown redevelopment and economic renewal were elicited in visioning exercises, community forums, and design charrettes through facilitation by Chattanooga Venture, a project called Vision 2000 took shape as an estimated 1,700 citizens participated in public meetings and formulated 40 goals to steer projects and programs to realize Vision 2000. Then, between 1982 and 1984, the publicly supported Urban Design Studio (now Chattanooga Design Studio) became a prominent force in implementing facets of the inchoate plans for downtown renewal.

By 1986, the landscape of Chattanooga’s city planning and economic development scene had been dramatically altered as (a) the RiverCity Company emerged to implement development plans, (b) the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Committee was instituted to explore the regional implications of the city’s initiatives, and (c) the Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise was brought into being to advance urban renewal through the repair of substandard housing and the promotion of affordable housing.

As Logan and Molotch have emphasized, growth coalitions tend to propagate the idea that an ideology of economic growth is value-free and identical with the public good. Local media, particularly city newspapers, often become boosters of land and industrial development by portraying these activities as aspects of civic pride and local identities and traditions. Soon after, this goal resulted in a new brand: Chattanooga as the Environmental City.

As the city moved into compliance with federal ozone standards and sought to meet amended Clean Air Act standards, media focus on Chattanooga began touting its ambitious Riverpark, Tennessee Aquarium, and Walnut Street Bridge projects along the riverfront (many of which were heavily funded by the Lyndhurst Foundation) in terms of a veritable environmental turnaround by the city. By 1991, the environmental reinvention of the city’s brand was well in hand.

Paddlers under Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga. Photo courtesy Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Paddlers under Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga.
Photo courtesy Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Chattanooga’s environmental brand was further enhanced and refined when the Clinton administration’s President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD)—charged with the mission of advising President Clinton on bold new approaches to achieve economic, environmental, and equity goals—turned its attention to emerging models of sustainability among American towns and cities. In 1994, as the (possibly apocryphal) story goes, a PCSD staff member visited Chattanooga, and after riding on the Chattanooga Area Regional Transit Authority (CARTA) downtown electric-power buses and touring the Tennessee Aquarium, concluded that Chattanooga was an example of an American city on the leading edge of urban sustainability.

Having gotten on PCSD’s radar, Chattanooga’s movers and shakers began to subtly recast its downtown renewal and environmental repair image from the Environmental City to Sustainable Chattanooga. James Frierson, lawyer and director of strategic initiatives for RiverValley Partners, pointed to the role of outside assessment of the Chattanooga turnaround, saying, “People came in and said, ‘You may not know this, but what you’re doing is sustainable development.’”

Equally important, the president’s sustainability council came to function as both catalyst and legitimizer of Chattanooga’s changing brand, when former Tennessee senator and then Vice President Al Gore spoke at the annual meeting of the PCSD to spotlight the Chattanooga example. As the symbolic cement hardened, the City of Chattanooga put up a Sustainable Chattanooga website touting the community’s commitment to sustainable development. Around the same time, city council member David Crockett founded the Chattanooga Institute using seed money from the Lyndhurst Foundation to proselytize the Chattanooga visioning model to other cities across the nation. By the end of 1996, Chattanooga business, nonprofit, and civic leaders enshrined this shift in branding by announcing the Chattanooga Strategy for Sustainable Development, which was grounded in promoting environmental well-being, social equity, and economic development as its hallmarks.

That the particular policies and strategies promoted during this first phase conformed more to the patterns and programs mobilized by the key members of the city’s growth coalition than to the sustainability “revolution” heralded by the PCSD executive director was manifested in a number of ways. For one thing, by 2003, not a single formal institution involved in city policy, business development, or citizen action bore or carried the name “sustainability” or “sustainable development.” This oddity was explained by James Frierson, founder and current director of the Kruesi Center for Innovation, as stemming from the fact that “sustainability has now so completely seeped into the DNA of the community that the term is no longer needed and is everywhere practiced.”

