The Parkway: A curated legacy
Essay by Aisling O’Carroll
The parkway is the quintessential American road typology. In a nation so tied to the automobile, it combines recreational motoring with the scenic symbolism of the American landscape. These roads, offering a blend of leisure, infrastructure, and cultural heritage, have shaped the way we move through and view landscapes and regions, and yet the scale of their impact on physical surroundings is often underestimated.
The Parkway Typology
A parkway is, by general definition, a strip of public land intended for recreational travel rather than the movement of major segments of traffic. The primary purpose of the road is to provide a visual experience, revealing a significant scenic or cultural quality in the landscape. The term “parkway” refers not simply to the road itself, but rather to both the road and the park corridor within which it lies. This generous right-of-way provides a visual buffer between the motorist and adjacent properties, allowing for a continuous, uninterrupted scenic experience. While the parkway typology has been realized in a variety of forms and contexts, each iteration shares the characteristic of limited access and a buffered condition. This characteristic is also what most clearly distinguishes the parkway from early boulevards and other beautified roads.1 The emergence and evolution of the parkway can be traced through the formal institutions of the National Park Service (NPS) and federal, state, and municipal transportation planning. These organizations began considering the visual character of roads, and integrating them with parks and landscapes as a way of appealing to a growing number of motor tourists in the early twentieth century. The parkway’s history can be further traced through the early history of landscape architecture in America. In the late 1800s the pioneers of American landscape architecture, including Olmsted and Vaux, introduced the term “parkway” to refer to roads set in generous landscaped corridors, and simultaneously began to focus attention on the sequence and experience of roads within gardens and landscapes. 2 3 4 The first parkways in North America emerged between 1880-1900 as landscaped connectors between urban areas, or between parks and urban areas. These roads were essentially a North American interpretation of the European avenues and boulevards of the nineteenth century, combined with a concept of the picturesque carriageways of English parks and gardens.5 The parkway typology later evolved to exist independent of its function as a connector, and came to refer to a road set within a park or scenic, often native, landscape. In this iteration, the parkway was no longer simply a connecting element, but instead it became the destination itself, allowing the roads to take on a new role and definition in the regional context. In both cases6, the term “parkway” offered a democratic interpretation of the elitist ideals of the avenue and boulevard, and evoked pastoral associations, indicative of the period’s popular fascination with the American countryside.7 While roads like the Bronx River Parkway have become part of many Americans day-to-day experience, the scenic rural parkways are what grew into icons of national values, beloved by the country, and interpreted by locals and tourists alike as the definitive American experience.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is the ultimate model of the popular American destination parkway, and has grown to the status of venerated landmark in national culture. The road is wholeheartedly dedicated to tourist recreation and the promotion of regional heritage and scenic landscape qualities. Winding its way through the Blue Ridge Mountains, the parkway stretches 469 miles, linking the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Western North Carolina. The road offers visitors an impressive and unrivaled sequence of vistas and views over forested mountain slopes, pastoral landscapes, and scenes of early mountain life. Over 200 overlooks dot the miles of road, and numerous campgrounds, parks, visitor centers, and lodges offer activities, amenities, and accommodation to visitors. These moments interrupt the seamless road, and give drivers the opportunity to leave the car and experience the forested mountains more intimately. The parkway’s route was planned to provide variety and continuing interest along its length by traversing mountain ridges, stream valleys, and deeper forests, and designed to support a multi-day driving experience for families and visitors.8
The concept for an Appalachian parkway emerged at a strategic moment, when the concurrent state of growing regional conservation efforts, a declining economy, and booming auto-ownership set the stage for political and public support. Through the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Southern Appalachians were heavily exploited for natural resources. As access to the mountains increased with expanding rail networks, the Appalachian region was quickly identified as a verdant wealth of natural resources. Lumber and tanning companies soon established themselves throughout the region.9 The rabid thirst for resources by industrial logging and agricultural practices rapidly denuded the landscape—a process that was accelerated by the influx of population and pathogens. By the 1920s, the mountains were finally becoming accessible to the general American public, but the slopes were a ghost of the forests that previously existed. Stripped of trees, the landscape was susceptible to wildfire and the soils became degraded and eroded, presenting a scene of vast environmental devastation.10 The scale and visibility of this destruction prompted a widespread public response, which took the form of an aggressive conservation movement calling for the protection and preservation of the mountain slopes and forests.11 12 Concurrent with the formation and establishment of this conservation movement in the rural landscape, auto-ownership was booming in American cities and national attention became focused on the improvement and expansion of road networks. National car registration exploded in the decades following 1910.13 Country roads, which previously fell under the jurisdiction of farmers, were suddenly available and attractive to city-dwellers who now had the means to leave the city at their own volition and explore the landscape. As the campaign for improved quality and connectivity of roads spread, Good Roads associations were established throughout the country and began to attract the attention of business leaders with interests in tourist highways. The idea of a tourist route through the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains was first raised in 1909 by the Southern Appalachians Good Roads Association. 