From preservation to reinvention
Cut off from the rest of the city by the river, South Knoxville was not always on everyone’s radar. But in 2007, historians and archeologists worried that the remnants of three Civil War forts there, Fort Dickerson, Fort Higley, and Fort Stanley, could be destroyed by development. At that point, Knoxvillians began to talk seriously about protecting the remaining natural ridgetops in the city, said Carol Evans, executive director of Legacy Parks Foundation.
A private, not-for-profit, Legacy Parks Foundation was formed in 2005 with the blessing of city and county officials as a way to raise private funds for the support of the area’s green spaces, public parks, and waterways. Evans, a former marketing executive, took the executive director’s spot in 2007. Since then the group has preserved almost 1,000 acres of forest and farmland and added more than 600 acres of parkland to Knox County.
The potential development of the ridgetops “... caused everyone to look at [South Knoxville] differently,” Evans said. The Aslan Foundation purchased two pieces of property to preserve them, lands that are now High Ground Park and the Loghaven Artist Residency, and, in 2008, the Legacy Parks Foundation raised $1.5 million to buy the 70-acre River Bluff Wildlife Area. People from all over the city contributed.
At the other end of what was then called, somewhat inelegantly, the “Urban Wilderness and Historic Corridor,” Brian Hann and other members of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club had been developing bike trails. [They actually had already been developing them on private parts of property — not entirely “officially.”]
“You had a historic hub on one end and a recreational hub on the other, with the south waterfront in the middle,” Evans said. “It all aligned at just the right time.”
One of the most recent additions to the Urban Wilderness is Baker Creek Preserve. The 100-acre property, donated by the Wood family a few years ago, is home to the Baker Creek Bike Park and Baker Creek Play Forest.
The Urban Wilderness also includes Ijams Nature Center. For years, that forested city gem was something of a secret known mainly to the area’s bird watchers and weekend amblers. Today, popular family attractions at Ijams include paddleboat rides at Mead’s Quarry and a Navitat tree canopy adventure.
Until now, the Urban Wilderness has lacked a central focal point or obvious entryway, which will be provided by the Urban Wilderness Gateway Park, currently under construction at the southern end of James White Parkway, where what locals call “the road to nowhere” dead-ends. With land along James White Parkway given to the city by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the city is investing $10 million in the project, which will eventually connect Baker Creek Preserve and Morningside Park, across the river.
“It will better connect the surrounding neighborhoods to amenities,” Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said. “It will also serve as a jumping-off point for visitors who want to come and create an outdoor adventure of their choosing.”
One of the first phases of the park is done, and the next phase will include landscaped parking areas, shaded structures, expanded play areas, pedestrian pathways, restrooms, and more.
“It’s exciting to see these innovative plans and community collaboration come to fruition,” Kincannon said. “The park build-out is continuing, so there’s a lot more to come.”
In deciding what group does what, Justice said, “It’s a question of who’s good at what?” Legacy Parks, for example, is terrific at land acquisition and stewardship; the city is good at crunching numbers; and the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, Justice said, “builds the best bike trails in the South.”
A livable city
“It isn’t forced,” she said. For her, watching businesses and opportunities flourish within and on the boundaries of the Urban Wilderness has been one of the real pleasures of the ongoing project. People now see the protected green spaces and ridges as amenities and not as spaces for development. They enhance growth — they don’t prevent it.
“Being livable matters,” Evans said.
Given a choice in where to live, people will always pick the place with better outdoor amenities, said Ed McAlister, the founder of River Sports Outfitters. McAlister has been touting Knoxville as a walkable, bikeable city since then-mayor Victor Ashe established the city’s greenways in the early 1990s.
While people always talk about getting outdoors and exercising more, this year’s changes mean more of them are actually doing it.
“They’re riding bikes, they’re in boats, they’re walking,” McAlister said.
McAlister thinks one advantage of the Urban Wilderness is the opportunity it affords “for the average person to go out and do something and feel good about it.”
Instead of stressing about getting to the mountains to hike, visitors can just step out of their cars and take a stroll to the Forks of the River to see the sunflowers.
More recently, with a grant from International Mountain Bike Association and Bell Helmets, the club built the Devil’s Racetrack at Baker Creek Bike Park in Baker Creek Preserve.
Within the mountain-biking community, “It put Knoxville on the national map instantly.”
“We’re Knoxville, and we’re really proud of what we have.”