Community forum addresses Nashville’s livability issue

Dr. Ellen Dunham Jones
Photo by Justin Darden

Residents and community business leaders gathered in downtown Nashville on April 8 to address the issue of how to make Nashville a more livable city, including ways to revitalize and bring about neighborhood improvements.

Ellen Dunham Jones, professor of architecture at Georgia Tech University, was the featured speaker at the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville as part of the Nashville Next Speaker Series. She discussed the concept of retrofitting and ideas for how to retrofit areas in cities such as malls, warehouse stores, and commercial strips into mixed-use places that reduce sprawl and add revenue for the cities. She also discussed case studies and ways to revitalize abandoned areas. One example she gave was the 100 Oaks Mall area, which was bought by Vanderbilt University. She said the project has revived the area, reflecting a trend combining education and medical services as part of retrofitting. Dunham-Jones pointed out that these strategies build social sustainability, but the city needs to redevelop the area if it wants a healthy environment and economy.

Dunham Jones suggested taking undeveloped areas and retrofitting them to residential areas with retail stores and businesses. She also said that cities are taking abandoned malls and  letting a business developer retrofit them to make more open areas. She also said transportation problems need to be addressed to make projects more affordable.

“We need to do more to transform our commercial corridors into grand elegant places that people would want to live in with better access to transportation,” said Dunham Jones.

Dunham Jones said retrofitting corridors is expensive. Moving or adding transit is very expensive and people should ask themselves if the money should be spent on improving the road system and/or expanding network capacity. Leadership should decide which corridors should be retrofitted.

“I think our generation’s moonshot is retrofitting our corridors,” said Dunham Jones. “Leadership has to target which corridors are the most ‘retrofittable.’ Leadership has to revisit over-zoning for mixed use and also has to make the kinds of investments that will convince the private sector to do the same.”

Dunham Jones said that the majority of business projects are public/private partnerships.

The problem is not something that Wall Street investors know how to invest in. City leaders have to determine who pays infrastructure costs. She also pointed out that 85% of the people deciding what area to live in take area schools into consideration.

Dunham Jones said retrofitting is really about trying to accommodate new growth and redirecting it to under-performing  areas where there is already infrastructure.  This is preferable to instituting new growth.