652 To YOU || An Approach for a Collective Voice

Honor Award


John Dustin Toothman , Student ASLA; Wesley Lamberson; Whitney Brothers
Faculty Advisors: Brad Collett, ASLA
University of Tennessee at Knoxville

The Tennessee RiverLine project touches an enormous number of stakeholders and community members along 652 miles of waterway, and yet the students behind this communication effort developed meaningful ways to engage with multiple communities. Through public meetings, social intercepts, and tours of many of areas seeking direct interventions, students educated residents on the RiverLine pilot program, and then analyzed their responses to develop recommendations for pilot projects. These interactions showcased the range of landscape architects for rural audiences, who may not have understood the field prior to these exercises but now feel empowered to voice how their communities will use the river.

- 2020 Awards Jury

Project Credits

National Parks Fellow
Nathan Hilbert

Project Statement

652 to YOU is a comprehensive communications and public engagement strategy developed to raise awareness of the Tennessee RiverLine vision, and empower the public as a critical participant in the vision’s further development locally and regionally. Crafted by a team of students in the University of Tennessee School of Landscape Architecture in support of the Tennessee RiverLine Partnership, this system of events and participatory planning activities allowed leaders, residents, neighbors, and friends Tennessee River communities to offer feedback to this transformative vision, while creating a platform to share their own ideas about how their community’s relationship with the Tennessee River could be enhanced, unlocking latent potentials for economic resilience, public health and environmental stewardship. In the process, 652 to YOU built a robust and engaged foundation of grassroots supporters invested in the realization of North America’s next great regional trail system.

Project Narrative

Program Overview: The Tennessee RiverLine is a transformative initiative that seeks to unlock the latent potential of our region’s most storied yet underutilized landscapes. It accomplishes this through the establishment of a continuous system of trail experiences along the Tennessee River’s 652-mile reach. Its realization is dependent on the participation of Tennessee River communities, their leaders, residents, and visitors in the process of shaping this audacious vision.

652 to YOU is an immersive program strategically designed to empower diverse community members to become authors of the Tennessee RiverLine vision. It does this by creating opportunities for participants to share their experiences and ideas, provide feedback, and develop a conversation around challenges and opportunities relative to each community’s unique relationship with the Tennessee River.

Program Outcomes:
652 to You was designed to achieve a series of strategic outcomes. These included:

1. Share the current vision for the Tennessee RiverLine
2. Listen to new ideas that might be incorporated into the vision
3. Understand the existing perceptions, use patterns, and conditions related to the river and river access
4. Identify future opportunities through which communities can enhance its relationship the River
5. Understand how the Tennessee RiverLine Partnership can be a resource to help realize this enhanced relationship

Intended Audience: All Tennessee River communities were invited to apply to host a 652 to YOU program. Five were selected, representing Tennessee River communities of a range of sizes, types, means, and capacities. The target audience for local programming included residents, local government representatives, parks and recreation offices, business and organization leaders, and local media.

652 to YOU’s Primary Message(s):

1. The Tennessee RiverLine vision:
The Tennessee RiverLine is a continuous, multi-modal system of experiences along the Tennessee River from Knoxville, TN, to Paducah, KY, that:
● Celebrates the scenic beauty, rich diversity and storied history of the Tennessee River and the Tennessee River Valley
● Connects people and communities to each other, their river heritage and the Tennessee River landscape
● Catalyzes new investments in economic opportunity, social health and ecological stewardship

2. The Tennessee RiverLine offers a framework for your community to celebrate and enhance its relationship with the Tennessee River:
● Your community has a unique relationship with the Tennessee River today.
● The river is accessible today through immersive experiences and existing trail/access infrastructure.
● The river’s impact in your community can be enhanced through new investments that provide equitable access to all segments of your community’s population.
● Local efforts connect to establish a continuous system of experiences that becomes an international destination eco- and heritage-tourism.
● The resulting increase in river use promotes economic development and public health while inspiring new generations of river advocates and stewards.
● You have a part to play in shaping this future!

Communication Methods:
Application Recruitment: The solicitation for applications to the 652 to YOU program was sent to mayors, directors, and river champions in each of the 72 counties, cities and towns along the river’s reach through a designed mailing and email campaign.

