CITIES:

A year after floods, Nashville looks to heal 'naturally'

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean hopes his city will become the greenest in the Southeast as it continues to pick itself up from the 500-year flood that happened a year ago next month.

Seeking to significantly expand the Tennessee capital's greenways, Dean announced the "Nashville: Naturally" plan yesterday to a crowd of about 200 in a park along the Cumberland River.

The plan establishes large-scale preserves in each bend of the river, whose waters overflowed in May 2010, causing $1.19 billion worth of damage to 11,000 properties in Davidson County, where the city is located.

The Nashville Metro Government and nonprofit conservation groups were already working on the plan at the time of the flooding. The resulting destruction only heightened the city's need for a system of greenways that can act as natural flood barriers.

"The plan certainly will help us for protection for floods," Dean said in an interview after the announcement. "Part of what we're looking at is ways to preserve open space, water quality, natural habitat. By expanding the open space along the river, it should have a very positive impact on flood mitigation."

Nashville: Naturally calls for increasing the city's parkland and green infrastructure by 6,000 acres in the next 10 years and by another 6,000 by 2035. An additional 10,000 acres of floodplain and sensitive natural areas would also be protected in the next decade.

Downtown Nashville's tree canopy would be doubled and its impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, converted to pervious surfaces or natural plantings in the next 10 years.

Dean said he is committed to making Nashville "the most green, environmentally friendly city in the Southeast."

More than that, though, there are multiple benefits to protecting floodplains, said Will Allen, director of strategic conservation for the Conservation Fund. The group helped the city and the Land Trust for Tennessee come up with 27 recommendations in the plan.

Those benefits include keeping development out, which minimizes property damage, and improving water quality, Allen said. Preserving forests also enhances floodplains' natural ability to soak up water, he said.

The Conservation Fund has been helping with similar plans in a number of flood-prone areas, including Indianapolis and Houston.

Nashville is still recovering from last year's flooding. Most businesses are up and running again, Dean said, but the largest business damaged by the flood, the Opry Mills Mall, likely won't open again until next year. That mall employs close to 3,000 people and brings in $25 million a year in sales tax revenue.

Nashville has offered buyouts to 305 houses that were damaged in the flooding and is in the process this month of tearing some structures down, Dean said.

"We work on the flood still every day," he said, adding that "the city has recovered remarkably well, and it's a testament to the people of Nashville."

Jeanie Nelson, president and executive director of the Land Trust for Tennessee, said she has been encouraged by what she's seen so far by Nashville citizens.

"I feel very confident that a lot of the energy that we saw from volunteers around Nashville just jumping in in a way that hasn't been seen in other cities, that energy is going to be turned into implementing this open space plan," said Nelson, a former general counsel for U.S. EPA.

Dean said he does not see budget problems prohibiting the city from carrying out the recommendations. Nashville has already appropriated $5 million in its capital budget toward the plan and expects to be able to raise private funds through its partnership with the land trust, Dean said.

In tough economic times, a plan like this may be a city's only means of flood control, said Allen of the Conservation Fund.

"They're looking for ways, really kind of inexpensive, green, infrastructure solutions like buying up land to soak up water during storm events," Allen said, "since most cities are tapped out on building a large water-management infrastructure."