What of its much vaunted and widely popularized participatory visioning process? Given the powerful and influential roles played by the senior partners, the Chattanooga process came to resemble a pyramid of power in which public feedback at the lowest visioning level gave way to the involvement of fewer and fewer players as alternatives and choices were discussed and decided upon in smaller and increasingly closed quarters. One mechanism used by the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce and other organizations for restricting broader citizen involvement was to price out prospective interlocutors by charging comparatively large sums ($500 and up) for admission to these supposedly public events.

The increases in mayoral influence and minority council representation did little to alter Chattanooga’s pathway to downtown rebirth and sustainable economic development, which continued to be guided by a business-nonprofit-government alliance in which the corporate players were in the driver’s seat and elected officials merely junior partners. Given Chattanooga’s politically conservative nature, it is not surprising that in James Frierson’s terms, “local government has actually been a junior partner by choice,” marking the local political institutions, in Parr’s characterization, as “the caboose on the civic train.”

Chattanooga Creek sign with warnings
Photo by Robert W. Lancaster.

If social equity—the third leg of the sustainability tripod—were to be vigorously pursued in the Chattanooga 1.0 phase, one would have expected that minority neighborhoods along the Chattanooga Creek, typified as “a veritable sewage canal for exploitive and polluting industries operating in a primarily African American section of Chattanooga,” would have been forthrightly addressed and quickly remediated. For nearly seven decades, however, the land along Chattanooga Creek was the site for nearly all of Chattanooga’s heavy industries. During this period, the neighborhoods of Pinney Woods and Alton Park bore the brunt of the environmental consequences of Chattanooga’s heavy industry legacy. The approach of the growth machine was simple and glaring: neglect of this predominantly black residential part of Chattanooga and failure to remediate the toxic chemicals dissolved or buried in this waterway.

In its first phase, then, sustainability, Chattanooga-style, is best characterized by what it was and always had been: a large helping of downtown revitalization plus modest measures of enforced environmental remediation plus a dash of smart growth. Much, if not most, of the substance of the Chattanooga strategy has been directed toward revivifying the downtown through high-profile public projects like the Tennessee Aquarium, the Riverwalk, the IMAX theater, and the Walnut Street Bridge, which may be generously typified as showcase sustainability, though sustainability in even its weakest sense is a stretch. Moreover, the prime beneficiaries of this public-private partnership in urban redevelopment were many of those prominent partners in this enterprise. As urban critic Kenneth Naylor acknowledged in New American City in 2003:

When the “good old boys” decided to revitalize their city, they were partly motivated by personal gain. [Lyndhurst Foundation director] Jack Lupton’s many real estate assets downtown have certainly benefited from the turn-around. . . . .[Former mayor Bob] Corker is Chattanooga’s biggest commercial landlord; [and prior mayor Joe] Kinsey is principal of the major real estate development firm that will soon begin work on several parcels in conjunction with the 21st Century Waterfront Plans.

As this condensed case analysis has shown, Chattanooga 1.0 is best identified with the growth machine or coalition framework, the Molotch-Logan model of urban power. Yet, aspects of the case also hint at the relevance or influence of the neo-Gramscian hegemonic model (see table above). For example, the urban growth coalition moved to take advantage of the vagueness and essentially contested character of sustainability by embracing, marketing, and controlling a green version of sustainability that challenged no major economic interest of any of the central partners and secondary allies of the growth machine and mobilized national attention and even environmental awards points to the evolution of an incipient hegemonic ideology that would play a central part in the second phase of the Chattanooga Cinderella story. Likewise, the growth coalition’s success in giving the appearance of citizen involvement and democratic processes by limiting their impact and controlling their outcome anticipates the hegemonic processes grounded in the interplay of force and consent so subtly analyzed by the hegemonic model’s originator, Antonio Gramsci.

As for the urban regime model formulated by Clarence Stone, the entrenchment of a sustainability brand into the land—as well as economic development policies and programs largely focused on Chattanooga’s downtown—raises the issue of whether the hard-won political dividends accruing to the key members of the growth coalition could be extended into succeeding local political administrations and public-private networks shaping private power and public programs.