Local Event Promotion and Participant Recruitment: Five digital media platforms were developed by the student team and launched to promote the Tennessee RiverLine vision and the 652 to YOU program, including tnriverline.org and social media accounts.

The student team collaborated with planning teams in each selected community to promote the local 652 to YOU program and recruit local participation. Various digital marketing and print communications tactics were integrated into community-specific media kits.

A communications plan was developed to guide the summer-long promotional effort. Social media was a primary tactic used to reach targeted audiences More than 22,000 individuals were reached through these efforts.

652 to YOU Programs
An immersive, three day program, 652 to YOU cultivated an unprecedented dialogue between community leaders and residents, agency representatives, organizations, and the Tennessee RiverLine Partnership. It includes four main elements to realize program outcomes:

1. Driving Tour and Leadership Workshop: Students and Partnership members accompanying local 652 to YOU planning team members on a driving tour that showcased existing Tennessee River access points and amenities, as well as landscapes of future opportunity. The tour established baseline understandings key to the ensuing half-day leadership workshop.This workshop engaged an average of 20 local business and government leaders in SWOT analysis, goal setting, action planning and prioritization activities.

2. River Experience: Local planning teams were asked to propose a “River Experience” that would allow the Tennessee RiverLine staff and community members to experience the Tennessee River. These events ranged from guided boat tours, community paddle events, and shoreline cleanups.

3. Community Engagement Event
Community members shared their experiences and ideas for enhanced access to the Tennessee River, learned about and provided feedback to the vision, prioritized future investments in RiverLine elements, and built a conversation around the Tennessee River in their community. Four activities were tailored to participants with diverse engagement preferences.

Map It!: The Map It! activity featured a table-top 6’x3’ map and a corresponding 12’x7’ wall mounted map of satellite imagery for the area. Participants were encouraged to interact with the maps by placing markers into areas where they currently engage in recreational activities or would like to improve in the future.

What If?: What If? allowed space for debate and discussion of potential future investments in river access and experiences. A series of boards with example images illustrated how the eight major RiverLine elements could take shape in their community. Priority markers allowed participants to vote on elements they think should be the highest investment priority in their community. Post-it notes allowed comments to “How would this benefit your community?” and “Why might it be challenging to implement this?”

Round Table Discussions: A facilitator began the conversation open-ended prompt of, “What would the Tennessee RiverLine mean to your community?” Participants joined the table for anywhere from 3-10 minutes to discuss opportunities, concerns, and their ideas for moving the community’s relationship with the river and Tennessee RiverLine forward.

Registration and Exit Surveys: Registration and exit surveys were used to understand participant demographics, feedback about the event, and participants’ final reaction to the Tennessee RiverLine vision.


In collaboration with data analytics and programming specialists from the global design firm, Sasaki, the student team designed an innovative online survey to give Tennessee River community members unable to participate in 652 to YOU pilot community programming an opportunity to contribute their feedback and ideas for the Tennessee RiverLine vision. RiverGauge included a map-based tool that complemented the in-person Map It! activity and a survey to collect qualitative feedback and demographic information.

Community Reports and Tennessee RiverLine Summit

Students and Partnership members synthesized data, formatted findings, and offered recommendations for pilot projects in reports for each 652 to YOU community. Local reports and comprehensive program findings were shared with representatives of the 652 to YOU communities and members of the Tennessee RiverLine Partnership at the 2020 Tennessee RiverLine Summit.

Impact and Effectiveness
The overwhelming success of the 652 to YOU program to communicate the Tennessee RiverLine vision and to give a voice to Tennessee River communities is in part demonstrated by these metrics:
● 17 applications to the 652 to YOU program, representing 34 communities home to 1.25 million people in three states
● 325 community leaders and residents engaged face-to-face in five 652 to YOU events
● 314 RiverGauge respondents, offering 2,800 geospatial data points
● 43 local media placements in three states
● 7,400+ tnriverline.org visits
● 940 Facebook fans, 360 Instagram followers, 1,007 email subscribers

Its success is more completely demonstrated by the robust dialogue and diverse community it has built around the future of the Tennessee River, the insights it has revealed that will shape local and regional efforts moving forward, and the momentum it has established that accelerates the Tennessee RiverLine vision toward implementation.