As part of an ongoing effort to make content more accessible, LAM will be making select stories available to readers in Spanish.
By Jared Brey
A student project to connect people and public lands along a 652-mile river trail gathers steam.
How many things can a river do? The people of the Tennessee Valley have not finished asking.
For 10,000 years the Tennessee River has both sustained human civilizations and attended their demise. One of the biggest rivers in the United States, the Tennessee is also among the most biodiverse, with some 230 species of fish and 100 species of freshwater mussels. In the 18th century, Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw tribes flourished in East Tennessee. Later the river was used to expel Indigenous people from the land along the Trail of Tears after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Its bridges were burned during the Civil War, its soils stripped of nutrients, its banks eroded. After the federal government created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the 1930s, the river was asked to do ever more: to stop flooding, first and foremost; to generate electricity for thousands of unlit rural miles; to navigate boats and barges along its U-shaped course; to produce nitrates for war munitions and fertilizer for its depleted soils; to host landscapes of leisure and recreation; to make one of the country’s poorest regions prosper.
Now the Tennessee River is asked to be a park from its source to its mouth.
For the past five years, students and faculty at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) School of Landscape Architecture have been building a proposal for a project called the Tennessee RiverLine, a 652-mile trail from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Paducah, Kentucky, by way of Alabama and Mississippi. First conceptualized by Journey Roth, a student in a 2016 studio, the Tennessee RiverLine has quickly developed into a broad-based effort to connect communities along the Tennessee River through paddling, hiking, and biking, with ambitions to join the National Water Trails System. It’s a vision that’s as kaleidoscopic as the river system itself, drawing on everything from environmental restoration to economic development, recreational tourism, and multijurisdictional collaboration. TVA and UTK, two of the biggest employers in the area, have poured millions into the effort. And the Tennessee RiverLine is slowly building partnerships with dozens of cities and counties throughout the valley.
On a hot day in May, Brad Collett, ASLA, an associate professor in the UTK Department of Plant Sciences with a faculty appointment to the UTK School of Landscape Architecture, and the director of the Tennessee RiverLine, stood in the sunshine at Knoxville’s Suttree Landing Park. He told the crowd of assembled luminaries that the project would “inspire communities to transform their relationship with the Tennessee River by changing the way that we view what we have today.” The RiverLine, Collett said, was “an infrastructure of tourism,” economic development, entrepreneurship, public health, equitable access, environmental stewardship, and experience.
“An initiative so ambitious and comprehensive, so optimistic and visionary, is a multigenerational commitment that is founded on the belief that we can do something together that we cannot do by ourselves,” he said.
A group of officials smashed bottles of champagne against the fleet of donated kayaks and paddled out into the river.
Earlier that morning, I drove 30 minutes north from Knoxville to Norris Dam, the first dam built by TVA after its formation in 1933. Norris Dam manages the flow of the Clinch River, which joins the Tennessee near Kingston, 40 miles west of Knoxville. Norris Lake, the reservoir created by the construction of the dam, has a flood storage capacity of around 1.1 million acre-feet of water, enough to fill half a million Olympic swimming pools or run a daily shower for everyone in the United States for three months, placing it, by volume, between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
The road through Norris Dam State Park leads to a ridge overlooking the monumental concrete dam. When I arrived, there was one other car in the parking area, its driver asleep in the front seat, and a lone kayaker far below the overlook, just downstream of the afterbay. The overlook was laid out to produce scenic views of the landscape. A row of red rosebushes was planted in the foreground along the ridge, and a plaque, backdropped by the reservoir, depicted the TVA system of multipurpose dams.
To create Norris Dam, the federal government took more than 125,000 acres of land by eminent domain, displacing more than 3,000 families and thousands more graves. Among TVA’s three-member founding board was Harcourt Morgan, the president of the University of Tennessee from 1919 until 1934.
In 2016, the UTK College of Architecture and Design ran the first in a series of studios focused on the Tennessee River watershed. The goal was to re-envision the Tennessee River and environs as a “21st-century infrastructure” and, Collett later told me, “to understand the legacy of the valley as a landscape of regionalism and innovation in the face of the grand challenges of the 20th century.” As part of the course, students spent five days touring the watershed, from Forks of the River near Knoxville to Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga, down to Alabama’s Muscle Shoals, looping back up to Shiloh Battlefield, and ending at the River Discovery Center in Paducah, Kentucky, where the Tennessee River dumps into the Ohio.