Facade in Bluff View Art District
Streetscape from the Bluff View Art District near downtown Chattanooga.
Photo courtesy Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Chattanooga 2.0: The Crisis of Sustainable Chattanooga and the Making of an Urban Regime

The period between 1997 and 2005 was a time of drift and uncertainty as Joe Kinsey and then Bob Corker were elected as mayors (1997-2000 and 2001-2005, respectively). By 2003, the visible signs and tokens of Sustainable Chattanooga had certainly disappeared. Mayor Kinsey’s election brought with it his expressed skepticism about the direction taken by Chattanooga leaders in the recent past, and the local Chamber of Commerce backed away from the sustainability brand. Stung by criticisms by local and area business elements in the late 1990s that claimed Sustainable Chattanooga had negatively affected industrial recruitment, the chamber aligned itself with Kinsey’s promotion of a more “diversified” approach to urban economic development, centering on industrial recruitment and job creation.

During this time, Republican mayor Bob Corker turned the mayoralty post to a public opportunity for private gain. Emblematic of the fading of this city brand were a number of subtle and not-so-subtle changes that eroded the strength of Chattanooga’s image. For one thing, the Chattanooga Institute, directed by former city council member David Crockett, eventually closed its doors after its failure to catalyze cross-state and regional support for Chatlanta, a Maglev train initiative that would have connected Chattanooga and Atlanta and given regional focus to Chattanooga’s endeavors to link commerce, culture, and collaboration.

For another, Chattanooga found itself at another crossroads in a political debate over its ambiguous present and uncertain economic future in the 2005 mayoralty contest between Ann Coulter and Ron Littlefield. Both Coulter and Littlefield were heavily involved in Chattanooga’s urban-economic-environmental campaigns of the 1990s, but Littlefield—who emerged as the winning candidate—raised the most questions about the economic impact of its sustainability programs and as mayor promised to restore a focus on old-style economic growth, industrial recruitment, and jobs creation.

The election outcome seemed to presage a return to old-style politics and the reinstituting of conventional business development strategy. Yet, under the new mayoral administration, the contours of Chattanooga’s community development campaign took two interesting turns.

On the one hand, Mayor Littlefield’s campaign pledge to renew focus on attracting new industry and jobs was honored as he launched an aggressive industrial recruitment campaign that netted Chattanooga a $200 million Alstom nuclear power turbine manufacturing plant and two years later a $1 billion Volkswagen auto assembly plant. These two coups together generated over 1,350 jobs in Chattanooga-Hamilton County.

Littlefield’s election opened up a second and somewhat surprising policy avenue: the remobilization of the earlier supposed sustainability vision now branded alternately Chattanooga Green and the greening of Chattanooga.

In his first term, Littlefield launched a number of initiatives, some harkening back to the earlier Environmental City/Sustainable City campaign, while others promised new innovations on an older brand. In the fall of 2007, the mayor appointed a 12-member Green Committee (now the nonprofit green|spaces) to advise his office and the city council on sustainability issues. That committee then hosted a visioning session the following April to engage community citizens on green issues and to offer recommendations for implementation. In addition, the mayor signed Chattanooga onto the U.S. Conference of Mayors climate protection agreement in spring 2008. Then in late 2009, he established an Office of Sustainability initially staffed by a director and two interns. If the shifting political fortunes of Chattanooga’s green economic strategy (really a synthesis of smart growth and weak sustainability) pointed to its demise, they also hint at its staying power, as evidenced by Littlefield’s election and re-election.

Littlefield’s election and subsequent administrations in Chattanooga coalesced into an urban regime that conforms to a modified version of what Clarence Stone calls a “development regime”—that is, a regime that attempts to mobilize urban resources and galvanize influential groups and elites behind the pursuit of local economic development with a green tint to it.

