Consuming Landscapes: What We See When We Drive and Why It Matters
By Thomas Zeller
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022
Hardcover, 239 pages, $53.23

Reviewed by Brian Gallaugher

There is no question that Consuming Landscapes is a scholarly work. It has 31 pages of small-print endnotes and an extensive bibliography. Some of our own SCA members make the cut: works by John Jakle and Arthur Krim are listed. But it is also well-written and entirely accessible to the lay reader. There are illustrations, although more would have been even better, and the inclusion of more detailed maps would have helped the reader to better place some of the “infrastructures” he discusses.

Central to Zeller’s thesis is the concept of “Roadmindedness,” that is, the belief, current in the early 20th century, that roads would elevate society and contribute to progress; and, even more, that “roads are worthy in and of themselves.” When cars were first entering popular culture, roadmindedness gained acceptance among boosters and the middle classes who were able to afford this new means of transport.

One way of realizing this uplift was the creation of scenic roads or parkways. An early example of this is the Bronx River Parkway in New York. “Harmony and … reconciliation between humans, technology and the environment were the stated goals of these roads.”
As amazing as it seems today, automobile transportation and especially parkways were seen as key to correcting the ills of industrial society in the 19th century. The chief offender was the railroad, who’s straight, engineered, efficient, and polluting public transportation was thought to divorce people from the environment. Immersing people in the scenery through the windshields of their cars on scenic parkways would reconnect them with nature. It was even believed that “cars would clean up cities and make them more healthful” as they would replace horses and their attendant health issues.

But these landscapes were not to be as nature had created them. In some parts of the Eastern U.S., they were manufactured by landscape architects to eliminate hot dog stands, ramshackle buildings, and other buildings that SCAers treasure. Appropriate rustic buildings would be substituted. Routing would be carefully controlled to provide the best vistas, often at high elevations, rather than serve the local communities in the valleys. Roads would become consistent with middle-class ideas of respectability and social uplift. Cleansing landscapes went hand-in-hand with cleansing the population.

Zeller uses a novel device to illustrate his points. He compares and contrasts the planning and execution of two scenic parkways, the Blue Ridge Parkway in the U.S. and the German Alpine Road in southern Bavaria. He reviews the social and economic conditions leading up to them, their planning processes, and the individuals behind them.

Although both are premier scenic roads built at about the same time, they were constructed under completely different systems. The Blue Ridge Parkway started as a New Deal project, and although much-centralized planning went into it, it was subject to a political, democratic process. The German Alpine Road was kickstarted by the Nazi dictatorship and was planned and
built by decree, especially since the German dictator Adolf Hitler took a personal interest in it since it served his Bavarian alpine retreat.

Zeller notes that although these roads were supposed to be uplifting, even scenic parkways could not escape the dark side of their societies. Few Blacks could use the Blue Ridge Parkway as they did not have access to cars, and facilities were not available to them. Jews in Germany were banned from driving by the time the Alpine Road was being realized.

The author takes us through the emphasis the National Parks Service put on building scenic roads for many years, often to the chagrin of more wilderness-minded folk such as hikers, although some conservationists were supportive at first. Even urbanists such as Lewis Mumford felt in the 1930s that cars and roads had the potential to transform society positively. That attitude didn’t last much longer.

When I was exposed to the thinking of Mumford in after-school “enrichment” classes, I was entranced by his concepts. He was primarily responsible for my decision, at the tender age of 12, to take up city planning as a profession. What a surprise to learn that he had a different view of the car’s impact on society early in his career. Oh well, even the first saint of city planning, Jane Jacobs, espoused urban renewal in her earliest writings. Fortunate are those who can change their thinking when it can no longer be supported by the facts.

The scenic road was supplanted in the last half of the 20th century by the rise of “commercial” highways, those designed to get people and freight from A to B as efficiently as possible. Landscape architects were out, civil engineers were in. The new highways, the Interstate system foremost of them, were technological, not scenic corridors. And they reached right into the heart of every urban area, just like the railroads of the 19th century.

The freeway revolts of the 1970s put an end to roadmindedness.

I find it ironic that today’s concerns about automobile culture are the same as those the early parkway planners thought were caused by the railroad and which would be fixed by providing scenic roads. Who could have foreseen the destruction and havoc wrought in every urban area in North America by unbridled commercial road building, even while the hoped-for mobility has not been achieved? And coming full circle, dense cities, railroads, and public transit are now seen as the antidote to the evils of roadmindedness.

Just as the early road planners aimed to reconnect people and nature through scenic parkways, another midcentury planning article of faith, namely urban renewal, promised salvation through bricks. Both roadmindedness and slum clearance turned out to be negative forces in North American society. These examples beg the question as to what unassailable planning tenet is being implemented today that will turn out to be a nearly irreversible mistake 100 years from now.

Zeller’s book is provocative, entertaining, and informative. I could have used a little less detail, and I didn’t find a ready answer to the question he poses in the title of “why it matters.” But any student of the history of road transportation in North America and Europe will not be disappointed if they spend a few hours with this book.

Editor’s Note: Professor Zeller will present on this book and related topics on June 21, 2023, as part of the SCA’s monthly Zoom presentations.

Brian Gallaugher is the Vice-President of the SCA and a retired city planner.

This book review originally appeared in the SCA Journal, Spring 2023, Vol. 41, No. 1. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.

More Book Reviews