14 15 The concept was tossed around for the next two decades, while auto tourism became well established as a national pastime, and the NPS began formally integrating roads for access and leisure throughout parks across the country. Recreational motoring promised to bring tourists to the heart of America, and automobile touring became a symbolic act of national patriotism. This growing form of middle-class leisure was a direct extension of the infrastructure of the modern nation-state. 16 17
As the country slipped into depression, the idea of the Appalachian parkway garnered new traction as a way of providing both employment to a region desperately in need, and the potential for new economic growth through the tourism industry spawned by the parkway.18 In 1933 the parkway was authorized under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. The Public Works Administration (PWA), under the NIRA, directed money towards the NPS for construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, covering the entire cost of the project, excluding land acquisition. The NPS was responsible for the planning, design, and management of the parkway, while the Bureau of Public Roads took over the engineering and construction of the roadway.19 The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) completed much of the construction of roadside and park facilities, and planting throughout the parkway corridor between 1935 and 1943, while contractors did most of the roadbed construction work. 20 21 The legacy of the road as an economic generator and source of employment has contributed to the celebration of the parkway, and its designation as an “All-American Road.” 22 23
At the beginning of the twentieth century, wilderness and nature were widely considered to have beneficial restorative effects, promoted to counter the influence of urban dwelling. The National Park Service was a strong proponent of these benefits and advocated both the inherent edifying quality of exposure to nature, as well as the programmatic opportunity of education through projects like the parkway. 24 25 The visual experience of the Blue Ridge Parkway was intended to emphasize the cultural landscape, and evoke the pioneering spirit through pastoral vernacular scenes.26 These values of the NPS were complimentary to the motivations of the conservation movement and nationalistic heritage tourism, both of which helped spur the development of the regional parkway, glorifying the American landscape and the idyllic agrarian history.
Curation and Construction of a Legacy
The legacy of the road has taken on a significant role in the culture of the United States. The preservation of the original intended themes is a testament to early parkway designers and planners. For the parkway’s fiftieth anniversary, Southern Living magazine put out a cover story and described the essence of the scenic road:
The parkway is a good road, a road that does not fight the mountains—their geography, geology, or history—but rather follows their every twist and turn, every ascent and descent. The parkway never seems an intruder among these mountains.27
The strength of the parkway is in its scale, its apparent ease and harmonious coexistence with the landscape, and its effortless presentation of American wilderness and vernacular beauty. Beneath the surface, however, the parkway is a thoroughly controlled landscape experience, thus the narrative of the road is rigorously curated, and its legacy intentionally planned, constructed, and maintained. This harmonious and idyllic pastoral aesthetic is in fact the product of a combination of pro-business support for recreational motoring and an aggressively nationalistic heritage tourism. The planning of the road was a significant feat. Construction of the parkway began in 1935. The project, led by Stanley Abbott, Resident Landscape Architect for the parkway, was a true collaboration between the NPS and the BPR. Abbott, along with R. Getty Browning, chief locating engineer with the North Carolina State Highway Commission, planned the route through field reconnaissance and on foot.28 Together, the two laid out a course for the road that would ultimately determine the character and experience of the drive. While the selection of the route was closely tied to the landscape—responding to topography, natural features, significant framed views—the process was also unavoidably political. 29 30 Given the industrial denudation that preceded the parkway, the road was planned through a largely barren, cut over, and burnt out landscape. The designers had the vision to imagine and plan for the scenic within this context. It was, however, through careful planning and curation of the road, its layout and its planting, that carried this vision through to the public spectacle of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Views and vistas were created by careful and strategic planting along the roadside, and maintained periodically to preserve the visual connection. Detailed Parkway Land Use Maps (PLUMs) were drawn for the entire length of the parkway, calling out every overlook, visitor amenity, and vernacular artifact, and additionally laying out roadside plantings, areas of clearings, and identifying significant views, vistas, and natural features. These PLUMs are still used today to guide land management within the parkway, and inform local development.31
