Nearly half of Chattanooga’s total land area consists of forest and urban tree canopy cover, but that number has plummeted by 43% since the mid-1980s while development has more than doubled – to 134%.
Those numbers suggested a rising number of “heat islands,” many downtown, that are connected to chronic illnesses and dangerous and poorer neighborhoods, data states.
Local civic leaders would not know any of this without the data generated by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Geographic Information Systems and its nerve center, the Interdisciplinary Geospatial Technology Lab. In layman’s terms, GIS marries data to maps to help understand the world in new ways, said Charlie Mix, the University’s GIS director.
“We need to preserve our urban forest before it’s lost,” Mix said. “One of the biggest benefits to urban forests is that they provide resilience to climate change. Neighborhoods without tree cover tend to be a lot hotter, leading to stronger prevalence of chronic illnesses related to heat. Neighborhoods with more urban tree canopy cover often tend to be wealthier and healthier.”
Described by insiders as a hidden gem, the UTC IGTLab was created in 1995 to provide learning opportunities for students pursuing careers in GIS. The lab works with a range of stakeholders, from conservation groups to the Lyndhurst Foundation—which identifies and invests in programs that increase the Chattanooga area’s long-term livability. Organizationally, the IGTLab is a unit of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and is based in the Multidisciplinary Studies Building on campus.
“Over the years, we have partnered with the UTC IGTLab on everything from analyzing the revitalization of urban neighborhoods, to developing story maps that document the stories residents shared about their community, to looking at the accessibility of basic needs with an analysis of the types of businesses in commercial corridors, to most recently completing one of the most detailed urban forestry inventories that has ever been completed in partnership with the City of Chattanooga,” said Michael Walton, executive director of Chattanooga’s green|spaces. “We expect to build on the inventory to develop a community-driven urban forestry master plan later this year to mobilize neighborhoods and private businesses to invest in a more robust and equitable tree canopy.”
In recent years, the team—led by Mix and GIS Assistant Director Nyssa Hunt—has not only chronicled Chattanooga’s lost urban tree canopy but done a spatial analysis of opioid use to help get lifesaving medicines to overdose hotspots and provide GIS support to numerous conservation organizations.
In addition, UTC’s GIS team has worked with the Access Fund to map and envision a new community rock-climbing area just five minutes from downtown. Access Fund said it is a leading climbing and advocacy group and conservation project in the U.S.
“UTC’s GIS department has really helped boost our capacity, providing leading-edge geospatial technology and support for our climbing conservation projects,” said Zachary Lesch-Huie, the Access vice president of programs and acquisitions.
“UTC GIS is helping Access Fund and our local partner Southeastern Climbers Coalition chart the future of climbing advocacy and conservation in Tennessee,” Lesch-Huie said. “We’re applying a conservation-based inventory and planning model to [the state’s] climbing areas to ensure we can protect climbing for the next 20 to 30 years. UTC’s GIS team has helped us create a comprehensive climbing area geodatabase—a first for the state—and analyze this robust climbing area dataset against other important datasets such as climate resiliency, conserved lands, economic data and more. It’s a powerful new tool for the future of our work in Tennessee and beyond.”
The Trenton, Georgia-based Limestone Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council has worked for years on different projects with UTC GIS to visually clarify its most important programs in conservation, water quality improvement, natural resource education and sustainable agriculture.
“The detail and design of the product the lab has provided us have helped us make targeted decisions that put the right effort and funds in the most impactful places,” said Stephen Bontekoe, Limestone Valley’s executive director.
UTC’s GIS program and lab have gained international attention from the Redlands, California-based Environmental Systems Research Institute, which has touted the University’s contributions toward sustainable policies to preserve Chattanooga’s character and ecology. Only California has more threatened biodiversity than the Chattanooga area, said ESRI, which Mix explains is the world’s leader in the GIS software and what he calls the “Microsoft of GIS.”
Chattanooga is the sixth fastest-warming city in the country, according to Climate Central, which documented a 4.1-degree rise in local temperatures between 1970 and 2018.
Another large GIS project is a $5.25-million effort between UTC GIS, the Open Space Institute, Appalachian Landscapes Protection Fund and the nonprofit Thrive Regional Partnership to conserve at least 30,000 acres in the tri-state area—referred to by Thrive as the Cradle of Southern Appalachia.
Preserving the Cradle of Southern Appalachia geospatial data model and map crafted by UTC GIS was sent to the Biden administration as an example of what communities are doing related to the America the Beautiful goal of protecting 30% of the landscape for biodiversity by 2030. Mix said this map led to the creation of a $5.25 million dollar conservation fund for the region—sponsored by the Open Space Institute—to accelerate the pace of land scape conservation.
Dr. Joanne Romagni, UTC vice chancellor for research and dean of the Graduate School, said the University’s GIS program has been a boon for recruitment and workforce development.