The studio was designed to be an ongoing investigation of the river valley, and students were charged with defining “a vision for the river’s next century,” according to an early class exercise. Working individually and in pairs, they generated ideas for wetland development, aquaculture districts, biodiversity hubs, and new uses of industrial infrastructure. Journey Roth, an architecture student who found herself working solo in the studio, proposed a 652-mile trail that would reconnect the communities and public lands that line the Tennessee River through hiking and biking and, especially, paddling, as acquiring new land adjacent to the river is likely to be an uphill battle. The trail would be knit together with a series of branded pavilions. Roth told me she didn’t consider the idea to be especially groundbreaking.
“It should just exist,” she said. “It’s hard for me to explain thinking about it not existing, because it seems so much to me that it’s intuitive. It should just be this trail.”
Over the past several years, the Tennessee River Studio has been largely given over to developing the river trail concept. Students have continued touring the river each year, learning how different communities define their relationships with it, and building partnerships with jurisdictions in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. In 2019, partnering with Sasaki, the school ran a survey to learn more about river communities and their use of the river. The same year, it launched a “RiverTowns” pilot program, and in 2020 it named the first 15 RiverTowns from the 22 applications it received. The kayaks that were christened at Suttree Landing in May were distributed to those 15 communities, under an agreement that the public could use them for free and that the communities would host a certain number of public RiverLine events. The RiverLine, which has a polished brand and a yearly summit with all its partners, envisions different tiers of users, from “weekend warriors” to “trail heroes” who travel the entire length in a single trip. A lot of the terminology was first proposed by Roth, who now works at a small architecture firm in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I find myself every couple of days just googling it,” she told me. “And I’m like, wow…I thought of that.”
The morning after the Tennessee RiverLine’s official launch, members of the Atlanta-based group Latinx Hikers and Centro Hispano de East Tennessee gathered under a teal tent bearing the RiverLine’s logo at Suttree Landing Park. RiverLine staff, of which there are four full-time, plus a small army of volunteers in teal shirts, separated them into groups. Young kids and inexperienced paddlers were outfitted for a lesson on the shoreline near the park. A second group loaded onto a school bus and rode to Holston River Park for a five-mile float, past the point where the Holston and the French Broad converge to form the Tennessee River.
Collett took the lead boat and floated on the slack water as dozens of kayakers put in at the launch, occasionally checking on the progress with staff at the rear of the caravan by walkie-talkie. There was no observable current. The Tennessee River now basically behaves like “nine lakes,” he told me as we began to paddle. To get from one end to the other on a kayak—as brothers Jon and Jeff Wunrow had recently done over the course of 35 days, receiving RiverLine plaques during the ceremony the day before—requires 652 miles of pure exertion. Of all the RiverLine’s myriad goals, the most immediate is to get people on the water, building experiences from which they can develop a sense of ownership and care for the river. Despite its centrality to the life of the Tennessee Valley, in many places there have been few ways to actually float on the river itself. Adriana Garcia, who cofounded Latinx Hikers, told me she used to spend whole days with her family swimming at Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga, where she grew up. But until the RiverLine paddle in Knoxville, she’d never had a kayak on the water.
The RiverLine has worked with the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program, a partnership of ASLA and the National Park Service (NPS) that helps extend the mission of the national parks to far-flung communities. Alison Bullock, a community planner with NPS, told me that successfully planning and developing a water trail requires linking physical access points that are close enough to each other for a day’s paddle, educating potential users about how to use the trail safely, and clearly marketing and branding the trail. Students in the Tennessee River studio have worked on all of those things. In 2020, a team from the studio won an ASLA Student Award for 652 to YOU, a “comprehensive communications and public engagement strategy” to build awareness of the project. Communities along the river have starkly different connections to it, said Dustin Toothman, a 2020 UTK grad who participated in the 2019 studio and now works full-time for the RiverLine. Some have no access to the river at all; others have access points that aren’t connected back to the community fabric. A project like the RiverLine could generate different responses in different places, and its proponents hope communities will make it their own.
“It’s not just an overlay that we can do the same way across every community,” Toothman said. “It’s going to be a different conversation in every place.”
Collett isn’t sure what built projects the RiverLine will inspire. And he said it’s not likely the organization will ever acquire land on its own. But its partnerships with the University of Tennessee and especially with the TVA, which has donated $1.2 million to the project so far, give it credibility. And he said he envisions the RiverLine carrying the manifold mission of TVA forward into the next century of its existence.
“[The RiverLine] just meshes perfectly with our mission,” said David Bowling, an executive at TVA who has worked with the RiverLine. “Obviously, clean, reliable power is a huge deal at TVA. But also quality of life, through economic development and environmental stewardship, is really one of the founding principles that TVA was brought into existence on.”
