York Urbanist

Knoxville, Tennessee

The Volunteers – the word is found throughout the state of Tennessee.  History explains that Tennesseens offered their commitment to the Mexican War to General Polk in 1847. The extent of that voluntarism became renowned. Hence the Volunteer State.  So the confusion of why a truck with the name “Volunteer.com” was actually a profit making business.

This was not the only dichotomy of Knoxville, Tennessee. South Gay Street is elaborately bedecked with streetscape appliances such as brick Knoxville street gardenpavers, classic light fixtures, broad pedestrian ways, cafes, and trendy restaurants. As special as that was, the broad expanse of the Tennessee River, mere minutes walk away was all but ignored by urban planning of the past.  When asked, a local explained the economic history of Knoxville included forestry and brick manufacture.  Accordingly, the streetscape resonated with brick pavers.  As a building supply town, Knoxville has a history also of brothels and entertainment for the travelling businessman.  Two theaters in the downtown have been reclaimed and set a tone for the renewal of downtown activity.  Art has been introduced and parkettes are dotted in the core.  The climate allows for a lush green surrounding to the city.

But then the waterfront.  Beyond the downtown meander of the Tennessee River, one can find a way to the water’s edge. But Downtown, the water is 8 lanes of vehicular traffic away from the pedestrian visitor. Highways leading from the waterfront highway follow other tributaries, so the natural systems are bifurcated from the non-motorized urban users by concrete and asphalt.

SunsphereContinuing with dichotomies, the city seems progressive in the recent future with the 1982 World’s Fair. However, the result was not as economically stimulating as expected and the Fair’s grounds are left as a symbol of 1980′s urban trends.  A delightful Sunsphere epitomized the theme of Energy that the Fair evoked.  The feature can be seen from miles around. But the grounds are below street level and associated as a back yard to the Conference center that remains from the event. None of the themed pavilions remain, but the grounds are a venue for civic events.  The location of the grounds physically separates the city into Downtown and University of Tennessee.  What was intended as urban renewal of former rail lands did not create integration of urban space, but separation of urban uses.  The shame of it is that the University remains separate from the urban fabric.

Knoxville is a friendly place and it feels safe.  Walking on trails within the campus of U of Tennessee sports center was comfortable and emblematic of the state’s seeming passion for the outdoors.  The campus sports facilities were elaborate and plentiful. The people encountered seemed fitter than other places such as Texas and Florida.  There could be a relationship between planned activities and fitness.