Visionary by Design: Contemplating a New Century of Innovation in The Tennessee River Valley


During the fall semester of 2016, students from the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design helped launch the Tennessee River Project, a new research initiative that took them on a tour of the Tennessee River Valley that covered more than 1,100 miles and introduced them to the many voices that influence the river system, including TVA.

Photo: Students from the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design, shown here at the Fort Loudoun Lock, toured the Tennessee River as part of a new multi-year teaching, research and outreach initiative: The Tennessee River Project.


​Brad Collett

Assistant Professor, School of Landscape Architecture & Department of Plant Sciences
University of Tennessee-Knoxville

A Legacy of Innovation

The Tennessee River Valley is looked to the world-over as a model landscape of innovative, integrated resource management. From the Middle East’s Jordan River Valley to China’s Yangtze River, the influence of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s multifunctional infrastructures and its watershed approach to providing for flood control, commercial navigation and rural electrification–prevailing challenges throughout the Valley during the early- and mid-20th century–is far reaching.

As the communities that rely upon the Tennessee River system for energy, commerce, water supply and recreation look ahead to the 21st century, new and increasingly complex challenges present themselves. Unprecedented population and economic growth, dynamics of a changing climate and protecting a level of aquatic biodiversity unrivaled in North American river systems headline this list of emergent challenges, each compounded by aging infrastructure, shifting landscapes of agricultural and industrial production, and pressures from point- and non-point sources that will impact the river’s water quality.

Meeting these emergent challenges requires best practices, novel ideas and multi-scalar thinking along the river system and throughout the Tennessee River’s 41,000-square-mile watershed advanced by a range of constituencies, including land owners, public officials and agencies, and water resource professionals. Architects and landscape architects may not immediately come to mind as the most likely group of 21st century river stewards. Their professional competencies are sometimes associated only with site-based projects operating in the cultural margins of horticulture, art and civic beautification. Research and innovation related to water management have typically come from engineering and wildlife resource management disciplines. While these disciplines and TVA are established agents of water resource management, large-scale ecological and cultural systems, long-range planning, and multifunctional infrastructures represent emergent practice territories for designers. The complexities of challenges posed to our river systems require collaboration amongst diverse and complementary disciplines.

Architecture and landscape architecture’s capacity for multiscalar design thinking; synthetic understandings of relationships between land use, social needs, infrastructural approaches, policy and water resources; and creative talents can be leveraged beyond finding solutions to water resource problems. Collaborative design creates a productive space through which innovative possibilities can be discovered, including how the river system, the communities it supports, and the watershed’s elemental landscapes and infrastructures may be recalibrated to thrive amidst the grand challenges of the next century.

University of Tennessee River Studio

These capacities were put to the test during the fall 2016 semester by students from the UT College of Architecture and Design, who launched The River Project. This initiative, led by the UT School of Landscape Architecture in partnership with the college’s Governor’s Chair for Energy and Urbanism, is aimed at gaining an understanding of the Tennessee River system’s contemporary challenges and inserting design and planning disciplines more robustly into discussions around the Tennessee River.

Students synthesized their research findings in order to identify 21st century assets and challenges for the river system.

With a mission to contemplate speculative, visionary proposals that steward the Valley’s resources while maintaining its legacy of leadership and innovation, six students from the School of Landscape Architecture and six from the School of Architecture embarked on this 15-week regional Tennessee River Studio under the leadership of Brad Collett, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture.

Understanding the multiplicity of demands on the Tennessee River that affects its operation and management, the nuances of the river system and its watershed’s landscapes, and the value of these resources to multiple constituencies presented a difficult challenge for the students. Instruments of their research included the development of a GIS-based watershed atlas, visits with water management professionals local to Knoxville including many at TVA, and a fiveday tour of the river’s main stem that covered more than 1,100 miles and multiple stakeholder interviews.

Pages from the Tennessee River Atlas reveal the complexities of the landscapes within the watershed.

River Atlas

The Tennessee River Atlas examined the watershed’s component landscapes, settlement patterns, and infrastructural systems. Students created thematic maps that included the region’s transportation networks, biodiversity status, water pollution hotspots, protected landscapes, and population centers. Students used GIS and other graphic tools to develop this resource that not only served their own short-term interests but that also will be made available as a resource to support ongoing efforts.

Above: The river tour included 18 stakeholder meetings, including one with a farmer (Ron Robertson) who grows corn, soybeans and cotton on 3,000 acres of river-bottom land, and the use of a drone to capture unique perspectives of the river’s landscape (in Savannah).

River Tour

With the atlas in hand, the class began their journey at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers for their trek along the Tennessee’s 652-mile main stem, ending at its confluence with the Ohio River in Paducah, KY. During that trip, they crossed the river 27 times, saw all nine main stem TVA dams, collected water samples and met with 18 stakeholders, each of whom benefit from and directly impact the river system in a unique way.

