University of Tennessee

Research Project Highlights Strong Economic Impact of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness

July 20, 2021

Local residents who take advantage of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness (KUW) have long known what a valuable resource it is for recreation, health, fitness and overall quality of life. Now researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business are working to estimate its economic value as well.

In 2015, Charles Sims, associate professor of economics at Haslam and director of the Energy and Environment Program at the university’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, estimated that KUW brings in $14.7 million dollars to the area’s economy each year. However, that estimate lacked real-time data about how many people use KUW spaces and how much money those visitors spend at restaurants, bike shops and other local businesses.

To get a more accurate picture of KUW’s economic impact, a team of UT researchers placed 11 infrared counters at strategic points along the trail system during the 2020-21 academic year. Students from Sims’ Environmental Economics (ECON 463) class recorded the number, direction and activity (running, walking, biking) of each visitor, along with basic demographic information. Working with Eugene Fitzhugh, associate professor of kinesiology, recreation and sport studies in UT’s College of Education, Health and Human Sciences to validate the trail counters and ensure data accuracy, the students estimated the average number of people who visit KUW.

The researchers also created a survey to determine visitors’ sociodemographic details, how much they spend when visiting KUW and what types of businesses they patronize. With Sims, the students then used the survey responses to discover the economic impact created by each trail user and to project the total economic impact of the area.

“Studies like this help remind the larger Knox County community that doesn’t necessarily frequent the KUW that it benefits them as well,” Sims said. “These visitors spend money in the local community, creating jobs and tax revenues.”

Lexie Judd (HCB, May ‘21), who majored in economics and minored in political science, was one of the students who participated in the project. She became interested in environmental economics because of the subject’s relevance in the creation of public policy.

“While local governments may have to be savvy with their budgets, surveys can help them to create fiscal priorities and adjust them as needed to ensure their green spaces continue to be valued by users,” she said. “Projects like this have the capacity to shift public opinion and get more green spaces into cities across the country.”

Sims said quantifying the economic impact of KUW is more important than ever because the area has become a national destination for mountain biking. On a weekday afternoon in spring 2021, the researchers found that out of 17 cars parked at the Baker Creek trailhead, nine were from out of state. 

“Instead of a short-term burst of visitors like you would have with a UT football game or a conference at the convention center, you get a smaller continuous stream of visitors,” he said. “Over the course of a year, it really adds up.”

The survey and trail count will continue through November 2021, with a report of the study’s findings anticipated in the summer of 2022.


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist,