Connected by Purpose

Category: News

Imagine a row of beads laid out on a table. Some are spread farther apart than others. They are all different shapes and colors. They may seem to have nothing in common when viewed individually, but when you put them on a string, they become part of something bigger—suddenly the beads are connected.

Just like those beads, communities, cities, counties, towns, and parks along the 652 miles of the Tennessee River are now becoming connected through the Tennessee RiverLine Partnership, an initiative that began with one student’s idea in 2016.

As part of a landscape architecture studio class, students drove the entire length of the river in five days, stopping along the way to talk with community members, farmers, and government officials about how they interact with the river and manage it as a resource.

The goal was to come up with ideas about how to advance the region’s legacy of leadership and innovation in the face of 21st-century challenges and to more fully utilize the river while at the same time stewarding it as our region’s most valuable natural and cultural resource. The class included a mapping exercise that sparked an idea for Journey Roth.

“I was assigned to look at different points along the river—historic sites and tourist sites. And another map showed where trails came close to the river,” says Roth, who graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. “And I thought there’s got to be a way to connect all these places by a trail.”

Brad Collett (’01), associate professor of plant sciences and director of the Tennessee RiverLine, led the studio trip along the river and could immediately see the value of what Roth proposed— a continuous trail where people could paddle, hike, and bike the Tennessee River from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky.

“It struck a really strong chord with many of the stakeholders around the region,” Collett said. “TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), state parks, tourism associations—they all thought it was a powerful idea and aligned with what they were already doing.”
Though the heart of the original idea is the same, Collett says it’s been expanded on in some important and beautiful ways. “In its earliest connected spaces; the idea has since grown into a comprehensive initiative tethered to guiding principles, transformational goals, and significant outreach to river communities.”

The goal is for the Tennessee RiverLine to become the country’s next great regional trail system and a catalyst for economic development, public health, equitable river access, and environmental stewardship in communities along the river—reconnecting people in the Tennessee River Valley through partnerships and reclaiming the river’s edge across urban, rural, and natural landscapes to provide for higher levels of public access to the river.

“It’s the idea that we can do something together as a region that one can’t do alone,” Collett says. From the beginning, the initiative was supported by the College of Architecture and Design, the Herbert College of Agriculture, and the School of Landscape Architecture (which resides jointly within the two colleges). But partners quickly jumped on board, including Tennessee State Parks and TVA, which provides electricity for parts of seven southeastern states as well as flood control, navigation, recreation, water quality, and land management for the Tennessee River system.

UT’s strong associations with the agency began early in TVA’s history, when UT President Harcourt Morgan served as one of TVA’s three founding directors in 1933. And that tradition continues with the Tennessee RiverLine. TVA recently became a principal partner in the project, along with UT, taking on a leadership role and committing a $1.2 million investment to help accelerate the initiative.

“TVA strives to invest in what we like to call power partnerships—those alliances that reflect our 1933 mandate from Congress to ‘make life better for the people of the Tennessee Valley,’” says TVA Vice President of River and Resources Stewardship David Bowling (’89, ’91).

“If you look at the UT seal, it has a plow and riverboat. And the TVA seal has a tugboat and a barn. They both feature the river prominently,” says Bowling. “To see us align in promoting the river is like having two good friends work on something together.”


For Collett, this work is possible only at UT, because of its commitment to its land-grant mission and to outreach and community engagement.

“As a faculty and alumnus, I’m just proud UT has assumed a leadership role in this multigenerational initiative,” says Collett. “UT, the School of Landscape Architecture, and the discipline of landscape architecture, most broadly, are uniquely capable of doing this scale of work, and I’m grateful to be at a university where this type of effort is encouraged and supported.”

Danny Rose (’16, ’20), who worked on the initiative as a student and an intern, agrees with Collett. “The university is an anchor point, driving home that land-grant mission by dealing with large public problems and disseminating that into the community. You just don’t see large-scale projects that have the potential to tie together communities like this.”

For 652 miles the Tennessee River meanders, courses, and flows through four states, bringing good things to the lives it touches without a worry about state lines or borders. And the same is true of Tennessee Volunteers—working together for good no matter where they are in the world.

This story is excerpted from the feature article “Connected by Purpose” in the spring 2021 issue of UT’s Torchbearer magazine. Read the full story on the magazine’s website.