Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Nexus Of Roadside

The first day of my most recent 6,000 mile cross country trip included a drive north up the spectacular 105-mile Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

In stark contrast to that parkway, my drive that day was punctuated by a 26 mile spur of West Virginia, which links Virginia to Maryland via I 81, where the forests of that state were blighted by huge back-to-back double-decked outdoor billboards towering above the forest.

While that may be marginally better than allowing billboard companies to clear cut huge swaths in either direction, like North Carolina recently has, it is still a jolting violation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 revelation that no one owns the landscape or the “public right to view” nature.

Both stretches of that drive crossed my mind again last week on the anniversary of the warning given 109 years ago by a Republican President of the United States:

“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children's children.

Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.

The world and the future and your very children shall judge you according as you deal with this sacred trust.”

Although dedicated and then replicated across the country during the 1930s by a Democratic President, the Skyline Drive parkway down the Shenandoah was initiated under another Republican President, Herbert Hoover, who had a cabin retreat in the valley below.

Although the first parkway had been launched only a decade earlier, the concept and the term had been coined 63 years earlier by the landscape architects Olmstead and Vaux of Central Park fame according to the book Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles and the American Landscape, by Dr. Catherine Gudis

The Parkways concept envisioned much that was carried over into the Interstate Highways System such as:

  • “widely spaced and carefully controlled entrance and exit points”
  • alternate routes for trucks,
  • bridges and overpasses to avoid cross traffic
  • screening of “objectionable sights”
  • planting of “tens of thousands of trees and shrubs”
  • integration of roadways with “surrounding landscape.”

But soon a war broke out within transportation agencies that persists today.  Some engineers couldn’t be bothered with roadsides, let alone treat them as parkland, preferring only the utility and function and efficiency of the roadbed.

Even today, engineers who champion the aesthetic, environmental and economic benefits of unfettered roadsides are either siloed away within these agencies or exiled completely to other agencies altogether.

Fortunately some highway engineers joined the roadside reform movement that arose in defense of the parkway movement even as the first federal-state efforts to fund motor vehicle roadways were launched before and after World War I.

While roadside reformers in the 1920s and 1930s didn’t have today’s data documenting the value of roadside trees to control water and air pollution, thanks to audits of roadways back then done in nearly two dozen states including North Carolina, they were armed with data that:

“transformed nature into scenery and codified it as a way to help audiences appreciate and savor experiences and, as Dr. Gudis notes, supported the view that …. ‘landscape offered lessons in national heritage, spiritual uplift and civic virtue,’ all selling points for tourism.”

The reformers were also beginning to understand something that research is only now documenting.  Trees and landscape in urban and non-urban areas alike can transform “the roadside into a domestic enclave where one learned, through nature and beauty, moral rectitude and civility.”

Durham, where I live, is an ironic nexus of sorts on this issue of roadside reform. It is the:

Durham is also home to several generations of a family central to the parkway movement.  Honored at Durham’s Annual Tribute Luncheon last month, the Teers began building roadways shortly after the founding of the Nello L. Teer Company in 1909 and the Federal Highway Act in 1921.

The Durham-based company was also awarded the first contract for the Blue Ridge Parkway to connect Skyline Drive and the Shenandoah down through North Carolina to the Great Smoky National Park.  The company completed an astonishing 17 segments of the 77 year old Parkway.

Now in his 90s, the son of the founder, Dillard Teer is still able to point out the locations of old WPA camps which served as an “employer of last resort” along the roadway during the Great Depression as the Blue Ridge Parkway was built.

Fittingly, what is called “America’s Favorite Drive” was only completed in 1987 when the spectacular Linn Cove Viaduct resolved a significant conservation issue related to the final segment.

Robb Teer continues his grandfather’s legacy by serving with me on the Durham Appearance Advocacy Group and as a member and former chair of the RDU Airport Authority, he is a strong advocate for appearance around the airport his grandfather help construct in 1939.

Maybe it is time to revisit that notion of roadsides as parkland!

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