The acquisition of land for the parkway was a massive undertaking. 469 miles in length, with varying right-of-way from 700 to 1,000 feet, the parkway comprises some 95,000 acres of land. While the parkway designers strove to find a route that would fit the landscape as naturally as possible, limiting the disturbance and responding to physical features, this geologically determined approach did not inherently take into account boundaries of private property and land ownership. The majority of land acquisition was completed by the late 1960s, with both states together assembling 40,000 acres, (nearly half of the total parkway acreage), through the use of eminent domain. 32 33 Many residents were given no choice about whether to sell, while others who lived within view of the parkway, in particularly aesthetic, rustic homesteads were encouraged to maintain their practices and refrain from any physical or architectural improvements to their property. A number of agricultural leases were set aside from the land assembled within the parkway corridor, and offered to farmers with prescribed restrictions as to what crops should be harvested and how to maintain the fields. This allowed parkway management to control the desired aesthetic of the pastoral vernacular, while distributing the maintenance labor beyond parkway personnel, and providing an additional venue for economic production.34
In addition to agricultural controls, controls on architecture and construction were also strictly enforced. Barns and homesteads that were deemed to be particularly aesthetic were dismantled, reconstructed, and restored in new locations so as to create the most effective view from the roadway. 35 36 Guidelines on how to maintain every detail, from roof finish to fence posts, were dictated by the parkway designers and planners. While the parkway is often perceived as an untouched, idyllic pastoral scene from the past, in reality it is a heavily restored, maintained, and even fabricated landscape of romanticized mountain life.
A drive along the parkway presents intentionally framed views, staged scenes, and a thoroughly constructed narrative of regional heritage, presented as though it were authentic. The parkway became the most effective form of propaganda for the burgeoning tourism economy and conservation movement at the time of its planning and early construction. Roadside scenes and attractions constructed a narrative of the road that promoted the romanticization of pioneering mountain culture, and the glorification of scenic landscapes and apparent untouched wilderness. Given the timeliness of the roadway’s planning and construction, these themes were eagerly received by the regional and national population, who flocked to the road for vacation and patriotic celebration of American culture and values. Since 1946, the road has been the most visited site in the NPS. The curated parkway ultimately produced the popular legacy and iconicity of vernacular heritage, however, the parkway is in reality a representation of the NPS’s idealized version of rural Appalachian life. And herein lies the parkway’s problematic, while it aspires to present history and offer educational opportunity, the aesthetic and scenic experience is prioritized over the reality of pioneering mountain people.
A Legacy Shapes the Landscape
Given the reliance on a visual condition and experience, the parkway’s success has depended upon the preservation of its scenic quality, both along the parkway corridor, and through its vistas and views. As Abbott stated in his expectations of the roadway, the parkway would inform methods of good land management, while encouraging preservation of both vernacular features and landscape.37 The parkway effectively provided economic value to the scenic quality of forested slopes, and this has subsequently shaped the way the surrounding landscape and urban context have developed. In an effort to preserve the iconic views and vistas, significant areas of land adjacent to the parkway have been purchased by the NPS, Friends of the Parkway, and various affiliated conservation groups.38
In effect, the history reveals the reverse relationship to what is perceived: the parkway became the reason and motivation for preservation, rather than the landscape as the reason for the road. While the parkway effectively helped preserve large areas of land and encouraged environmental stewardship, it was also part of the early movement promoting various arrested approaches to preservation. Its reliance on, and promotion of the scenic values of forested slopes made the road a poster-child for protective land management practices. The culture and practice of land management that was replaced by industrialization in the late 1800s had understood the need for adaptive management in a dynamic mountain ecology. The protective practices that inherited the landscape in the 1920s, however, mistook disturbance for a purely negative force, and introduced protective management strategies, which significantly impacted the composition of forest re-growth. Certain species, for example, the Rhododendron maximum, spread far beyond their original range without typical disturbances, such as fire. This flowering shrub now grows prolifically throughout the mountain slopes and along the parkway road verges, and has become a significant seasonal roadside attraction. The change in species composition has had a significant effect on canopy and the visual condition of the forests, but it has also affected conditions below the surface. The combination of changes in root density and plant structure has been attributed to decreased slope stability in some areas. The top-heavy structure of the Rhododendron has a tendency to initiate surface slumping in steep conditions, and has thus accelerated the entropic mountain processes.39 While this landscape effect cannot be directly attributed to the parkway, the road was part of an era and formalized certain cultural values in the landscape, perpetuating protective practices and ultimately shaping the new forest composition.
The counter point to the parkway’s influence on conserving landscape is its restricting influence on the growth and development of urban areas and diverse industrial economies adjacent to the parkway. The parkway’s presence imposed the development of a tourism-based economy, with a focus on regional heritage. The scenic quality of the road has discouraged the spread of urban and industrial development within the roadway’s viewsheds. The road and its narrative have influenced the footprint and the type of development both indirectly and directly, by setting guidelines to inform the architectural and landscape design of development. Guidelines offer directives from height of building and its positioning relative to the parkway, down to material considerations, roof form, and color palettes.40
Legacy vs Liberty
By prioritizing the visual experience and the rhetoric of regional heritage, the focus of parkway management practices is towards the preservation of the original parkway experience. The vast area of landscape within the parkway’s viewshed is effectively reduced to supporting this elaborate pastoral perspective.
In recent years, the road itself has stagnated. Visitation, though still high as compared to other national parks, has been in decline since 1990. In 2002 Concord Mills, a major shopping destination in Charlotte, NC, eclipsed the parkway as the region’s largest visitor attraction, indicative of shifting values for leisure activities.41 The smooth twists and turns of the roadway, so carefully designed in the 1930s to provide continuous travel and pleasant experience for viewing, no longer accommodate the driving speed and vehicle size of contemporary motor-tourists. Tunnel clearances and turning radii are not suited to today’s RVs and caravans, and additionally, campgrounds and picnic stations do not accommodate the infrastructure needed to support these large motor vehicles.42 Furthermore, all available gas service along the parkway was removed in later years due to outdated infrastructure and the environmental hazards of tanker truck delivery. Today, such services are only offered to visitors off the parkway, however availability is un-signposted at parkway exits. Concessions along the parkway have been reduced due to lagging economic viability, further challenging the convenience of a parkway visit. Visitor’s services and interpretive signage have been preserved in their original form to stay true to the value and aesthetics of the original parkway designers, rather than be enhanced or updated for contemporary modes of interpretation.43 No longer meeting the needs of the contemporary motor tourist, the parkway is now reduced to a simple one liner of cultural heritage. The landscape is frozen—the country’s largest museum in support of the legacy of nationalistic heritage tourism.
This begs the question: how can we preserve the cultural legacy, and liberate the surrounding urban and rural landscape from the confines of a supporting backdrop to the pastoral perspective of cultural heritage?
Beyond its nostalgia and glorification of the pioneering history, what is the contemporary value of such a legacy? What is the authenticity of such a constructed and curated legacy?
By reconstructing the landscape history, the forces driving the shape of the modern Appalachian landscape and the parkway’s legacy become more evident. They help to articulate the frictions between the parkway and its landscape that produce the questions above. An authentic experience of this landscape, and fair interpretation of the legacy requires acknowledgment and legibility of the constructed nature of the narrative in the landscape. The parkway, as a museum of mountain life, objectifies America as a nation. If this relationship is reversed and the parkway itself becomes the object, understood as an artifact or monument rather than an accepted component of the landscape, the road may be detached from dependence on its surroundings.
Do we monumentalize the roadway and liberate its surroundings from their supporting role; or do we sacrifice a degree of the preserved heritage of the parkway corridor, and bring the road up to date with contemporary needs? While the cultural, and even ecological value of the parkway is not to be underestimated, we must question the extent of control and influence this cultural legacy carries in the region, and the scale of landscape dedicated to its support.