May 2010

Nice, short post over at New Geography, by Jim Vaughn titled “Vitamin G.” No, it’s not a Dr. Weil acolyte arguing for more pills and mineral supplements, it’s about the human condition and the need for open, natural space.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately in the wake of the flood here in Nashville.  There’s a lot of discussion of the city buying up land in the flood plain – it actually already is. And my anti-government hackles go up when I hear this news, but there is a need for responsible building patterns and perhaps this is a time where government won’t make things worse.  Two BIG assumptions here – first is that there is no cronyism involved.  By that I mean the business as usual – we’ll go ahead and exercise imminent domain and seize your land so Bubba here, can build a mall…after all, he gave a lot more money to my campaign than you did!  Second, is that the land use designated allows public interaction with the land so we can all get some more Vitamin G and that the usages designated for the seized land are made up with increased density being allowed elsewhere.

To the first assumption, I would suggest that any land taken in this process have a deed restriction that prohibits private development for a minimum of 25 years.  To the second, I would suggest tree farms and trailways – low maintenance cost items that will enhance the overall environment.  These public parks could also be connected to schools to provide educational opportunities for our youngsters who don’t get enough Vitamin G as it is.  Let’s teach them about gardening, forestry, land conservation but also teach them about growth maintenance and urban economics.

We live in a city that is already blessed with wonderful public park system that could be greatly enhanced and better interwoven into the fabric of our lives.


The first volume of the United Nations’ Global Compact Cities Programme has been published.  You can read the whole document by clicking here.  The program, which currently has forty cities participating, is a broad-reaching effort that acknowledges the increasing urbanization of our planet and explores ways of managing that fact.  It explores the four areas of human rights, labor rights, environment and anti-corruption and arrives at ten principles as a guiding framework.

In the wake of our historic flood here in Nashville, one item caught my eye in the report and that was the city of Milwaukee’s efforts to manage freshwater.  Upon embarking on this effort, they discovered that there were  some 120 agencies, businesses, non-profits and the like exploring the management, treatment and delivery of freshwater in a city of 680,000 souls.  This type of wasted effort abounds everywhere, including right here in our fair city.

Metro Nashville waste water treatment facility

Looking at water alone, we have the Cumberland River Compact, the Urban Land Institute, the Cumberland Region Tomorrow,  the Civic Design Center and numerous other outside agencies looking at growth patterns and the necessary infrastructure that will be required to sustain our population.   Not to mention the noble work being done by our Metropolitan Planning Organization and the numerous government agencies all working on the same topics.  Perhaps in the wake of the flood, we need to take a more regional look at our systems and look to create more interconnectivity across city/county/regional lines.  We have the added layer of heavy Federal involvement through such entities as the Army Corps of Engineers.

Certainly there is an opportunity for public/private partnership structures to address current and future needs.  There also needs to be a more centralized operational and communications structure for the government entities.  While no one can anticipate an act of God (like a stationary weather front that drops 18″ of water on you!), we can start to put in place the framework to minimize the toll of future events. Government working together with non-profits and bringing in the best and brightest minds from business in a cooperative framework is a good place to start.  Perhaps it’s time for Nashville to become a participatory city in the Sustainable Cities Programme?

Just came back from touring some homes in Bellevue – we’re trying to match up contractors to the needs of the homeowners.  The devastation is mind-boggling.  A moving video from one of our local talents:

My city took one in the chops this past weekend.  The rain came in around 5AM on Saturday morning and ended about 6PM that evening…or so we thought.  Just after noon I was eating lunch in the breakfast room (why don’t they call it a “lunch room?”) and my middle daughter asked if I had ever seen the monsoon rains when I lived in New Delhi many years ago.  I began to regale her with a tale of landing in Delhi at 2AM just as the first of the monsoon rains began and as I sought for a way to describe it, I looked out the window and remarked “well, they looked a lot like this.”

A few minutes later, my wife was leaving to run an errand when she called from the garage/basement below.  There is a tone that spouses have, that after 26 years of marriage, you know it means “hurry!”  In heavy rains of the past, we have experienced a trickle of water through the basement and out the garage – nothing serious.  The water was coming in so fast that it was backing up into the garage and threatening the finished part of the basement.  A towel line later and about 120 gallons pulled out with the wet vac and we were holding our own.  And yes, the rain let up.

We nervously watched the weather channel that evening and although the iPod Touch was saying that we had already gotten 4.35″ of rain, their forecast of .35″ for Sunday didn’t jive with the radar picture.  At 5AM Sunday morning it began again.  By 7AM, the water off our front porch was midway up my calf and the neighbor’s retaining wall that is about 6′ high looked like a rapid on the Gauley River.  The rest of the day was spent controlling the flow through the basement and watching in anguish as the news reports came in about the damage being wrought to our city.  The weather system was a straight line of storms that stretched all the way back to the Gulf of Mexico.  The system was moving, but not to the east like the normal weather pattern for Middle Tennessee.  The front line had stalled and the storm line just moved straight up, dumping ever greater amounts of rain.  By the time it was over, our rain gauge said that we had received a little over 18″ in two days – considering we average 49 inches in a year, it was a staggering figure.

At about 4PM, the line started to move to the east.  The monsoon slowed to a spring rain shower, and then in Forrest Gumpian fashion, the rain just stopped. Sadly, for the city, the damage was just beginning.  In “The Dry Salvages,” the poet T.S. Eliot observes:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
The only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons, and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

The brown god of the Cumberland was raging through downtown Nashville and Clarksville on Sunday in impressive fashion.  But the real damage began Monday as she left her banks and wandered up the streets, filling our hockey arena and football stadium, the basement of our beautiful new Schermerhorn Symphony Center and knocking the downtown power grid off-line…we have been reminded of what men choose to forget.

View from Demonbreun Street bridge towards Riverfront Park - note light pole tops barely visible. This is about 12 hours after peak.

But Nashville and Middle Tennessee does what we are famous for: we get up off our knees, dust ourselves off and go back to work.  We don’t whine and wait for the Federal Government to show up, although the disaster relief assistance will be appreciated…and we don’t loot.  Neighbor gets out and helps neighbor, old acquaintances are remade in distress…we are Volunteers, it is what we do.

We have some grieving to do, some of us have lost friends and loved ones…some have lost everything.  But we will help each other out and get back on track. Give us a few months and our city will be gleaming again, an example of a proud community that relies on hard work and internal fortitude.  We are blessed with good governance, a beautiful land and wonderful people.  We are Nashville Proud.