Meet the Mayor: Knoxville, Tennessee’s Madeline Rogero

June 1, 2014, Department, by Sage Learn

Knoxville, Tennessee’s Mayor Madeline Rogero is a dedicated supporter of her city’s parks and works to ensure Knoxvillians have access to nature. When Madeline Rogero was elected the 68th mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, and took office in December 2011, she became the first woman to hold the position. Her career includes stints serving as the city’s community development director, Knox County commissioner, nonprofit executive, urban and regional planner, community volunteer and neighborhood champion. She is a former consultant to Capital One and America’s Promise, and the former executive director of Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Foundation and of Knoxville’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth. In addition to serving as the mayor of Knoville, she also serves on President Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s Task Force on Aging. She holds a B.A. in political science from Furman University and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Tennessee.

Mayor Rogero has taken many steps that have led to Knoxville being recognized as a premier outdoor recreation community, including supporting the launch of Outdoor Knoxville, a three-pronged initiative to capitalize on the exceptional outdoor recreational assets found in and around Knoxville. Outdoor Knoxville, managed by the nonprofit Legacy Parks Foundation, includes a new Adventure Center, a website and a three-day spring festival. The mayor is also committed to connecting parks and neighborhoods by expanding the city’s greenway system throughout Knoxville, and she’s established Knoxville as a Let’s Move! city.

Mayor Rogero is dedicated to promoting a vibrant local economy, strong neighborhoods, a high quality of life, a thriving downtown and a greener Knoxville. She believes Knoxville’s strength comes from the diversity of its people and the beauty of its natural resources. 

Parks & Recreation Magazine: Why do you think outdoor recreation is important to the health of both your city and its individual citizens, and what is your administration doing to promote outdoor recreation opportunities?

Mayor Madeline Rogero: Outdoor recreation is something that Knoxvillians place a high value on, no question about it. There’s a positive vibe here, a sense of energy, about new and expanding options for getting out and getting active. We spend a lot of time and effort in city government planning and partnering with nonprofit groups and outdoor enthusiasts on new ways to improve and promote outdoor recreation in Knoxville.

Its importance is obvious, as is the progress we’re making in promoting healthy lifestyles. Knoxvillians, especially youngsters, are taking steps to eat better and exercise more. Tennessee typically makes the Bottom 10 list on national obesity rankings, but Knoxville has been recognized as a top-achieving city by the Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties initiative.

What are we doing that’s working well? We’re working with partners like the Legacy Parks Foundation to brand and connect our 1,000-acre Urban Wilderness in South Knoxville, and the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, which has invested thousands of hours cutting trails for hiking, trail running and mountain biking.

Such partnerships are crucial, and the good results reap dividends over and over again. For example, Ijams Nature Center in the Urban Wilderness is a nature preserve that is working with the Boys and Girls Club to offer a youth outdoor camp for the first time this summer. 

Not far from Ijams, the Legacy Parks Foundation and the City of Knoxville in 2012 opened the Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center. This facility is close to the Tennessee River and is on a 17-mile connection of paved greenways that run east-to-west through downtown.

Visitors to Outdoor Knoxville can rent a bike to ride on the greenways, or rent a canoe, a kayak or a paddleboard to go out on the river, or simply get recreation information in one centralized spot.

Recreation center leaders from our park and recreation department partner with Outdoor Knoxville to take kids on hikes and river paddles, part of the “Kids Outside” program.

Overall, the City of Knoxville has more than 2,000 acres of parks and 85 miles of greenways and trails.

We see ourselves as a city on the move, and the response from Knoxvillians to exciting expansions in our outdoor recreation options has been overwhelmingly positive. People never tell me they want to do less. They see good things happening, and they want to accelerate.

P&R: You are holding a Seniors Outdoors! event to introduce seniors to more outdoor activities. Why is senior wellness a particular focus for you?

Rogero: Seniors Outdoors! at Ijams Nature Center is really a great event. The City is one of many sponsors. It’s an urban wilderness event for people who are 60 or older, and it offers a half-day of guided strolls, hikes, and kayaking and mountain-biking demonstrations. The goal is to introduce seniors to the wealth of outdoor opportunities within Knoxville’s city limits. We have a new generation of senior citizens who grew up with outdoor sports, whose idea of retirement is finally having free time to paddleboard or hike the entirety of the Great Smoky Mountains.

As a mayor who personally enjoys kayaking and being out on the river, I understand how being active and being outdoors leads to mental and physical wellness. I want to help make sure Knoxville’s seniors have those opportunities.

P&R: Knoxville is part of the NRPA Commit to Health Initiative that involves committing to healthy eating and physical standards. Why is this a priority?

Rogero: It’s a priority because the need is great, and we’re making headway and getting good results.

Since 2009, the percentage of children screened in Knox County Schools who were either overweight or obese dropped from 39 percent to 33.2 percent.That’s a dramatic drop in a short time, and the City of Knoxville has been working with many partners to address childhood obesity on all fronts.

Through our After School and Summer Playground programs at the city’s 12 community centers, we serve healthy snacks to up to 1,000 children daily. In 2013, that totaled almost 70,000 healthy snacks and meals. Our goal is to help introduce children to healthy foods and, longer term, we want to encourage Knoxville families to make good food choices. 

P&R: We also asked Joe Walsh,  director of the Knoxville Parks and Recreation Department: Why is Mayor Rogero’s support for parks and recreation so important to the continued success of Knoxville’s parks? What does she do to support them?

Walsh: Mayor Rogero realizes that quality of life is important and that there should be opportunities for citizens of all socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds. Access for everyone is important. She has taken steps to accomplish this through increasing the greenway system and as part of the Governor’s Task Force on Aging. The Mayor sees the importance of supporting and funding the parks system and offers services across the city, supporting infrastructure and making it a walkable city by increasing trails systems and crosswalks.

Interview by Sage Learn, NRPA’s Government Affairs Manager