“It helps people to see and understand data much more quickly than any other mode,” Romagni said. “They’re just doing so many amazing things. The chancellor [Dr. Steven R. Angle] loves to use them as an example of what happens at UTC. Any of our students who have this GIS skillset have no problems getting a job.”
Gregory W. Heath, professor emeritus of public health in the UTC Department of Health and Human Performance, used the University’s GIS resources to disassemble the local COVID-19 pandemic.
Hamilton County’s first COVID case was identified on March 13, 2020, followed by local health department viral testing and contact tracing. By early April, 51 confirmed cases were identified, with white, non-Hispanic males and females representing 82% of positive cases and the remaining cases representing Black residents.
“Why few positive cases represented people from racial/ethnic minorities became a key public health question,” Heath wrote in a study summarizing the findings.
To explore this public health question, the Graduate Public Health Program reached out to Mix and the IGTLab to visualize the emerging COVID-19 data, rates of testing and subsequent vaccination efforts.
“We hypothesized that local mapping of health-related disparity data might identify regions of CHC [Chattanooga/Hamilton County] where individuals at greater risk for COVID-19 reside, work and/or were areas of limited access to testing, health care services and future vaccination efforts,” Heath’s report states.
The UTC lab generated layered maps of prevalence estimates for cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes mellitus, chronic lung disease and behavioral risk factors for these conditions, including physical inactivity and obesity. Layers also included the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Social Vulnerability Index, age distribution, gender, race and ethnicity and ZIP codes.
Maps shared with African-American and Hispanic collaborators provided additional specific neighborhood information to the maps. They were used to identify geographic sites for mobile and strategic testing within communities at higher risk for the spread of the coronavirus.
As a result of this data project, strategic and mobile testing found a three-fold increase in the number of identified new COVID cases, with more than 70% of the positive tests being among ethnically Hispanic and 16% among Black residents.
“This example of inter-sectoral collaboration, data sharing, and data use through strategically mapping vulnerable populations for COVID-19 was shown to be an effective means to enhance COVID-19 testing and identification of positive cases throughout CHC. This expanded partnering resulting in targeted testing and subsequent strategic vaccination efforts when the COVID-19 vaccines became available. Further collaboration with the IGTL has resulted in the identification and mapping of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths within the Southeast region of Tennessee representing the nine Tennessee counties that make up the Chattanooga Statistical Metropolitan Area,” Heath’s report states.
Heath added, “Our collaboration with the IGTL (GIS Lab) and Charlie Mix, is ongoing and a strong collaboration.”
Hunt, assistant director of the IGTLab, said some of the most highlighted projects have been:
- Collaborating on research with a math professor and Reflection Riding Nature Center and Arboretum on a project relating to invasive plant management and control.
- Digitizing aquatic recreation features, campgrounds and relevant amenities along the Tennessee River for the Tennessee RiverLine project in partnership with UT Knoxville.
- Computing the above-mentioned high-resolution tree canopy and land cover model for the City of Chattanooga, which is “arguably the finest land cover model created for an urban area within the United States.”
- Creating map visualizations and applications for a land conservancy in Boston, communicating their land conservation models.
- Creating a conservation priority model and map for Lookout Mountain Conservancy, which will ultimately assist their stakeholders in finding where to conserve lands next.
- Starting the next phase of Cherokee National Forest road digitizing in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.
“Over the years, we’ve collaborated with numerous people within the University, within the community, and throughout our region,” Hunt said. “Our goal is to be of support for challenges relating to spatial thinking, GIS data collection and management, spatial analysis, cartography and GIS application development. Furthermore, we act as a bridge between the University and community partners, providing students with unique real-world GIS learning opportunities through internships and applied research and connect faculty and staff with research partners.”
Hunt said the IGTLab is hoping to conduct additional workshops to help faculty, staff, students and community partners harness the powers of GIS. The lab is heavily equipped with ESRI’s ArcGIS software suite, which enables the Mix-Hunt team to do research and answer spatial questions.
The team provides GIS resources and support for faculty, staff and students and then guides them in software installation and to find learning resources. Hunt noted there are many computer labs across campus that have this software installed for classrooms and more casual exploration of the program. Also offered is a GIS Certificate Program for working professionals, students and alumni who want to learn GIS towards a professional goal.
Mix, the GIS director, joined UTC about eight years ago, bringing with him a love of the outdoors gained while growing up in Northeast Alabama and working as a professional whitewater kayaker and in seasonal jobs with the U.S. Park Service and conservation organizations. He graduated from Jacksonville State University with a bachelor of science degree in geography and has a master’s degree in information science UT Knoxville.
“This is really interesting and impactful work. I get so excited,” Mix said. “It’s always something new. At the end of the day, you always end up with a map kind of telling the story of what it is we’re trying to model.”