The restoration of continuity to Chattanooga politics by a former governing coalition is evidenced in the resurfacing of elites from the public and private sector to assume key positions of authority in this revitalized green development coalition. The inaugural director of the Office of Sustainability was David Crockett, former council member and Chattanooga Institute director. Karen Hundt, previously director of the Regional Planning Association Design Studio, held this post again and became an influential member of the Chattanooga Green Committee.

In carrying out its strategic activities, this green development regime took a decidedly ecological modernist orientation in the wake of the success of the former growth machine in rejuvenating Chattanooga’s center city. Ecological modernization is a theory or school of thought that has become popular in the social sciences and engineering. It posits the virtues of technological innovations in overcoming historic antagonisms between industrial capitalism and nature that have generated multiple, scaled environmental crises since the first industrial revolution.

The public-private balance of the green development regime institutionalized in Chattanooga took a significantly governmental turn in comparison with the urban growth machine that had formerly influenced Sustainable Chattanooga. With the strong mayor system now ensconced into the city’s political infrastructure, the mayor’s office took a greater hand in shaping this hybrid regime as the Chattanooga Green Committee assumed a leading role in formulating green development policy and as its meetings and subcommittees became key forums for business and governmental elite interaction and coordination.

Southern Belle riverboat and Market Street Bridge, Chattanooga
The Southern Belle riverboat and Market Street Bridge on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga.
Photo courtesy Pixabay.

This urban regime’s embrace of ecological modernization was evidenced in a number of ways. Once formally established under the directing hand of Crockett, the Office of Sustainability moved vigorously to follow a green agenda emphasizing energy efficiency and eco-tech innovation. Initiatives in its first three years of operation included:

  • Introduction of monitoring mechanisms to analyze water, gas, and electricity use in the entire city-county’s residential, business, government, and nonprofit sectors
  • Installation of green roofs on public buildings, advancing LEED certification of existing and prospective buildings
  • Installation of 400 or more electric-vehicle charging stations throughout Chattanooga
  • Grappling with the city’s persistent stormwater runoff problems through recharge solutions
  • Seeking various technological means to reduce greenhouse gases in order to reduce the city’s carbon footprint

Funds for these improvements were generated from federal stimulus funds, foundation grants, and other federal grant programs. Given Crockett’s longtime reputation as a sustainability frontiersman, he was able to work his many contacts in Washington, D.C., Knoxville, and Chattanooga, and secure federal support from the Department of Energy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as regional funding from the Lyndhurst Foundation and other area foundations. Impressive as these green advancements were, they did little to overcome the social inequalities still pervasive in the Chattanooga community, which any strong sustainability policy would need to frontally address as part of a multi-pronged approach.

With the successful recruitment by state and local officials of a Volkswagen plant to Chattanooga, the elements of the green development regime found a transnational corporate partner to reinforce its ecological modernization approach. That Volkswagen did much to promote its image as a green company attracted by green actions of sustainable cities is demonstrated by its release of a press kit that included a 28-page brief titled “Green from the Start—Volkswagen’s Commitment to Sustainable Future in Chattanooga.” Again, operationalization of sustainability by this global company focused heavily on the resource and energy efficiency advances it was integrating into the physical plant, the assembly line, and the automobiles being produced. Volkswagen also promised a future fleet of hybrid, electric, and high-temperature fuel cell vehicles.

For mayor Ron Littlefield, the arrival of Volkswagen to Chattanooga meant the fulfillment of his campaign promise to accentuate industrial recruitment for the purpose of bringing (in this case, over 1,000) well-paying jobs to Chattanooga and Hamilton County. For the citizens of Chattanooga-Hamilton County, the assembly plant and supportive facilities would have a tremendous impact upon strategic sectors of Chattanooga and the wider region—as one observer characterized it, something akin to “absorbing a small town over a seven-county region.” For Volkswagen, the move would net the company enormous public good will and embellish its image as an environmentally responsible automaker.