All 652 miles of the Tennessee River, plus dozens of tributaries and thousands of acres of recreational land, are managed by TVA. A product of the New Deal, TVA is often seen as an emblem of the power of public investment—the transformation of both an environment and a culture through coordinated resource management. But since the late 20th century, when federal appropriations stopped, TVA has behaved more or less as a normal energy utility. As conversations about a Green New Deal have picked up, young activists have been looking for ways to make TVA more accountable and more committed to climate action. Bri Knisley, the Tennessee campaign manager with the nonprofit Appalachian Voices, told me that activists had pushed a handful of board nominees, but the Biden administration didn’t choose any of them.
“It’s difficult from the community level to find leverage points to have influence over TVA,” said Knisley, who lives in Knoxville but had never heard of the RiverLine until I emailed her. “There’s not really anything you can do once TVA has made a decision.”
“Nothing about the TVA is simple,” said Avigail Sachs, an associate professor of landscape and architectural history at UTK who has spent a decade documenting the work of architects and landscape architects in the creation of Tennessee Valley dams and recreation areas. “It was set up as this very complex institution. It had certain things that were absolutely, clearly its role. It was supposed to build dams. It was supposed to produce phosphates. It was supposed to help with agriculture. And it was supposed to produce electricity. But then there were all these assumed things, and [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt was especially good at not really stating what he wanted so that people could interpret it. It’s never been just one thing.”
That complexity shows in the landscape. On the morning that I visited Norris Dam, I saw two people in the rest area by the tailrace. One was a man walking a dog, and the other was a worker riding a lawnmower up and down a steep hill, neatly cropping the green grass between the parking lot and the generating station. Sachs is working on a book called The Garden in the Machine: Planning, Landscape and Architecture in the Tennessee Valley Authority. The title is a twist on The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, a 1964 work of literary theory by Leo Marx. After TVA flooded communities throughout the valley to create its system of dams, Sachs said, it took pains to create recreational spaces where people could fish or spend an afternoon having picnics with their families. The message was, “I didn’t take away the land. I gave it back to you in ways that you didn’t have before,” she said.
“I’ve been to Norris Dam at least a hundred times by now. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but even if it’s 60, it’s a lot,” Sachs told me. “But it continues to confound me. What am I really looking at here?”
A few hours after the paddle with Latinx Hikers, Collett texted me a set of coordinates and a message saying, “Meet me there in 20.” It was late in the afternoon, and in the time since we had parted at Suttree Landing, the Brood X cicadas had emerged and were swelling in the trees. The spot where we met was a UTK agriculture research property overlooking the first mile of the Tennessee River. We sat on a stone wall outside the groundskeeper’s residence and looked down across a green pasture and past the river to a cluster of riverfront industrial sites.
“There’s usually more head of cattle,” Collett said, looking at a single black cow in the pasture. “I’m not sure where they are. They must be in a different pen right now.”
Collett said he liked to take students to the site sometimes to see the layered ways that the river has been used over time. He pointed my attention to an industrial park on the far bank. The authority’s mission has been to harness the river’s power and make it accessible to the community for recreation, agriculture, industry, and any number of other uses, Collett said, and he had no anxiety about tying the RiverLine’s ambition to the sanction of TVA.
“That’s part of the legacy of this landscape,” he said. “We were asking the question, ‘How do we carry that legacy forward into the 21st century, where our challenges are climate change, population growth, microplastics pollution, what researchers call the extinction of experience?’ We’re becoming separated from nature and we’re recreating in other ways, so people are less likely to recognize the value of something like this. And they’re less likely to value the agencies that care for it and invest in it as well.”
Among TVA’s earliest executives was Earle S. Draper, a landscape architect and town planner who wrote in LAM in 1938 that “Without such common action and purpose the full capabilities of the Tennessee Valley cannot be realized, depletion of the soil will continue, living standards will be less secure, and human values—which are the region’s primary natural resource—must be lost.” TVA also hired Benton MacKaye, the originator of the Appalachian Trail, for a two-year spell. Collett has noted that if you count all the acreage of Tennessee River-adjacent parks, recreation areas, public lands, and wildlife refuges, it tallies up to 1.2 million acres—more than twice the area of the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The task of activating all of that space in the name of the RiverLine will never be finished, he acknowledged. I asked him if he considered it a work of landscape architecture.
“I think it’s putting landscape architecture at the forefront of these conversations about regional systems, and introducing people to the discipline in a way they have not thought about before,” Collett said. “That’s actually a real point of pride for us in doing this work. We’re also bringing landscape architecture to communities that don’t have access to it.”
Later, he said, “I really believe that we’re doing something historic here. Not only in scale, and not only in scope, but something that students and ideas are at the core of. The way that the communities are buying into it and living within this framework and making it their own, I think it has a lot of staying power. We’re 100 years removed from Benton MacKaye’s vision. I’m not going to put myself on that pedestal, but I think that 100 years from now, people will be talking about and still using the Tennessee RiverLine, and it will continue to be changing.”
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at the magazine.