Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.
H is for Highway
Vermont Route 17: highways come in all landscapes and alignments.
Highways and historic preservation are inherently linked. All roads tell a significant part of history; highways are corridors that have defined, shaped and drastically influenced American life. From trails to dirt roads or corduroy roads, toll roads, turnpikes, parkways, interstates, all are tangible connections as to how people have traversed the landscape, in which directions, how society has adapted with changing technology and expanding settlement patterns.
Suffice to say, there is more to a highway than miles. Starting with the simplest of highway elements: its surface can give clues to the era of its construction. Width, geometry, speed limits, alignment, environs: these elements add greater depth to highway history. In other words, road construction relates to changing technologies and safety standards.
Depending on where you live, the word highway likely conjures an image different to you than it does for someone else. What do you see? Suburban development and strip malls? The wide open fields and skies of the midwest? Winding New England highways through the mountains? The coastal highways along the ocean? Do you imagine two lanes? Four lanes? Something else? When considering historic highways, often what comes to mind are images of Route 66, the Dixie Highway, the Lincoln Highway or the many parkways throughout New York and New Jersey. From there we can imagine the mid-twentieth century roadside America genre, what we typically associate with the autocentric development: hotels, gas stations, suburban development, drive-ins, and a culture that modified itself to fit with the automobile age.
Beyond the era of highway itself, historic or not, it is important to consider the fact that the majority of our highways include historic elements such as bridges and tunnels. And highways pass through and are parts of our historic districts, villages, towns and cities. No matter the age of the road or the town, a roadway project will at some point be planned, one that has the potential to alter the landscape as it has in the past. Highway and eventual interstate construction was one of the catalysts for our federal and state historic preservation laws and the Section 106 and Section 4(f) review processes.
To that effect, this quote is a good one to keep in mind:
“Few creations of man have such widespread effects upon their surroundings as do highways… Taken as a whole, these side effects change the appearance and character of our state and could make it a less desirable place to live work and visit.”
– James Wick, A State Highway Project in Your Town – A Primer for Citizens and Public Officials (1998).
That is not to say that all highway projects are disastrous and a threat to historic resources. Rather it is important to recognize that our built environment is constantly changing and growing, and one small effect after another can greatly alter where we live. Highways are deeply rooted in our history, our present, and our future. Highways run through our historic districts as Main Streets. Combining transportation, preservation, and pedestrian livability is a concept explored by the Complete Streets movement. Incorporating and respecting all of our resources is an important task of planners and regulators and citizens.
Highways and historic preservation go hand in hand. And who doesn’t long for the lure of the open road? It’s a blank canvas for new adventures and a book filled with the travels of others.