Monday, September 15, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 52.0° F  
CITIZEN DAVE: Thoughts and ideas about city building from Madison's former mayor
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Citizen Dave: Dirty little secrets at the CitiStates conference in Chattanooga

Walter Cronkite once described Chattanooga, Tennessee as the "dirtiest city in America."

This, as you might imagine, impacted Chattanooga city pride. To have the most trusted man in America describe your city in this way served to kick-start civic renewal.

So, Chattanoogans got to work to change both their image and reality. What's impressive about this city of about 180,000 isn't just that it cleaned up its dirty air. The decline of the steel industry and national environmental regulations took care of most of that. What's impressive is that Chattanooga purposefully reinvented itself, and as a result, has fared much better than similar industrial cities that fell on similar hard times.

I'm in Chattanooga for a conference of a group called CitiStates, which is a loose affiliation of mostly journalists, other writers and academics who get together once a year to talk about how to create healthier cities within regions. They invited me to speak on a panel of mayors. (As an aside, all three mayors on my panel have been the subject of recall attempts. Guess it must go with the territory. There was a recall attempt against me in my first term because I pushed for the smoking ban in bars.)

Chattanooga, like Madison, is consciously competing for the most talented, creative people around. They've done their share of "big project" strategies, in their case, a big aquarium. But city leaders have also paid attention to less conspicuous things. They run electric buses down their main downtown street every five minutes. They're the first city in the nation to have one gigabite per second Internet service all over the community. (That's the same level of high-speed bandwidth that Google was touting a year or so ago and recently awarded to Kansas City, Kansas.) Chattanooga's publicly owned utility went ahead and installed it on their own

We have them beat on chickens, though. They're still debating the question of allowing chickens in the city, an issue Madison tackled years ago. I assured them that they should take the plunge; it's worked out fine, excepting an infamous incident in which six chickens escaped the roof of the Madison Children's Museum, revealing that they had, well, six chickens when our ordinance limited them to four. One of my last acts as mayor was to push through legislation granting them an exemption and making the Children's Museum flock legit.

Actually, the whole issue of local foods is just as huge in Chattanooga as it is in Madison. The Tennessee city currently sources only half of one percent of its food from within the surrounding region. Its leaders estimate that if this figure increased to just 5%, an additional $100 million per year would remain the local economy. Meanwhile, I learned that Seattle has adopted a goal of getting 25% of its food from its local region.

One big irony is that they talk almost nonstop about the civic goal of getting a high-speed rail link to Atlanta. They're delighted that Governor Walker gave up the $810 million we had secured for our Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison to the Twin Cities connection.

I still like Madison better, but we should get moving faster -- on high speed Internet, on establishing a local food sourcing goal like Seattle's, and somehow, on getting high-speed rail back on track.

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