Farmers, non-profit directors, river system engineers, economic development coordinators, civic leaders, and retired veterans of inland navigation were among the many voices heard among the communities, fields, cultural sites, offices and infrastructures nestled along the river’s edge. Each provided a powerful testimonial to the importance of a healthy river system and the challenges that lay ahead, all while the dynamic landscapes of the Tennessee River–in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky–acted as a scenic backdrop and sublime muse.

The experience of interacting with resident experts during The River Tour left an indelible impression on the students. Fifthyear Architecture student, Journey Roth, was deeply influenced by these interactions, which, she says, became part of her design proposal.

“Each individual has a deep understanding of the river, which they have gained from personal experiences,” said Roth. “This gives them a unique view. The collaborative approach of this project is the only way we can grow to understand the river deeply and offer ideas for lasting changes. Understanding people’s needs and the needs of the river are key in being able to move forward with design.”

Visionary Proposals

Upon returning to their downtown Knoxville design studio— a laboratory for speculation and iteration—students reflected on their observations to identify what they considered to be the river systems’ assets and challenges. Based on these observations, the studio collectively drafted a vision statement and a set of guiding principles that would shape their work moving forward.

A 21st Century Vision: The Tennessee River System, its contributing watershed and the people who call it home comprise a vibrant community defined by its unique hydrogeography, celebrated for its cultural heritage, bound by its legacy of multifunctional infrastructures, and connected by its shared dynamic landscapes. As a community, we proactively seek to reassert the Tennessee River Valley as a global model for innovative, integrated resource management, environmental resiliency, and energy efficiency in the 21st Century and beyond.

The ideas explored through ensuing individual project work were as diverse as the watershed the students had just experienced; this shared understanding enabled them to advance separate, yet complementary projects as though authored by a single voice.

Above: A 4’ x 8’ CNC-milled model of the Tennessee River Watershed helped students visualize its dynamic physiography.

Students’ bold proposals challenged traditional concepts of public versus private, land use regulation, and systems logistics to imagine a future for the river system and its watershed that is visionary, credible and attainable. Among the transformative ideas that were offered by the students are:

• A Tennessee River Trail that drives tourism and economic growth, connects communities, and protects water quality through riparian buffer enhancements that it may catalyze as part of shared use agreements with land owners.

• Motivated by flooding on non-regulated tributaries and urban stream syndrome, a Complete Creeks concept to serve as a regional and national model for riparian corridor restoration and planning.

• In the face of anticipated growth of agricultural production in the Valley, new regional patterns for working landscapes that seek to not only find a more sustainable, energy efficient mode of food and commodity production but that also foster an integrated cooperative network of exchanges between urban and rural agricultural territories.

• Novel applications for wetland landscapes to mitigate riverbank erosion and buffer water resources against failures of industrial waste management systems, and a more floodtolerant mode of agricultural production that would help alleviate river operation complexities in West Tennessee that may be compounded by changing precipitation patterns.

Industrial waterfronts were also a common territory for speculation, as shifting economies present territories for new economic growth, novel ecological industries and enhanced public accessibility.

The River Tour offered students the opportunity to witness the many challenges posed to the river system, including the impairment of urban streams as seen here at Pinhook Creek near Huntsville, AL. These observations served as a foundation for their proposals.

Proposals included re-imagined agricultural landscapes that embrace the river’s dynamic properties and productively leverage flood conditions (above), and innovative industrial waterfronts that afford economic productivity, public accessibility, and environmental resiliency (below).

The diverse audience of academic peers and community members who attended the student project presentation in November, 2016, each remarked at the comprehensiveness of the investigation, the thoroughness of the research methods, and the credibility of the proposals.

Curt Jawdy, lead hydrologist for TVA who attended the presentations said, “All of the TVA folks [in attendance] were ‘blown away’ by the amount of understanding the students brought to the table after such a short period of study.”

Above: Students presented their final work to community leaders, faculty advisors and peers at the end of the semester.

A Look Ahead

By affirming the capacity of landscape architects, architects, and students to make valuable–if not essential–contributions to the dialogue of river management and watershed stewardship, the collective body of research and speculation assembled through this course becomes the foundation upon which future multidisciplinary River Project efforts and relationships will be built. These relationships include an emerging partnership between the UT College of Architecture and Design and TVA.

Over the coming months, the students’ proposals will be shared with a range of audiences through a diversity of media to raise awareness of the proposals’ potential benefits and catalyze interest, support and participation around their further development. Perhaps more importantly, however, sharing this work will also help to establish a forum within which the diversity of voices and professions can assemble to establish and curate a shared vision for the Tennessee River’s next century.

For more information about the Tennessee River Project, visit: Brad Collett is an Assistant Professor in the UT School of Landscape Architecture and Faculty Director of the Tennessee River Project. Connect Students presented their final work to community leaders, faculty with him at: