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Image of the Tennessee River in Savannah, Tennessee, taken by the UT School of Landscape Architecture's drone during the 2016 river tour.

Four states, five days, 1,157 miles, and all the catfish they could eat. A dozen College of Architecture and Design students have completed their tour of the Tennessee River, but their work has just begun.

The students are part of the Governor’s Chair Tennessee River Studio, led by Brad Collett, assistant professor of landscape architecture. They traveled along the Tennessee River through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky to understand the influences and impacts on the river system.

The Tennessee River Studio, the second studio in the UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for High Performance Energy Practices in Urban Environments, is investigating 21st-century challenges facing the Tennessee River and its 40,000-square-mile watershed. The studio looks at those who live near, work on, and engage with the river to understand and mitigate challenges, and to recognize and take advantage of the river’s untapped potential.

In August, the students built a Tennessee River atlas to capture the communities, landscapes, and systems of the river’s watershed. But the tour gave them the opportunity to see how these features interact with the health of the river and meet face-to-face with people who rely on and are impacted by the river system.

“It is unmistakable that the Tennessee River system and its watershed are the lifeblood of the region,” said Kenny Townsend, a third-year student in the college’s Master of Landscape Architecture program. “The river system, much like any organic circulatory system, is a mode of transport, distributing sustenance and removing waste. The pulse and overall health can be measured by its water quality. In the case of the Tennessee River system, we found that it exhibits its fragility.”

The students and faculty began their five-day journey at the confluence of the French Broad and Holston Rivers, where the Tennessee River begins.

School of Landscape Architecture students during their 2016 river tour.
School of Landscape Architecture students during their 2016 river tour.

They wound their way through the region and questioned river system engineers about challenges with human interaction with the river. They stood alongside farmers and learned how the river often dictates the success of crops. The group met with city planners and ecologists to hear about urban development and water quality. They discussed tourism, recreation, industry, pollution, energy production, and more with business and community leaders and representatives of nonprofit organizations and government agencies.

“The insights gained from those with whom we met, the conditions we observed, and the experiences we shared on the river tour combine to provide a rare and unique perspective for us to begin thinking about the Tennessee River of the 21st century,” said Collett. “Beyond a sense of enthusiasm about the relevance and importance of our short-term academic objectives, we returned with a level of excited confidence that the relationships we have only begun to cultivate through the river tour will be of equal, if not greater, value to the future of the Tennessee River system and its watershed.”

During the tour—inspired by river culture and those they met along the way—the students affectionately referred to themselves as river rats, junior rangers, and aquatots. They found iconic mom-and-pop restaurants and feasted on barbecue and catfish.

Now, the students are tasked with fall semester projects to assimilate the information they gathered into design solutions to address the river’s challenges. Their proposals will be reviewed by river stakeholders and peer educators November 18 in the college’s Fab Lab. Plans to share the work with members of the Tennessee River community are currently under development.

Fifth-year architecture student Journey Roth was influenced by the interactions with people along the tour, which she says will become part of her design solution.

“Each individual has a deep understanding of the river, which they have gained from personal experiences,” she said. “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 make any lasting changes. While knowing the annual rainfall, for example, is absolutely important, understanding people’s needs and the needs of the river is key in being able to move forward with design.”

The students’ research also included water quality sampling, photo essays, and individual reflections.

“This information has enriched their understanding of the river system, is enhancing their design solutions, and will continue to inform future River Studio initiatives,” said Collett.

Follow the students’ journey throughout the semester and learn more about their insights, comprehensive report and final design proposals on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Started in 2014, the Governor’s Chair for High Performance Energy Practices in Urban Environments is a five-year, $2.5 million public-private partnership of the College of Architecture and Design; Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The Governor’s Chair is a catalyst for change that seeks to optimize the relationship between energy and urbanism. Using a unique collaboration of science, design, and academia, the Governor’s Chair partners pursue environmentally responsible design, emerging clean energy technologies for buildings and communities, sustainable urban planning, and a merging of urbanism and natural systems to open new vistas of research and exploration.


Amanda F. Johnson (865-974-6401,

Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,