As it flows past the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the Tennessee River is much like the creative force that runs through the university: it pulses with energy, continually moving and engaging the communities it supports, bringing challenges, opportunities, and beauty. It also inspires the regional vision of the Tennessee RiverLine.
UT students are helping to establish a continuous system of paddle–hike–bike trails along the 652 miles of the waterway—which runs from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky—and engaging with local communities to make the most of the river’s potential for recreational opportunities.
Directed by Associate Professor Brad Collett, the Tennessee RiverLine originated in 2016 in the School of Landscape Architecture in the College of Architecture and Design and Herbert College of Agriculture. “Since its inception,” says Collett, “students have played an essential role as the engine that drives its creative and critical initiatives.”
“Working on the Tennessee RiverLine as a student was really a privilege,” says Kinsey Simmerman, a Master of Landscape Architecture student. “I never realized how the Tennessee River touched so many communities. The river served as the livelihood of many people for generations, and as a student it was fascinating to see how vast this landscape really is and continues to be. I learned that the Tennessee RiverLine was not only about recreation but is also interested in things like social justice and serving communities in the best way we can.
“I focused on examining the history of minority populations who had lived on the riverbank in Knoxville, and through this research I began to see how the Tennessee RiverLine can be a way to begin to serve those affected in the way they needed. I appreciated gaining an insight into how a project at this scale can begin to enact change.”
Through the School of Landscape Architecture, the Tennessee RiverLine continues to offer students diverse learning and service opportunities. In 2020, thanks to financial support from the university and the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Tennessee RiverLine added a new component, the Tennessee RiverTowns program. Its focus is to engage communities as partners to celebrate their river heritage, understand their existing relationship with the river, develop water trails, establish equitable river access, and optimize the Tennessee River experience for diverse users, exemplifying UT’s commitment to economic development and enhanced quality of life for the people of our region.
The 15 communities that make up the inaugural RiverTowns cohort represent more than 827,000 residents. “Tennessee River communities are the beating heart of the Tennessee RiverLine,” says Collett. “We are excited to begin collaborating with such a diverse group of communities as we seek to unlock the river’s potential for the benefit of generations of the region’s residents and visitors.”