Charlie Mix recalled getting tasked with “a tall order.”
Mix, the GIS (geographic information system) director for the Interdisciplinary Geospatial Technology Lab (IGTLab) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was meeting with Chattanooga Parks and Outdoors Administrator Scott Martin about a map for the city agency’s new plan—which aims to have all residents capable of walking to a park or some open space within 10 minutes. It also seeks to connect residents and park visitors with the natural ecosystem that Chattanooga sits within.
Then came Mix’s walking orders.
“His exact request was, ‘Can you make a map for our parks plan that people will be inspired by 100 years from now the same way that we are at the Nolen map?’” Mix said. “So I was like, ‘That’s a tall order.’ And then I was like, ‘Let me just use that for inspiration.’”
That inspiration—landscape architect John Nolen’s 1911 “General Features of a Park System for Chattanooga, Tennessee”—was turned into an award-winning map.
Mix won a Cartography Special Interest Group Excellence Award for “A 21st Century Park System for Chattanooga, Tennessee” at the 2023 Esri User Conference, held in San Diego in mid-July.
Esri, an international supplier of geographic information system software, web GIS and geodatabase management applications, annually holds a user conference. This year’s event had more than 18,000 attendees.
“John Nolen drafted a parks plan in 1911 that established many of the parks that we see today in Chattanooga,” Mix explained, “so this is seen as the next iteration of Chattanooga’s park system—a very visionary, aspirational parks plan.”
Nolen studied under noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-designer of New York’s Central Park.
“So I took Nolen’s hand-drawn map and used his color palette and applied that using modern 21st-century cartography techniques,” Mix continued. “That’s where the inspiration for that map came from, paying a nod to our history while looking forward to the future.
“All the data in there was collected, analyzed and processed through spatial data science.”
The undertaking—making a digital map look hand-drawn—was a labor of love.
“That kind of style of cartography has always been an interest of mine, so I have some techniques I’ve developed over the years,” he said. “The time-consuming part was making sure that the data was 100% accurate because it was a brand-new data set.”
Martin quoted architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham, who played a prominent role in creating master plans for developing several cities—including downtown Chicago—in describing the work he wanted Mix to accomplish.
“We asked Charlie to bring together our 21st century GIS driven park planning work and wrap it with the place-based soulfulness of the original Nolen plan that together can create perhaps a new vision of Chattanooga as a ‘city in a park,’’ Martin said. “We draw from the best of our past, attaching the best of our present to shape this incredible landscape we call home.
“A plan’s look and feel matters. The famous architect Daniel Burnham best described why when he said, ‘Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.’ Charlie’s work here gives Chattanooga leaders a living thing, indeed.”
Images from the story map, “A City of Trees: Assessing Urban Tree Canopy with GIS and Remote Sensing for Chattanooga, Tennessee,” which earned second-place honors.The parks plan map wasn’t the only UTC award winner coming out of the Esri competition.
“A City of Trees: Assessing Urban Tree Canopy with GIS and Remote Sensing for Chattanooga, Tennessee” earned second-place accolades in the Communicating Science Spatially category. The map was authored by Mix, GIS Assistant Director Nyssa Hunt, recent UTC graduate Will Stuart (the recipient of a master’s in environmental science), and Biology, Geology and Environmental Science Associate Professor Azad Hossain.
“This map highlights an applied research project that I was the (principal investigator) on for the city,” Mix said. “The City of Chattanooga and the nonprofit green|spaces came to us, asking for help mapping the city’s urban tree canopy because they needed a baseline.”
Mix said Planet Labs, a small satellite company, flew its satellites over Chattanooga and provided custom tasking images. The IGTLab then used machine learning in object-based image analysis, taking those multi-spectral satellite images and classifying them into land cover types—such as forest and water.
“We overlaid this information on urban tree canopy with demographics—things like income, race, educational attainment, crime and urban heat islands—to look at possible correlations and relationships,” he said.
As excited as Mix was about the accolades, he said his group received “an even bigger honor than getting an award; our little GIS lab here at UTC was front and center at the world’s largest GIS conference, which was really cool.”
The IGTLab was invited by Esri and the nonprofit One Tree Planted to have a special display of the lab’s work as part of the conference’s San Diego Convention Center Esri Map Gallery.
“We had this giant booth where the Map Gallery reception was going on to show off all this work,” he said, “and we got to take three students out there so they could experience the conference and meet and rub shoulders with people from all over the world.”
The trio of environmental science students—Erin Gaylord, graduating this summer with a master’s degree, grad student Mona Latil-Quinn and rising senior Mimi White— accompanied Mix and Hunt to the conference.
In addition, Hunt had the opportunity to present at the conference about ongoing work the IGTLab is doing for UT Knoxville’s Tennessee River Line effort, a collaboration with TVA.
Mix said these are exciting times to discuss the work being done in the UTC lab and its positive impact on the community.
“I feel like my title should be GIS evangelist because GIS is in its golden age right now,” Mix said, laughing. “Maps have always been important for humans throughout history; our earliest art was basically maps of where the herds were and painted on cave walls.
“But now, maps are integrated into every part of our life through technology, iPhones, and computers. We map the earth every single day. So GIS has truly been democratized where every citizen has the power to take advantage of it—whether they realize it or not.”