Four years ago, a 1,000-year flood event left Nashville, Tennessee underwater. About 19 inches of rain fell in two days, and the Cumberland River breached its levees when it crested at nearly 52 feet — a level it hadn't reached since 1937. A number of other area rivers also broke record levels, including the Duck, the Harpeth, the Red, and the Buffalo. Property damage, injuries, and deaths all followed.
In response, the people of Nashville banded together with the “We Are Nashville” mantra, rolled up their sleeves (and pants!), and got to work. They rationed water, filled sandbags, boarded windows, pumped basements, donated items, and more. It was a massive community effort that got the city back on its feet with relatively little help or attention from the outside.
But that's Nashville. It is inherently a collaborative city thanks, in no small part, to its foundation in music. Creative types fill the streets of Nashville, as does a remarkable “can-do” attitude. As a result, Nashville came back better than ever and continues to make great strides beyond mere disaster recovery into Great American City terrain. Part of that progress can be credited to the leadership of Mayor Karl Dean and his administration. But a whole mess of community-centric projects should also be recognized, like the team at Hands On Nashville who stand at the heart of volunteerism in Music City and its flood recovery.
Here are 12 shareable things Nashville is getting right:
1. Urban Planning
Naturally, as Nashville rises, more and more people are coming to town, bringing along their own ideas, as well as their stuff, which begs the question, Where will they go and how will they get there? Luckily, the local urban planning community is on it, educating the populace about smart growth and shareable opportunities.
As Gary Gaston, design director at the Nashville Civic Design Center, noted, “For many, the thought of adding one million more people to our region over the next 20 years is a startling wake-up call on how we need to proactively start planning for growth. It is wonderful that Nashville is a thriving, growing city at the heart of the Middle Tennessee Region, but we don't want to continue to get more and more congested. That has been a huge shift for people in understanding the need for a diversity of options. Transit-oriented development, cohousing, microhousing, and parklets are all concepts we have explored that start to weave together smart growth features.”
A city's transit infrastructure is a priceless commons. In Nashville, a push for more and better bike options is being led by groups like Walk/Bike Nashville, the Nashville Bike Alliance, The Oasis Center Bike Workshop, and Veloteers, with support from two separate bike-share programs (Nashville GreenBikes and Nashville B-cycle). For networked cabs, both Lyft and Über have now set up shop in the 615, as well. And there's the AMP, a slightly controversial rapid bus system that is trying to fight its way into existence.
Adams Carroll, program director at Walk/Bike Nashville, observed, “We're definitely at a critical moment in the development of our transportation network. The national spotlight on Nashville is attracting people to town in droves. Transplants and relocating businesses look at things like transit and bicycle friendliness when choosing where to move next. And, if they do come to Nashville, we need to be sure that our transportation network can continue to meet the needs of established residents while accommodating growth. The city has stepped up and invested in transportation options. More than $100 million has been invested in sidewalks, bikeways, and greenways over the past 10 years. MTA has also worked hard to improve service and provide new amenities like downtown's Music City Central.”
From sustainably built live/work developments like Uptown Flats and Rolling Mill Hill, to the LEED-certified, low-income Urban Housing Solutions, smart housing is an obvious priority in town. That's why the first cohousing community, Germantown Commons, sold out quickly and is now set to break ground. It's also serving as a flagship project for New American Villages, as they scour the city for other plots of land that would work for cohousing.
New American Villages founder Diana Sullivan has the mind of a developer, but the heart of a sharer: “I see shared housing becoming more predominant in Nashville. The last few years, since the crash in 2008, builders are seeing more extended families buying homes together. The action of coming together in a collaborative way is increasing dramatically, and it's happening some in housing. I do expect to see several cohousing communities built in Nashville and I am already witnessing builders designing homes that are more walkable and friendly to neighbors. And a friend of mine, Lisa Smith is working on a conference here in Nashville later this year around shared housing. She has some speakers coming in from the west coast who are leading the way for shared housing there.”
4. Local Food
As with a lot of hip cities, local food is all the rage in Nashville, and community-supported agriculture fills a vital niche in that realm. Residents can choose from local CSAs like Green Door Gourmet, Real Food Farms, Delvin Farms, Bells Bend Neighborhood Farms, Bountiful Blessings Farm, and Six Boots Growers' Collective, with a handful of others in the broader Middle Tennessee region. And, if CSAs aren't your box of beans, no matter where you live in Nashville, there is a farmers' market somewhere very near you on any given day. The downtown Nashville Farmers’ Market is open year-round, with weekly, seasonal pop-ups in West End, 12 South, West Nashville, East Nashville, Vanderbilt, and Franklin.
Kevin Sykes, the farm manager for Six Boots, confirmed, “In the past several years, the number of local farms growing and selling locally has grown exponentially. … more and more people are rethinking and relearning about their food and where it comes from. There are many more local farmers selling produce at 'growers-only' farmers' markets, and they need lots of support. As Nashville becomes more and more of a foodie hub, more restaurants are getting in on buying from farms like ours, as well. And, of course, CSA programs really keep a lot of small-scale vegetable farms going. In my mind, the next step is for consumers to become even more involved in their CSA programs and farms by returning year after year, volunteering on-farm, and getting to really be a part of how their food is grown and produced."
5. Urban Agriculture
Though Nashville is surrounded by verdant, fertile lands, farms aren't the only places to grow food. And groups and gardens like McFerrin Park Community Garden, Terrence Murray Edgehill Community Memorial Garden, GROW Nashville, Community Food Advocates, Tomorrow's Hope Community Garden, Donelson Community Gardens, Perk Farm, and Chestnut Hill Community Garden are proving that to the folks in their neighborhoods.
Christina Bentrup, garden coordinator Nashville Food Project's two urban patches, said, “My sense is that there are more and more community gardens in Nashville, that they are becoming more inclusive, and that there is tremendous potential for every neighborhood to develop their own unique gardens. Nashville's greatest assets are an amazing climate for food production, as well as loads of land to grow on. Its decentralization, which is a burden in terms of public transportation and affordable housing close to jobs, is an asset in terms of green space available for food production and community involvement in it. The city has a long way to go, but the land and water are there; so good things are on Nashville's side. I think the future of backyard or community growing is in emphasizing its place in the food chain. Few people are going to produce a substantial amount of food, but it will tie them into the food chain in a new way and encourage more support of local farmers and CSAs.”
It's not uncommon, these days, to see ordinary pubs touting their artisanal cheeses and locally crafted brews. But a few joints have gone beyond that when it comes to going all-in on the local front. Ingredient sourcing is one part of the equation along with community building. New establishments like Pinewood Social and Barista Parlor are more than mere hipster hangouts. Their open designs can't help but encourage interactions between their patrons. The good people over at Burger Up, perhaps, represent some of the most mindful thinking in both areas, with local ingredients and family-style seating.
Marketing manager Justin Chesney outlined the vision: “Really, the idea came from the original mission of Burger Up: fostering thoughtful consuming through community. What better way to meet someone or just feel welcome when you come into a restaurant than sitting at a table together with others? You'd be surprised how well 'can you pass the ketchup' works as a conversation starter. You end up chatting with a neighboring diner, exchanging menu suggestions or even a phone number, and that's what it's all about. With all the multi-generational ranches and farms surrounding Nashville, I'm a little surprised the current direction of food culture here hadn't evolved even sooner. Going forward, I anticipate an even greater focus being given by restaurants to where they source from — not because it's the cool thing to do, but because it's the right thing to do.”
In any city, real estate is always at a premium, and the same rule applies here. That might be why coworking spaces have been cropping up like crazy all over town. And, really, there's something for everyone — creatives, artisans, entrepreneurs, thinkers, and anyone else can surely find a spot that fits at The Skillery, Deavor, Center 615, The Green Room, Atmalogy, Moonbase, Fort Houston, Abrasive Media, E|SPACES, or the soon-opening Impact Hub.
Matt Dudley, The Skillery's founder and CEO, observed, “Nashville’s an inherently creative city, so it draws in a lot of creative people — idea people, makers, and self-starters. As coworking has grown internationally, the benefits coworking brings to those kinds of folks have become better known, from fostering professional connections to engendering a personal support system when you’re doing the often lonely work of running your own show. We’re all personally inspired and excited by the vibrant entrepreneur community here, and we opened our space because we felt like that community wanted and needed more space to grow in that sense. Entrepreneurship is only getting busier and stronger in Nashville, and we think that trend is going to continue, and that coworking will be a steady part of that growth. Even when you’re your own boss, connecting and being part of a community helps you grow, professionally and personally. That’s the role we see coworking in Nashville playing: helping local entrepreneurship continue to grow and thrive.”
And, yes, entrepreneurship is growing like gangbusters in Nashville as investors and companies pick up on the affordable living/creative spirit combination that is a win-win for all concerned. Supporting the flourishing business collaborations are The Entrepreneur Center, Nashville Business Incubation Center, The IDEA Hatchery, FLO Thinkery, and Healthbox.
FLO's founder Mark Montgomery is so involved that he's become known as the other mayor of Nashville: “This is one of our city's unique propositions. Our community is actually quite good at collaborating already, and has a long history of doing so. On a go-forward basis, the challenge for Nashville is thinking about how collaboration is evolving (along with many other things: discovery, recruitment, next gen issues, etc.) and how we need to re-think our approach. As an example, I am part of a storied Nashville group called Nashville's Agenda. We often talk about what the ingredients are for building the 'Nashville for the next generation.' One of the discussions we are having now is how can we build that without the next generation in the room? How do you create a collaboration that honors the work and experience of the incumbents in the room, while acknowledging that they should not be setting the vision for the next generation of Nashville; it should be set by the next generation! The fact that it's something we are tackling is a testament to the spirit of collaboration that exists in the city. Our sense of community is one of Nashville's secret weapons. And it's not something you can just 'spin up'; it has to be woven into the culture.”
9. Artists' Collectives
As noted, Nashville's sense of community and cooperation grew out of the music scene and took root across the board. And collaboration in the arts is still a huge part of this town, but its not just for music. Artists' collectives here span the spectrum from music and theatre to painting and crafts, as evidenced in the work of Ten Out of Tenn, Made in Network (with its 24 Hr Records, Find the Beauty, and Small Batch Presents web series), The Coop, Company H, CSArt Nashville, and The Clay Lady.
Danielle McDaniel, aka The Clay Lady, noted, “From my experience, I see the rise in cooperatives of all types as a response to the current generation’s balancing the distance built into relationships due to social media, the ease of home relocation, and mass production of consumer products. A co-op is a place of communication, community, and conscious use and production of products with like-minded people. In my opinion, co-ops are not a fad that will fade, but a facet of the diamond that is our civilization’s evolution.”
10. Live Music
Of course, it is Music City, so live music is the heart of Nashville. And, while there are wonderful artists playing at clubs all over town every night of the week, sometimes the community gets treated to great live music experiences for free in various parks. Though Musicians Corner and Live on the Green book pop/roots/rock music, the Nashville Symphony also gets in on the fun every year with Symphony Under the Stars.
Musicians Corner's executive director John Tumminello explained, “There are countless legendary venues to hear amazing music in Nashville, and I frequent many of them on a regular basis. Then there are several wonderful festivals and concert series that bring people to enjoy music outdoors. We look at Musicians Corner first as a community gathering place in our city's beautiful Centennial Park, where residents and visitors from all backgrounds come together as one to celebrate Nashville. This, of course, starts with the music, from various genres and by artists at various stages in their careers. We try to showcase a sampling of the music that makes us Music City. We then offer local beers and food trucks as tastes of our city, activities for kids and dogs from local experts, and shopping from local artisans. This broad approach helps us appeal to many different types of people, with different reasons for why they come to our free weekly lawn parties. I love seeing people of all ages relaxing in a park and enjoying themselves on a Saturday afternoon. That's what truly makes Musicians Corner a special place in our city.”
11. Community Movies
Not to be outdone by their musical counterparts, community movie nights also abound with Second Saturday Outdoor Cinema at Belcourt Theatre, Grassy Knoll Movie Night, Movies in the Park, Zoovie Nights, International Lens Film Series, Leipers' Fork Lawnchair Theatre, and Movies at Nashville Public Library.
Dycee Wildman, founder of East Nashville's Grassy Knoll series, said, “I started GKMN four years ago partly because I had attended a one-time event that really disappointed me. It was outdoors, in a great venue, and very well attended. The people there were cool and excited to be out and interacting with the community, but the event didn't hold people's interest, and amounted to what I thought was a wasted opportunity. But I saw that this city was changing and that the people in it wanted to be active members of this evolving Nashville culture. That's when I knew that GKMN was worth pursuing. Since then, Nashville has continued to change and grow, but our philosophy has stayed the same: We make choices based on what would appeal to us, trying to always stay authentically focused on creating something special over creating something profitable.”
12. Clothes and Stuff
Though thrift stores are plentiful in the 615 area code, the really good finds come at the monthly Nashville Flea Market, the annual Porter Flea, or brick-and-mortar stores like Local Honey and Hip Zipper. Artisans and artists, craftsmen and curators all put their own spin on the repurposed marketplace.
Brent Elrod, Porter Flea's co-organizer, offered, "I would say that Nashville has a growing creative economy, especially among independent designers and artisans. Artists and makers are especially skilled at coming up with new and interesting products — often with salvaged and repurposed materials — as well as new ways to distribute them. And Porter Flea is proud to be a major marketplace for our maker community."