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consuming landscapes

29 april 2023

Why do you drive on a parkway and park in a driveway, goes the old conundrum. Thomas Zeller explores why we drive on parkways in his recent book Consuming Landscapes.

Consuming Landscapes shuttles back and forth across the Atlantic during the mid-20th century. The key sites are Germany and the United States, where stakeholders continually borrowed ideas from each other and tried to emulate the other nation's "roadmindedness."

Zeller's key examples are the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina, and the Deutsche Alpenstrasse (German Alpine Road) in southern Bavaria. Both were projects of the 1930s. They came out of radically different political systems. The Blue Ridge Parkway was the result of competition and logrolling among different jurisdictions and interest groups, in the partial democracies of the Depression South. The Deutsche Alpenstrasse was a pet project of Adolf Hitler's.

But both were conceived for tourists, Zeller says: roads that brought drivers into scenery and in a sense created that scenery, by framing it and providing vantage points. Neither was driven strictly by function, and in fact they were somewhat frivolous. They did not serve local or commercial users well; they provided infrastructure for privileged urbanites to escape to. Both incorporated a great deal of symbolic capital.

Design features of scenic highways were remarkably similar, regardless of location. Curvilinear alignment, the cloaking and revealing of beauty spots, … relatively low speeds, and sylvan or shoreline preferences had become part of an international design vocabulary by the 1930s.

The roadmindedness that culminated in these somewhat quixotic projects – a "slow movement … born out of privilege" as Zeller calls it – gave way, after the second world war, to the Autobahns and Interstates that are the models for world car culture. Zeller also explores those larger, later histories, by way of contrast to the scenic-highway culture of his central examples.

The Blue Ridge and Alpenstrasse projects aged quickly. Not that either has disappeared. But the archetypal American parkway took a long time to complete and the German one was never finished, in part, Zeller says, because of its associations with Nazism. Guidebooks began to de-emphasize the routes. Drivers rarely tried to make them the focus of entire journeys, unlike the long hiking trails which are such magnets for their hobbyists.

Other parkways coeval with the Blue Ridge, like the ones that proliferate around New York City (the Bronx River, the Taconic, the Hutchinson River), have a curious history. Rather than preserving wilderness, Zeller explains, these parkways cleansed populations from strips of exurban land, and remade artifical parklands. "The pleasure and beauty associated with a drive on the Bronx River Parkway depended on excluding untidy people and landscapes." They're some of the worst roads to drive on in the 21st century: overcrowded, over-sped for their designs, narrow and winding: the reverse of the recreational peacefulness imagined by their creators.

Ultimately these curious failed faux-Edenic impulses ceded to functional systems that served trucks better than cars. Along the way, Interstates and Autobahns came to differ in one key respect. American planners showed a "penchant for routing freeways through the heart of downtown areas," as opposed to "the tendency of civil engineers in Germany to have autobahn stretches bypass cities rather than traverse them." This contrast is not strictly part of Zeller's main theme, but he analyzes it well, including the tendency for freeways to dismember American cities into less-livable fragments and to harass the (mostly poor and minority) communities in the way of freeway projects.

I drove to southwest Virginia from Texas in the summer of 2022, and I thought of taking the Blue Ridge Parkway some of the way. The Blue Ridge remains a slow road and doesn't go very directly between major urban centers. Even if you're coming from the southwest up to Roanoke, Virginia – and I was going to Radford, nearby – the Parkway involves going out of your way to go even further out of your way. Time was not the issue; I'm the proverbial teacher with summers off and I like driving. But instead of the Parkway, I went most of the way on US-11, through towns and cities, farm markets and antique malls and used-book stores. The Blue Ridge Parkway seemed both too inefficient and too sterile, though I can imagine that it is a beautiful proposition in some ways. It remains a testament to an alternative vision of America.

Zeller, Thomas. Consuming Landscapes: What we see when we drive and why it matters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022.