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ISSE Seed Project: Microenvironments, Vulnerability, and Resilience in the City of Knoxville—A Comparative Study of Four Urban Neighborhoods

Team: Kelsey Ellis, Geography; Jon Hathaway, Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Lisa Reyes Mason, Social Work

2014-2015 Report

picture of weather station
Weather station in Burlington

Project Summary: As urbanization escalates, understanding the impact of expanding cities is of extreme importance to human and environmental well-being. This study uses a multidisciplinary approach to monitor urban environmental conditions and understand their impact on diverse populations in the City of Knoxville. To launch the study, 10 sensor-based monitoring stations (Phase I) were mounted in four neighborhoods (West Hills, Burlington, Vestal, and Lonsdale), with control stations in Downtown Knoxville and Ijams Nature Center. Study neighborhoods were chosen for geographic and topographic reasons, as well as for social and economic diversity. West Hills is a predominantly white and middle-to-upper-income neighborhood. Burlington, Vestal, and Lonsdale are more racially and ethnically diverse, and in general house more lower- to middle-income residents. Since July 2014, stations have recorded temperature, humidity, and wind data in five-minute increments. Ongoing social research examines people’s perspectives and experiences with environmental conditions–such as temperature extremes, air quality, and urban green space–and considers their interests and preferences for accessing more localized environmental data.

Progress: Since launching Phase I, a complete year of monitoring data has been collected. In consultation with Dr. Mark Dean (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, EECS), a senior undergraduate design team developed a Phase II monitor with additional sensor capabilities, which was further refined by an EECS graduate student. The Phase II monitor will be pilot tested on the University of Tennessee campus. A monitor with a mesh-network design enabling communication among stations and remote access of data will now be developed for Phase III. Completed social research includes in-depth interviews (N=20) with residents of the four study neighborhoods; phone surveys (N=200) with a random sample of City of Knoxville residents; and focus groups (N=6) with residents from different geographic areas of the city.

graph of neighborhood comparisons

Initial Results and Implications: Based on the first complete year of monitoring data, neighborhoods experienced statistically significant temperature differences, operating somewhere between the warm Downtown and cooler IJAMS observations. Within a given neighborhood, tree cover helps negate daytime heat but does not have as large of an influence on minimum temperature. Results suggest that distance from the city center does not impact temperature as much as land use factors. Social research also points to interesting differences among neighborhoods. Qualitative themes include: (1) social and economic effects of weather extremes, (2) air quality concern and assessment, (3) green space and urban development, and (4) attitudes and resources for environmental action. One noted difference among neighborhoods is greater concern about the social, health, and financial impacts of extreme weather among Burlington, Vestal, and Lonsdale participants (i.e., those with comparatively less advantages) than those from West Hills. Another is a concern about neighborhood air quality among some Vestal and Lonsdale participants, but little to no air quality concerns among participants from West Hills or Burlington. Taken together, monitoring and social data may help identify priority areas for policies and programs that improve urban environmental conditions for those most adversely affected.

2013-2014 Report

Project Summary

picture of student

As we shift toward a largely urban society, understanding the impact of expanding cities and suburbs is of extreme importance. Cities are known to influence the local climatology and hydrology, among other environmental factors. At a smaller scale, research suggests that microclimates exist across and within neighborhoods, which may relate to social vulnerability and resilience to environmental change in ways that matter for program and policy development. This study uses an interdisciplinary approach to extend beyond the concept of microclimates to that of microenvironments. The main objective is to use sensor-based monitoring and qualitative data collection to understand environmental variability between four Knoxville neighborhoods, and its relationship to land use decisions and resident perceptions of environmental problems and priorities.


A group of students installed ten monitoring stations in the month of June (see picture): two each in four neighborhoods (West Hills, Vestal, Burlington, and Lonsdale), and control locations in Downtown Knoxville and in Ijams Nature Center. Sensors are currently recording temperature, humidity, and wind data in five minute increments. In-depth surveys are ongoing with residents of each neighborhood, focusing on their perceptions of their local environment.

Initial Results

temperature graph

Temperature data indicate significant differences between neighborhoods across Knoxville (see graph for first few days of temperature data), especially at night. However, any two stations located in the same neighborhood did not exhibit significant differences in temperature. This suggests that neighborhood-scale characteristics and overall location relative to downtown account for more differences in climate than smaller-scale attributes such as a tree cluster. This hypothesis will continue to be tested as data are collected. Qualitative interviews have guided our decisions on which variables will be monitored moving into Phase 2 of the project (see below) and are shedding light on how environmental priorities may vary among neighborhoods. Focus groups and phone surveys are scheduled to gain information on how residents would like to access and utilize local environmental data.

Goals for FY 2014–2015

The project will enter Phase 2 in the spring semester, when (1) improved sensor platforms (monitoring more variables, including air quality, light and noise) designed by Electrical Engineering and Computer Science undergraduate students are built and installed, and (2) a phone survey is conducted with a random sample of neighborhood residents. A proposal was submitted to NSF in February 2014 to request additional funds to increase the number of sensors to 100, and create platforms for sharing data with citizens, city planners, and schools.