This summer, Chattanooga’s greenways became a laboratory for 10 undergraduate students across the country.
Intertwining ecology, biology, geography and public policy, the students used their interdisciplinary research in hopes to improve the Tennessee Riverwalk and South Chickamauga Creek Greenway.
The students stood in front of the Parks and Outdoors department of the City of Chattanooga on July 24 to share their findings from their Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.
The REU program is a partnership between researchers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) called the Urban Greenspace Research Collaborative (UGRC).
Dr. DeAnna Beasley, UC Foundation Assistant Professor and principal investigator of UGRC, said there were two main questions driving the research:
How does microclimate variability influence the ecology and sociology of the greenways? And how does this empirical data translate into policy?
Josephine Saikali, originally from Stuttgart, Germany, and a senior Environmental Studies student at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, traveled to Tennessee for her first time to participate in the REU program.
She explained their various research methods, including one of her favorites—ant research.
“Ants are everywhere, and ants can serve as an indicator. One of the things that we are seeing is ants are changing the way they eat,” Beasley said. “It’s exciting to think about it in the context of greenways because greenways pass through different aspects of the city.”
Saikali said she and the other REU students set bait for the ants and spent several hours counting them. This research was the most surprising to her, she explained, because she noticed the different feeding behaviors of the ants in different areas of the greenways.
“I find it cool,” she said. “The idea that human actions can have such an impact on what insects eat.”
Dr. Shannon McCarragher, assistant professor of geography at SIUE and another principal investigator of the UGRC, visited UTC for a week-long lesson in vegetation.
McCarragher explained how the research methods overlapped as the variability of ant species predicts the vegetation in certain areas.
“When we assess the insects we get a sense of the vegetation,” she said, “so it’s these little pieces that nicely overlap into a bigger question.”
Another aspect of their research, according to Saikali, was collecting microclimate data by attaching microsensors on electric bicycles, which they rode through the greenways.
Assistant professor of public administration and co-principal investigator Dr. Christopher Acuff explained that greenways provide refuge and relief for those affected by urban heat.
“We found Chattanooga as one of the worst offenders when it comes to disparity between urban heat and formerly red-lined areas, even to this day, compared to the way the city was segregated in the ’30s and ’40s,” he said.
Acuff led research on usage pattern data such as user modality, amenities and demographics of the greenways, which the students tracked using GIS mapping software. He aided the students in translating their research for policymakers.
“Part of what we wanted students to learn is not just doing the research and the process that goes into that, but how they can make the world better by what they learned,” Acuff said.
In their findings, the REU students stated that in predominantly Black and Spanish-speaking communities in Chattanooga, there is a lack of shade amenities, exacerbating the urban heat’s impact and exposing residents to higher temperatures without relief.
They also found that there were fewer accessibility points to the greenways in these communities, along with fewer bike access and bike lanes.
In their research on vegetation, the students found the lack of tree canopy cover corresponded to more severe heat on the greenways. Trees that are somewhat to not at all drought-resistant appeared more frequently on the greenways, which could endanger them as global temperatures rise.
As plant heights increased along the greenways, the students found that the number of ant species in the area also increased. Creating and protecting diverse and tall vegetation leads to higher species diversity, creating stronger ecosystems.
McCarragher commented on the importance of the students’ findings and the possibility of change for Chattanooga’s greenways.
“Hopefully, it gets used by those stakeholders or policymakers to inform their mitigation efforts to things that increase the resilience and sustainability of urban areas,” she said.
When Beasley, McCarragher and Acuff began the proposal for the REU program three years ago, they prioritized the use of collaboration between the students to help them with their research.
“We were being very intentional about integrating the students in terms of their work together,” Beasley said. “They’re going to come from different disciplines, have different backgrounds, so they can learn how to work together to address these research questions.”
For Saikali, her experience as an “outsider” helped her to notice aspects of the greenways that might not have been apparent for long-time residents.
“It makes it easier to notice things that may have blended in for people who have been here for years,” she said. “I have recognized certain things that need to be changed.”
The Urban Greenspace Research Collaborative plans to continue the REU program for the next two summers, hosting at SIUE next year and in Cleveland, Tennessee, for the 2025 cohort. For more information on the program, visit the Urban Greenspace Research Collaborative website.
For Story Map information on the students’ research: