A new initiative to combine the expertise of Cleveland city officials and students at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville got underway with a meeting Monday.
Cleveland was chosen to take part in the inaugural year of a new program called the Smart Communities Initiative that will allow students to work with city officials and create proposals on ways to address city planning concerns.
Beginning this fall, students and faculty will begin looking at ways to address everything from transportation needs to tourism in Cleveland.
By the end of each semester, the university’s goal is for the students to have created proposals they can present to the city to be considered for real-life implementation.
“This is an exciting partnership,” City Manager Janice Casteel said.
Monday’s meeting was a time for Cleveland officials and university representatives to get together and discuss the projects so the university can choose which projects its students could most likely accomplish.
When applying to be part of the new program, the city proposed 19 different projects for the university’s consideration. Those who attended the Monday meeting divided themselves into groups to address different areas of concern and discuss each project, with the goal of helping narrow down the possibilities of what the university students will be able to do.
The projects range from designing bus shelters to accommodate an expansion of Cleveland’s public transit system to making plans to extending the Cleveland/Bradley County Greenway.
Other projects included designing a new veterans park; creating a mountain biking course off Exit 20; creating a marketing and branding plan for the city; looking for ways to add roadside sidewalks along Wildwood Avenue, Inman Street and Blythe Avenue; studying the possibility of expanding the local health department; redeveloping the property vacated by Whirlpool Corporation when it moved most of its operations from downtown Cleveland; and looking at ways to address various traffic and housing-related needs.
Cleveland Planning Director Greg Thomas said the new partnership could allow the city to address some concerns in a more timely manner.
While the city has multiple options for pursuing funding, like applying for grants, many funding proposals require cities to have already made specific and concrete plans to addresss them. Students’ proposals could potentially include designs that could be built.
“It’s not only planning,” Thomas said. “It’s design and advancing some programs that might not get advanced.”
He stressed it is important for the city government to continue to think ahead on matters that have to do with the city’s continued growth.
According to Cleveland’s Comprehensive Plan, the city’s population is expected to grow by an additional 35,000 by the year 2035. That is also expected to lead to there being 14,000 new households and 19,000 new jobs. Continued population growth is also expected outside the city limits in places like Charleston.
“Growth is coming, whether or not we plan for it,” Thomas said.
He said he hoped the project would ultimately result in the city having more concrete plans to address future needs as the city continues to grow.
The university’s Smart Communities program was inspired by a similar program at the University of Oregon called the Sustainable City Year program.
Kelly Ellenburg, Tennessee’s campus coordinator for service learning, said the school had been looking for ways to have students serve the community and gain good work experience at the same time.
Students from a variety of disciplines, including ones like architectural design, business and marketing will work with the new program under faculty supervision.
“We’d like to capitalize on all of our assets in different disciplines,” Ellenburg said.
Students will earn college credit while they tackle projects as part of two new undergraduate courses where students will learn about “design thinking,” learning to plan for the future and designing ways to address future needs.
David Matthews, a professor and the university’s chair of interior design, will be co-teaching the courses with a business professor. He said the classes will be entirely project-based.
“It’s really putting rigor against how we think about the future,” he said.
Ellenburg said she hopes the Smart Communities Initiative will become a long-term project for the university, and its current plan is to work with a different city each year.
Cities within 90 miles of the university’s Knoxville campus were invited to apply to take part in the program’s first year.
According to the announcement inviting cities to apply, it will cost the city between $3,000 and $9,000 per project to offset costs for things like materials and travel. The Cleveland City Council has already voted to allocate $100,000 toward participating in the program.
Ellenburg said those overseeing the program at the university will generally choose to work on between 15 and 20 of a city’s projects each year. While Cleveland’s 19 project proposals fall within that limit, there is no guarantee all the projects will be chosen.
The final sites university representatives will choose to have their students tackle are set to be decided at a later date, and Ellenburg said contracts between the university and the city will be created to ensure everyone knows who is doing what.
Thomas said he believes they hope to have those contracts written and signed by June 1 so they can have time to plan things for the fall semester.
The students taking part in the program will begin work in the fall.
“They’re excited to be applying their learning toward real-world problems,” Ellenburg said.