For the constellation of power comprising the green development regime, this economic coup further solidified its hold over local and regional economic policy and enhanced the thin patina coloring it by integrating a transnational corporate component into its fold. Volkswagen representatives were quickly invited to join the local Chamber of Commerce, the Green Committee, and business development offices and civic organizations. In the process of spreading its corporate largess in the form of green seed grants and contributions, Volkswagen reinforced the green development regime’s eco-modernization vision of a technology-driven urban sustainability.

The deepening of the hegemonic grip of this regime and its vision points to the relevance of the neo-Gramscian hegemonic model to Chattanooga 2.0. While urban regime analysis distinguishes itself from the growth machine model by its greater attention to politics, the urban regime approach shares with the neo-Gramscian theory its emphasis on the hegemonic processes that sustain urban regimes (Gramsci here spoke of “historical blocs”) in power over long periods. As Gramsci emphasized and some of his best students underlined, hegemony is hard work. It must be continually maintained, renewed, and rebalanced in the face of challenges often coming from grassroots voices. For Gramsci, hegemony involves the proper balance of coercion and consent.

What is evident from the Chattanooga example is the success of the evolving public-private network constituting an elitist-driven, corporate-dominated urban regime in rebuilding itself on the foundations of the original growth coalition and largely emptying the public realm of civil society or any grassroots counter-hegemonic assaults. While Chattanooga 1.0’s growth machine had to contend with some resistance and more assaults on its neglect of environmental pollution, housing problems, and environmental racism from protest groups and citizen action organizations, the members of Chattanooga 2.0’s green development regime managed to clear the field of all challengers at the ground level and thus exert its hegemony through instruments of consent and acceptance based upon its green technology/economic growth/jobs creation gloss on sustainability.

As the green development regime became embedded in the early years of the Littlefield administration, green urbanism and its growth programs were attacked with great emotional fervor and political outrage by the Chattanooga Tea Party and the local right-wing newspaper, the Chattanooga Conservative Examiner.

The local Tea Party focused on mayor Littlefield’s program to address stormwater problems by adopting more ecological recharge remedies at higher taxpayer costs. Riveting its critique on increased taxes and allegations of the cronyism and corruption in the mayoral administration, the Chattanooga Tea Party joined with two other small-government, anti-tax groups to mobilize a campaign to recall the sitting mayor.

Chattanooga’s sustainability program, however, was dealt a more severe and perhaps deadly blow when David Crockett resigned as the director of the Sustainability Office on May 21, 2012, soon after becoming embroiled in a political contretemps with local Tea Party members at the organization’s luncheon where he was featured speaker. Although the decision by Chattanooga’s mayor to dramatically reduce Crockett’s office with the end of federal grant funding played a part, the proximate cause and timing probably stemmed from the combination of his activist role as head of the Office of Sustainability and his mistakenly attributed association with the City of Chattanooga’s membership in ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

As Chattanooga’s experiment in green development unfolded into the second decade of the 21st century, it seemed to be caught between a nostalgic worldview of bygone days (that never was), in which atomistic free markets reigned, private property was sanctified, and limited government was contained, and an eco-modernist worldview, in which unlimited economic growth continues to be advanced through techno-fixes and top-down management and administration that stave off a day of reckoning in a city and region replete with socioeconomic and political inequalities. As a result, local and regional environmental and equity groups and movements for the time being seem stalled or immobilized, bought off, or unable to find focus or political traction.

Boats at Ross's Landing
Boats during a festival at Ross’s Landing, adjacent to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.
Photo courtesy Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Conclusion: Models of Urban Power in Chattanooga’s Sustainability Efforts

As the heralded crown jewel of urban sustainability in America, the Chattanooga green adventure offers a host of keen insights into the ineluctable interplay of urban power and sustainability projects in the United States. It highlights the advantages that accrue to a city that crystallizes a growth machine which manipulates the weak democratic processes and successfully camouflages local economic development policy and downtown revitalization with a green tint, and then consolidates into an urban regime grounded in an ecological modernist strategy. It also points to how these achievements can substitute instrumentalist, top-down, technology-driven “solutions” for a strong sustainability program founded upon a model of discursive democracy.

This case study’s review of urban power has acknowledged the superior explanatory power of the growth machine (or coalition model) in the first phase of Chattanooga’s sustainability initiatives and the urban regime model with regard to the second phase. It has also shown how each of the three models in certain respects has been implicated in both phases as sometimes dominant and sometimes subordinate processes.

These nested theories of power have family resemblances with one another. For example, the growth machine model bears many of the same features as the development regime in Stone’s urban regime typology. Similarly, both the urban regime and neo-Gramscian hegemonic model are concerned with exploring the legitimating basis of a regime’s or historic bloc’s hegemony over other groups or subaltern elements comprising the larger community. The urban regime theory may misconstrue the hegemonic model by attributing to it the idea of “power over” instead of “power to,” but both models seek to understand the foundations of hegemony as “power to.” What is fascinating about the Chattanooga green odyssey is how that kind of power evolved and the degree of continuity and dynamic stability local elites have managed to establish and maintain over this nearly 30-year venture.

What is striking about the success of the green development regime has been its ability to maintain a continued fix on economic growth as the overriding goal while dressing it up in a green cloth of ecological modernization. With no influential elements of civil society pressing their claims for a strong dose of social equity, the latter has allowed the urban regime network to work almost single-mindedly on advancing energy and other forms of resource efficiency.

That Chattanooga’s green development regime and its ecological modernization strategy are not up to the task is testified to by even so articulate an advocate of eco-modernization as Martin Hajer. As he concedes, this strategy “does not call for any structural change but is in this respect, basically a modernist and technocratic approach to the environment that suggests that there is a techno-institutional fix for the present problems.”

The frenzied technological actions pursued by Chattanooga’s Green Committee and Office of Sustainability and often underwritten or subsidized by the Lyndhurst Foundation and Volkswagen do not materially overcome the structural inequalities of power and wealth that at base fuel long-term unsustainability in the city and region. Nor can current policies emanating from this power network really balance continued drives for regional economic growth and green technological improvements.

In the end, sustainability is about people and human relations with the world and nature such that, as urban critic Andrew Ross says, “if these initiatives do not take shape as remedies for social and geographic inequality, then they are likely to end up reinforcing existing patterns of eco-apartheid,” rather than overcoming them. Sadly, the folly—and tragedy—of Chattanooga 1.0 and 2.0 is that despite so many eco-Calvinist good works, governing elites of the city and local-regional economy remain deaf to this socio-ecological truth.


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Getting from Here to There? Power, Politics and Urban Sustainability in North America (BrownWalker Press, 2016)—from which this Unsprawl case study is excerpted—seeks to take the study of sustainable cities into a realm of analysis and critique that has not been seriously investigated in any explicit and systematic manner: the sphere of power and politics. Using detailed case studies of selected urban sustainability programs—some stillborn or short-lived, others celebrated, still others most promising—it focuses on the political agencies shaping them and the structural elements either impeding or facilitating efforts to build sustainable cities. To accomplish this task, the authors utilize three theories or models of urban power—growth coalition, urban regime, and neo-Gramscian hegemonic—to explore the dynamics of power and politics to better understand these cases and to derive important lessons about getting from here to there. These models offer valuable lessons for ongoing or future sustainable city programs, community or business groups, key policy makers, grassroots organizations, mayors, and urban planners involved in or contemplating moving urban sustainability projects forward, as well as students of urban politics and environmental and sustainability researchers.


Ernest J. Yanarella, Ph.D. is professor and chair in the Department of Political Science at the University of Kentucky. He teaches early and modern political theory and policy studies (especially urban sustainability and energy studies). He is the author of ten books, including The City as Fulcrum of Global Sustainability (2011).
Robert W. Lancaster, Ph.D. is retired associate professor of political science, and an active Certified General Real Estate Appraiser for over 30 years. He has published and lectured internationally on urban sustainability, and is currently researching the political power of urban sustainability and its impact on real estate and social equity.

Header photo of the Chattanooga skyline at night courtesy Pixabay.

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