'Quality Growth' Conference Aims to Better Plan East Tennessee's Future

Between 2000 and 2010, Knox County grew by 50,000 people.

That statistic, drawn from U.S. Census data released last week, was not exactly news. It confirmed what had for a few years been a projected county population of about 430,000, up from about 380,000 a decade earlier. But its implications are still staggering. In just the last 10 years, the county has added the equivalent of a small city to its residential rolls.

Knox is hardly alone among booming East Tennessee counties. Blount County grew 16 percent to more than 123,000 people. Sevier County grew even faster, by 26 percent, to just under 90,000. Loudon County is up 24 percent, to 48,000.

But there are different kinds of growth, and different ways to prepare for it—or fail to. And that's the focus of a two-day conference on "quality growth" next week at the Knoxville Convention Center. The conference is bringing hundreds of planning professionals, local officials, environmental advocates, and interested citizens from the 16-county region around Knoxville.

"There are a lot of people who try to think ahead, but it's really hard," says Joe Hultquist, the head of East Tennessee Quality Growth and the main organizer of the event. "And almost everyone who has a concern in this area has to deal with what some would call ‘the tyranny of the immediate.'"

The conference, then, is a chance to step back from the day-to-day legislating, zoning fights, subdivision plats, and developer deadlines that tend to dominate growth decisions. Sessions on education, healthy living, transportation, and sustainable development will consider the long-term effects of growth from multiple angles.

The conference is a sequel of sorts to a 2007 gathering that drew 600 participants. That, in turn, grew out of discussions during the regional Nine Counties, One Vision project. That first conference led to the formation of East Tennessee Quality Growth, which Hultquist says aims to provide planning resources across the region. (It is modeled on a similar organization in Middle Tennessee called Cumberland Region Tomorrow.)

Hultquist, who served on Knoxville City Council from 2001-2009, says the principles of "quality growth" entail thinking comprehensively about the effects of development and growth. For example, the health sessions at the conference will tackle "the relationships between public health and the built environment": what kind of growth encourages healthy lifestyles, and what kind hinders them.

It would be easy to see "quality growth" as sort of a corrective to the sprawling growth models of the late 20th century, but Hultquist says it's more a refinement than a reversal. "It's not throwing out the existing approach, but it's trying to augment ," he says. "It's trying to develop a more sustainable foundation."

The sessions will also include discussions of the need to build public consensus behind long-term goals—something Hultquist is immediately familiar with, as co-chair of the local task force that recently put forth the Ridgetop and Hillside Protection Plan. Despite nearly three years of work, the plan has run up against opposition from local developers and the Knoxville Chamber, as well as County Mayor Tim Burchett. "Political buy-in and community consensus, you can't separate those," Hultquist says. "It all obviously works together."

At the end of the conference, Hultquist plans to pull together a "toolbox" of resources, models, data, and approaches that the participants can take back to their counties and cities. For example, he says, there could be planning templates that help school boards consider the various ramifications of where to put a new building.

The conference's main sponsor is an organization that advocates for "smart growth" once saw as something of an enemy: the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Hultquist says the state agency has become more than just a voracious road builder. "They are looking at a future of scarce resources, and they're looking at demand for their facilities—highways and other transportation facilities," he says. "But they have very little say in how that demand develops.

"The smart money goes with getting ahead of the game, both for local communities and for TDOT."

Plain Talk on Quality Growth Conference: March 30-31 at Knoxville Convention Center, etqg.org.