Dogtown and the Dirtiest City in America

Santa Monica and Chattanooga were in trouble a few decades ago. They placed their bets on sustainability, and today it’s paying off.

Santa Monica, Calif., and Chattanooga, Tenn., are two very different cities. And yet, at last week's Governing Summit on Sustainability, I was struck by the similarities in their stories. Each was in a deep slump as recently as the 1980s. Now both are strong and vibrant, and their paths to success share common features with an emphasis on a version of sustainability that integrates economics and the environment.

Santa Monica was the "Dogtown" of two films about skateboarding, the 2001 documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys" and the 2005 biographical movie "Lords of Dogtown," whose setting was the famous Santa Monica Pier. The pier, which a citizen uprising in the 1970s had spared from demolition, was nonetheless poorly maintained. By the 1980s, it and the area around it had become blighted, with seedy bars, head shops and creepy game arcades. In 1983, storms destroyed more than a third of the pier. In those days, Santa Monica was known as "the debris by the sea," in the words of the current mayor pro tempore, Gleam Davis. In addition to the problems around the pier, the water of Santa Monica Bay was polluted by overflow from the city's combined sewers and stormwater runoff from streets and parking lots. A city that had thrived because of its natural beauty and its appeal to visitors was rapidly losing its shine, and its economy was declining.

For Chattanooga, a low point came in 1969, when the federal government declared the city's air the dirtiest in the nation. Chattanooga, which sits on the Tennessee River at a beautiful spot where the river winds around through the Appalachians, had been known in the 1930s as the "Dynamo of Dixie" because of its foundries and factories. But the mountains that create the scenic backdrop for the city also served to trap air pollutants. In addition to its environmental problems, Chattanooga was essentially a southern Rust Belt city, suffering the same manufacturing decline as its northern counterparts. The city faced huge challenges, including layoffs due to de-industrialization, a deteriorating city infrastructure, racial tensions and social division. Its population declined by more than 10 percent in the 1980s.

Today both cities are thriving. Both have weathered the recession well, and their city governments are in solid financial shape with excellent bond ratings. How did they get where they are today?

In both cases, it started with a crisis. For Santa Monica, it was the destruction of the pier after citizens had come to realize how significant it was to their sense of the city as a special place — a realization that led to a successful effort to reconstruct the now-thriving landmark. For Chattanooga, it was seeing Walter Cronkite tell the world that theirs was the country's dirtiest city. What resulted was a successful effort to rebrand Chattanooga as "the Scenic City of the South" while investing more than $120 million in rebuilding the city's riverfront and reorienting its economy around tourism and clean, high-tech industry.

In each case, the crisis led eventually to a community visioning process that laid out a long-term plan for recovery. The plans had common features: a focus on the high-tech economy, a desire to preserve each place's unique beauty and an emphasis on environmental sustainability.

High-speed fiber-optic communication is a central part of the economic strength of each city. In Chattanooga, the municipally owned electric utility, EPB, made the decision that when it upgraded its electrical grid it would do so based on fiber optics. In September 2010, EPB began offering Internet access directly to the public
, and the network has been a major factor in attracting high-tech industry. Santa Monica created Santa Monica City Net, whose fiber-optic network's assets extend throughout the downtown area, covering the majority of multiple-tenant commercial buildings.

On the environmental front, the steps Santa Monica took to deal with its water-pollution issues included creating an urban runoff recycling facility that captures and treats storm runoff before it enters the bay, which has returned to its former beauty.

Dean Kubani, director of Santa Monica's Office of Sustainability and Environment, told me that that the success the city has had with implementing sustainability is often discounted because "Santa Monica is a wealthy city." But the critics have it backward: Santa Monica is a wealthy city precisely because it has embraced sustainability. The focus on environmental quality and quality of life has made the city a very desirable place to live.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield made the same point about the centrality of the environment to quality of life and hence economic success. "How do you make a city grow?" he asked. "Make it the best place it can be for the people who already live there."