Chattanooga, TN: Main Terrain Art Park

Looking down at a park with a building to the left and docorative elements in the park
Photo courtesy of the City of Chattanooga, Economic and Community Development

Can public art, fitness, and stormwater management all work together in a public landscape?

The terminus of Chattanooga’s Main Street used to end not with civic space but an empty lot. With a desire to put a better face on this central location, the city set out to transform it into an activity-rich public space, where art would be used for its visual effect and as a way to encourage physical activity. The landscape around it would do double-duty, working not only as an open space, but also as a way to better manage and bring awareness to the city’s storm water challenges.


Tennessee’s fourth largest city, Chattanooga is positioned on the banks of the Tennessee River and on the state’s southern border to Georgia. Because of its riverfront site, the city was a significant contributor to the 19th century industrial economy. A horseshoe bend in the river defines the city’s central area, including its downtown, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus, and a post-industrial stretch known as Southside, which is also bound by a state highway and Interstate 24. Chattanooga’s Main Street cuts directly through the Southside area, making it an integral part of the urban fabric. This area was prone to flooding both from a swelling river and from poor storm water management. Swaths of impermeable asphalt and concrete, remnants of the industries that had once dominated the landscape, left rain water little chance to be absorbed into the ground. Steeply sloping areas from transportation infrastructure complicated matters by pooling excess water during heavy storms.


Even though the Southside is centrally located, adjacent to Chattanooga’s downtown and the serpentine Tennessee River, it had become neglected after its industrial tenants and jobs moved from the urban waterfront. Buildings were left abandoned, local businesses struggled, and Main Street ended with an unceremonious 1.72-acre tract of vacant land. Today, the Southside area consists of emerging neighborhoods (Cowart, Fort Negley, and Jefferson Heights), a low income, affordable housing development (College Hill Courts), an inner-city elementary school (Battle Academy), and local businesses that employ over 5,000 daily employees.


One of the most immediate priorities for Southside was to improve on its livability. Its image as a post-industrial hardscape left an uninviting impression to the nearby residents, employees, and tourists. From a social and physical point of view, the empty lot at the end of Main Street was particularly vexing. Chattanooga had also established goals relating to public health, hoping to construct urban spaces as a way to encourage more active lifestyles amongst its residents. As a complement to these changes to place and environment, the city needed to address its storm water infrastructure, particularly in this district with low permeability.


The city determined that it would transform the unused 1.72-acre parcel at the terminus of Main Street, which it already owned, into a public park. City planners and their partners had experience with another key urban corridor in the downtown area, East Main Street, which had overcome similar problems by redesigning the streetscape and using public art to activate the area. With this experience in hand, they recognized the 1.72- acre parcel as a key component of the solution for the area’s much needed revitalization. The area would provide green space for the growing neighborhood, extend the experience of Main Street, and work as a connector to those areas immediately adjacent to it. Planners wanted the site to be a civic place for nearby residents, businesses, and college students to gather, allowing it to become a catalyst for social and economic improvements. City officials also wanted the park to promote a more active, healthier lifestyle and to use art as a way to achieve that goal. In terms of infrastructure, the park would also help mitigate the district’s storm water challenges by allowing the landscape to help absorb and retain water run-off.


Chattanooga has a long history of implementing public and private partnerships, and this project was no exception. In 2010, Public Art Chattanooga and the Lyndhurst Foundation initiated a process with stakeholders to clarify the project objectives, create a strategic framework, and establish a timeline. These organizations and Arts Build (formerly Allied Arts for Greater Chattanooga) came together with key city staff, landscape architects, and artists to think about how best to revitalize this parcel. In 2012, with the NEA Our Town Grant, the city secured the resources to ensure public art would become the centerpiece of the park and that organizers could address the space creatively. Working closely with the mayor’s office, Public Art Chattanooga Director Peggy Townsend took the lead on the artist selection process, beginning with the Request for Proposal process and concluding with the final selection by the public art committee, the City, and project funders. She also served as the public art administrator on the project team, managing the artist contract, installation, and marketing. The desire for an active park was solidified when PlayCore, Inc., a local company that manufactures outdoor recreational and fitness equipment, joined the project team. They worked with the design team to provide safety compliance and recreational amenities throughout the park.


In order to first determine the project’s scope and feasibility, Public Art Chattanooga worked closely with the landscape architecture team headed by Ross/Fowler Landscape Architecture and the planning consultant, Kennedy, Coulter, Rushing and Watson. They had to balance the need to manage storm water runoff with the need to create an attractive, inviting park that would encourage physical activity. In 2011, they released a nationally disseminated Request for Qualifications to locate an artist who could create interactive public art as a way of encouraging active lifestyles. From over 60 applicants, the group selected North Carolina sculptor Thomas Sayre / Clearscapes. Focused on the public arena, Sayre's sculptures are in public, private, and museum collections in Perth, Istanbul, and Hong Kong, as well as throughout the United States. For this project, Sayre and the project team engaged with local neighborhood stakeholders and fitness advocates in targeted small-group sessions to gather input on design and future uses of the park. Sayre integrated public art in a way that would create a synergy between art, placemaking, and active living.


Opened in 2013, the park has changed the public face of Southside, becoming an actively used open space and a more fitting end to Main Street. Whereas the area was previously avoided by residents, the park is now crossed by people moving about the city. Each year, on-site detention ponds will keep 1.5 million gallons of water from rushing into the city’s sewer system. Water is collected and reused to irrigate the park. Public Art Chattanooga also expects that the area’s crime rates will be lower and the office reports that nearby businesses and housing are now undertaking improvements on their own properties. Citing the project’s public health goals, Sayre says the new art is helping to encourage people to move through the space of the park, and to use the running and walking track.


The project brought together diverse experts—a sculptor, landscape architects, storm water engineers, and a maker of playground equipment. Because there was an unusual element to the project brief—using art as a way of instigating public health—the experts were challenged to collaborate in uncommon ways. Their innovative approaches have been received successfully, as the park has become a well-used urban space. Responding to the success of this one commission, the Playcore company launched a line of adult fitness equipment based on the model established here. As a sign of a productive collaboration, Sayre says, “the various components of the team form a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.”



Park signage
Signage used in the park with map

Main Terrain Art Park now open
Local online media coverage of park opening

Stormwater Park
Article featuring the park's stormwater management

  • Lyndhurst Foundation
  • US Environmental Protection Agency 
  • City of Chattanooga
  • Public Art Components: The Main Terrain's large-scale public art spans the entire length of the park and is comprised of nine sculptural elements, the tallest measuring more than 24 feet in height and 9,000 pounds in weight. The artwork itself is modeled from cast concrete pylons and steel trusses and is reminiscent of the Walnut Street Bridge, an iconic figure in the Chattanooga skyline. Internally and externally, the sculptures are fitted with energy-efficient lighting that radiates into the distance, ensuring visibility from both near and far. Red lights highlight the top of the nine structures when the sun sets, simulating the lights on a real bridge. 
  • Public Art and Physical Activity: To incorporate physical activity into the space, three of these sculptures are equipped with an attenuating wheel mounted on the base of the pylon that users can turn causing the massive bridge truss elements atop, to rotate and create new sculptural formations each time. 
  • Park Design Elements: Encircling the perimeter of the park is an oval track for running and walking. The track is divided into 50-meter segments that are marked by terrazzo inlay with text that creates four Haiku poems.  Written by ancient and modern haiku masters, the poems refer to the four seasons and are meant to inspire reflection among park visitors.