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Who is Using Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness?

First-of-Its-Kind Study Reveals Lack of Diversity Among Users

It’s no secret that physical activity provides numerous health benefits. In addition to getting into shape, research has shown that getting off the couch benefits our mental health and social well-being. To get the most out of our activity, studies say that we should get an equivalent of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, along with 2 days of muscle-strengthening activities per week.

While that might sound like a lot of effort, even the smallest amount of activity can be beneficial. Just taking a walk, or riding a bike can reduce your risk of mortality from 10 to 11 percent, according to a 2014 study by Paul Kelly and colleagues from the British Health Foundation.

“Currently in the United States, adults report walking to be their top-choice for leisure-time physical activity, with bicycling the fifth most popular leisure-time physical activity,” according to Eugene Fitzhugh.

Portrait photo of Eugene Fitzhugh. A while male with brown hair and a beard wearing a suit.

Eugene Fitzhugh

Fitzhugh is an associate professor in the department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sports Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His research interests focus on how a person’s built environment, such as an outdoor park or other type of recreation area, may help promote their physical activity.

Fitzhugh, along with colleagues from UT’s Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy recently released a first-of-its-kind study of the Knoxville Urban Wilderness (KUW) Trail System and Baker Creek Preserve Bike Park. The KUW is made up of over 60 miles of trails and greenways located within Knoxville’s city limits. The KUW includes a nature center, lakes, historic sites, playgrounds, five city parks, and a 600-acre wildlife area. According to a 2015 study, it is estimated that the KUW enhances the local Knoxville economy by nearly 15 million dollars.

Seeking Answers

In the report, Fitzhugh and his colleagues outline three areas of interest:

  • How many people use the KUW trail system?
  • What are the demographics of the people using the KUW trails, including the Baker Creek Bike Park?
  • What types of physical activities do people do while at KUW and Baker Creek Bike Park?
Photo of trail at Knoxville Urban Wilderness on a sunny day

A trail at Knoxville Urban Wilderness

In order to provide an accurate measurement of how many people regularly use the KUW trail system, the researchers placed 11 infrared counters on trails throughout the KUW. Each time a person passed the counter, a timestamp recorded the exact day and time, and the timestamped passes were downloaded to an online software platform.

In putting together a demographic profile of users at the Baker Creek Bike Park, the researchers and over 50 undergraduate Kinesiology students, directly observed the physical activity throughout the trail system and bike park for 4 days (Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday) at 4 time points each day (morning, lunch, afternoon, and evening), during the 3rd week of 4 months of the year, from April 2021 to January 2022.

“Due to the rigor of research design, this study wouldn’t have been possible without our undergraduate students who spend countless hours battling the elements in the winter and summer,” said Fitzhugh.

Who is Using the KUW and Baker Creek Bike Park?

Photo of biker airborne as they travel down Knoxville Urban Wilderness bike trail.

A biker navigates a bike trail at Baker Creek Preserve Bike Park

The study estimated that over 300,000 people took advantage of the KUW trail system during 2021. The majority of users consisted of mountain bikers at 51 percent, while the second highest group included walkers at 34 percent. The study found the vast majority of users to be white adult males, with very little representation by people of color. The most popular access locations include Baker Creek Preserve and Ijams Quarry due to a large number of amenities, including parking.

“I think it is an understatement to say that people are using the KUW as a place to access and enjoy nature while getting health-enhancing physical activity in the leisure-time, all within a few miles of the university and downtown Knoxville,” said Fitzhugh.

A Lack of Diversity Among the Users

One of the more striking findings is that Knoxville’s urban recreation areas appear to be vastly underutilized by people of color and females. In fact, only five percent of those using the KUW were people of color, despite census data showing a much larger population in the area. The report speculates on several reasons why minority populations aren’t utilizing the KUW. First, bicycling and walking, the top activities on the KUW trails, have much lower prevalence among minority populations compared to White populations. Forest environments similar to the KUW, may be more likely to be perceived as not being safe places to visit among minority populations. Specific to social media, current images of people at the KUW being active lack diversity which may not be inviting to minority populations. The report goes onto identify current and future initiatives that may increase the diversity of KUW users, including minorities and females. Based on current research, several factors may explain the low usage numbers, including:

  • Minority populations, compared to non-Hispanic Whites, across the United States are significantly less likely to bicycle or walk, the predominate physical activities observed across the KUW. (Whitfield et al., 2018)
  • Perhaps the KUW trails and their walking, running, and mountain biking are just not preferred leisure-time physical activities among minority populations which contributes to this low level of visitation to the trails and bike park. Specific to mountain biking, Singletracks, a leading website, estimates that among their readership estimated to be 1 million mountain bikers per month, that 90% are white. (Singletracks, 2023) Also, 69% of trail runners have been found to be White. (Ronto, 2021)
  • African Americans, the largest minority population in Knoxville, are less likely to visit forest environments similar to the KUW because of perceived threats from wildlife and other humans. (Black Faces, White Spaces page 8-9). Perhaps the structure and design of the KUW is not perceived as a safe place to visit and recreate.
  • Social media, historically, has used few images of people of color in nature and outdoor recreation spaces which may limit feelings of inclusion and welcoming. (Swinney, 2014)
  • Mountain biking on single-track trails similar to the KUW trail system may not be the preferred type of bicycling among people of color. A study among African-Americans found that there was a preference of bicycling on wide tracks that would allow for social riding in groups.

Increased Health Benefits

For the estimated 300,000+ users, the KUW is an excellent opportunity to increase physical activity. While most of the activities are made up of mountain biking, walking, and running, it goes a long way to help people meet the recommended aerobic physical guidelines for adult Americans. In addition, the kid’s bicycle pump track and adventure park at Baker Creek are venues for children and teenagers to meet the recommended 60-minutes or more of aerobic physical activity per day, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“The University continues to work the City of Knoxville and KUW partners in tracking the use of the KUW. In addition, the research team will soon be reports on the economic and health impact of the people visiting the KUW. Fitzhugh said ‘I think it is safe to say that the use of the KUW trail system and bike park will continue to increase in the foreseeable future as new amenities and trails are created.’

You can watch a recent news story from WBIR-TV about the study here.

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