A map developed by the Interdisciplinary Geospatial Technology (IGT) Lab at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was key in landing a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to grow and maintain urban forests, greenspaces and waterways in Chattanooga’s disadvantaged communities.
Members of the IGTLab and its Geographic Information System (GIS) will work with the city’s Urban Forestry team, green|spaces and the Southeast Conservation Corps throughout the grant’s five-year length.
The work is a continuation of what the IGTLab and GIS have been doing for several years to map the forest canopy in the Chattanooga metro area, keeping an eye on its health and where it needs attention, said Charlie Mix, director of the IGTLab and GIS.
“This is really going to be the next phase of that initial canopy assessment,” he said. “It’s a huge deal.
“I think it’s really significant that our city is thinking this way because once we lose our urban canopy, it’s almost impossible to get it back. So it’s all about tracking that balance.”
In a statement announcing the grant, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said the city’s “outdoors and natural beauty are among our city’s strongest assets, and this is a tremendous boon to the investments that the city and our local partners are already making to ensure that every neighborhood can share in the benefits of urban tree canopy cover.”
According to Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science, Chattanooga is the sixth fastest-warming city in the country. It documented a 4.1-degree rise in local temperatures between 1970 and 2018.
The IGTLab was created in 1995 to provide learning opportunities for students pursuing careers in GIS. The lab is a unit of the UTC Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.
“Our IGTLab is one of a very small handful of groups that use GIS for research across diverse fields, not just environmental science. They are very highly thought of in the research area of visualization of data,” said Dr. Joanne Romagni, vice chancellor for research and dean of the Graduate School.
Students who work in the lab often have jobs before they graduate, she said.
“Folks from across the country try to poach them before they finish,” Romagni said.
Some of the money from the USDA grant will be used to fund graduate research assistants in the IGTLab.
As part of the USDA project, the city will plant trees and other vegetation in at-risk neighborhoods with low tree canopy. Mix said UTC students will use GIS and other equipment to determine the most suitable places for tree-planting efforts.
“They also will analyze, detect, and quantify urban forest loss or gain, update existing assessments of urban forest extent and other land cover types, provide stakeholders with support by mapping where the new trees are planted, and develop tools to track and map invasive species,” he said.
“I envision our grad students being the GIS analysts and geospatial data scientists to support all this work by the city and partners on the grant while developing highly marketable geospatial science skills and experience. This project represents a multidisciplinary approach to solving complex issues, something that GIS and Chattanooga are both known for.”
Studies have shown that neighborhoods without significant tree canopies—areas known as “heat islands”—have significantly higher incidents of health issues than those with a large percentage of tree coverage.
“The whole idea is we want to maintain a green city because urban forests help mitigate the effects of urban heat islands and preserve biodiversity,” MIx said. “Our urban forests protect residents from chronic illnesses related to heat—things like heat strokes, obesity, mental health issues, etc.”
Urban forests also create “a better sense of place,” he said.
“By preserving our urban tree canopy, we are helping keep the Scenic City scenic, thus preserving a large part of our cultural identity in our little corner of southern Appalachia.”