parkways and driveways A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo © Ho Chun-lin - Fotolia.com

Why do we drive on a parkway, but park on a driveway?

You’ve probably heard this question before, and while it may bring up distasteful thoughts of bad comedians and worse Internet memes, it turns out that the answer is actually very instructive. The etymological origins of the parkways on which we drive are closely tied to the beliefs and social movements that gave rise to them; that history has a lot to tell modern-day environmentalists about the complex and counterintuitive relationship between human environmental discourse, and the real interactions between the environment and human societies.

According to Clay McShane’s Down the Asphalt Path, parkways originated in a 19th century reform movement that sought to improve the lives of urban-dwelling Americans by protecting them from miasmas: harmful, sickness-causing vapours that were thought to lurk in urban air. Miasmas were believed to originate from industry, horse manure and other various forms of urban pollution, so the language and strategies used by those who sought to eradicate them has a lot in common with that of environmental campaigners from one hundred years hence. The proposed solution was to clear the air by introducing natural spaces into the city to facilitate air flow. Land was set aside for parks. New detached houses were built on the grounds where old-fashioned row housing had not previously allowed sufficient air flow. Dwellings were built on larger lots with gardens.

While these developments almost certainly made cities nicer, they also made them much less dense. The space required to accommodate the new parks, front yards and detached houses could be found in the hinterland of the growing American cities. Tram networks were built to cover the longer travel distances this entailed. There still remained an upper class that wanted to take their carriages into town from far-flung suburban estates, which necessitated the construction of new roads, often built for speed, on which they could do so. As a result, the new parks became dissected by high-speed horse paths, and the concept of a parkway, literally a way through the park, was born.

As decades wore on and the upper-class replaced their carriages with cars, parkways became less "park" and more "way." The parkland around the thoroughfare dwindled until it was just a narrow grassy strip separating the traffic from the working-class houses it passed, and then disappeared altogether. While the first car-only highways would not be built in the United States until just before the Second World War, the parkways were a testing ground for a huge number of features that we would normally associate with such roads. Flying interchanges, physical dividers and on and off ramps were all first seen on the parkways. The parkways provided the prototype for the American Interstate system, and influenced the design of other early highways such as the German Autobahn and the Italian Autostrada.

This trend was not restricted to cities and, as far as environmentalists are concerned, has literally paved the way for car culture. The famous road through California’s redwood forest was strongly backed by conservationists who wanted to protect the Redwoods from logging by bringing the public from nearby cities to appreciate the forest. Tourist guides advocating the appreciation of other natural wonders were principally published by car, fuel and tire companies. Even Henry Ford himself made a strong conservationist argument for widespread car ownership in his autobiography.

Of course nobody fears miasmas anymore, and the quaint road through the redwoods has been made obsolete for all but nostalgic tourists by the construction of a massive divided superhighway. Conservationists are now in general agreement that the expanded mobility and lower-density living afforded by the automobile has come at a heavy environmental price, but we should still reflect on the fact that many of the beliefs and ideals which informed the early formation of car culture came from a very similar desire to preserve the environment.

The implications of this are important when we consider the kinds of visions that are commonly promoted by environmentalists today. Early twentieth-century road construction was supported by a vision of bringing nature into cities and bringing city-dwellers into nature. Now, as we look to the environmental challenges of the next century, we should think critically when that recurs. Are ideas such as earth-ships, eco-tourism and radical self-sustaining eco-communes really going to help us preserve the planet? Or are they just going to be a greater impetus for humans to appropriate yet more of the wilderness for their ever-sprawling lifestyles? Perhaps instead we should promote environmental visions that emphasize humans living in efficient, pleasant and healthy high-density environments. If not, we risk creating a future in which we wind up building a lot more parkways.

Cameron Roberts is a Canadian PhD student studying the cultural history of transportation technology at the University of Manchester. He blogs about science, technology and society at Where's My Jetpack.

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate today to support our work.

A\J moderates comments to maintain a respectful and thoughtful discussion.
Comments may be considered for publication in the magazine.
Sep
25
Cambridge, Ontario
Sep
25
Cambridge, Ontario
Sep
25
  • In two weeks: launch of A\J SUMMER READING series. Web-exclusive stories about protecting our great outdoors. alternativesjournal.ca 10 weeks 3 days ago
  • 'Believe This', how the environmentally-minded person can sustain their faith and hope https://t.co/04L0ZlwVfe https://t.co/6Tg1t9XIUM 10 weeks 3 days ago
  • It's Week in Review time, highlighting the top environmental news stories of the week! https://t.co/nNzPSBtU3U 11 weeks 19 hours ago