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Historic Roads in the National Park System






Early Roads

The Development of Park Roads

Teamwork/Cooperative Efforts

Evolution of Parkways

World War II and Beyond

Understanding and Managing Historic Park Roads


Historic Roads in the National Park System
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Parkways evolved in a very different manner than park roads, but as NPS Historian Jere Krakow has pointed out, the meaning of the term "parkway" has evolved considerably since it was coined. As a result there is some confusion about its meanings. This chapter explores some of those.

The idea of parkways grew out of 19th century efforts to create beautify cities by creating grand, landscaped boulevards for the purpose of recreational pleasure afforded by walking, riding, driving carriages, and the social interaction that went along with it. Characteristics of these roads included limited-rights-of-way, careful plantings and landscape articulation, exclusion of commercial vehicles, and limited access. Often these boulevards were the approach roads to city parks, or connecting roads between them. By the end of the 19th century the concept of parkway had evolved to include the concepts of the spiritual, restful character that these green strips of nature created in the urban landscape, and the conservation of nature was key to parkway development. The use of the curvilinear roads that flowed along with the topography to expose nature to best advantage was a concept introduced in the work of Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted, also during the 19th century.

The introduction of the automobile and subsequent rise in recreational driving substantially altered the concept of parkway. By 1925 Frederick Law Olmsted described the four types of roads that in his view fit the definition of parkway. They were the "elongated park" or linear park that possessed the landscape features of two parks it might connect; the "ornamental street" designed to enhance property values; any thoroughfare with a more aesthetically pleasing appearance, in a landscape sense, than an ordinary street; and finally a combination of an elongated park and landscaped thoroughfare.

Thus the use of the term even by one of its originators was somewhat confusing.

The Bronx River Parkway, completed in 1923, was constructed specifically for pleasure and recreational driving, and it was the first of the modern parkways. The exclusion of commercial vehicles, the use of overpasses at crossings, the use of curvilinear alignment reflecting the design speed in relation to topography, the use of planting to screen adjacent buildings, and the prohibition of billboards all contributed to its significance. Also the varying width of the entire parkway corridor created additional visual interest. The 13-mile-long road was part of a larger effort to save the Bronx River from further degradation through land reclamation, provide a park-like connector between Westchester County and New York City, and create a park on both sides of the river. A parkway could turn an abandoned wasteland into an area of scenic beauty.

While the early focus of parkway design had been in urban landscapes, some of the same concepts applied in the development of more rural parkways. In January 1936, Associate Director A.E. Demaray of the National Park Service presented a paper before the council meeting of the American Planning and Civic Association in Washington. In it he gave a brief history of federal parkway legislation. Demaray discussed the first federal legislation on parkways, from the Act of May 23, 1928 which provided for the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. The Act called for a highway connecting Washington's Mount Vernon home and the nation's capital. The legislation included provisions for the "planting of shade trees and shrubbery and for other landscape treatment, parking and ornamental structures," and a right-of-way with a minimum width determined by the commission to oversee it.

Following that, congress passed the legislation for George Washington Memorial Parkway in May 1930. Two months later Congress established Colonial National Monument and included the condemnation of rights-of-way not to exceed 200 feet in width to connect Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. In May 1934, the legislation for Natchez Trace Parkway was passed to construct a national road along an old Indian trail. Under the National Industrial Recovery Act the first step toward actual parkway construction started after the President approved building a parkway connecting Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Park; he requested that work begin as soon as possible on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This series of roads possessed some similar legislative and design characteristics.

Demaray discussed how parkways were different from regular highways: they were designed for passenger traffic and recreational use; they had a wider right-of-way than a normal highway so they were insulated from private property; they went through areas of scenic beauty and interest; they provided access to the best scenery even if it meant making the route longer. Also, grade crossings were eliminated, and parkways had minimal exits and entrances. Instead of acquiring land outright, parkways often used scenic easements to protect the land but not acquire it fee simple. The scenic easements prohibited the construction of buildings, pole lines, or structures other than farm buildings. Private road construction, dumping, and billboards were prohibited. [131]


Because some confusion arose even during the 1930s about the differences between parkways and highways, the National Park Service distributed a document that provided the distinction between the two types of roads. In general, the points were the same ones that Demaray had presented. The document stated that a parkway was different than the usual highway because:

It was designed for passenger car traffic and was largely for recreational use, aiming to avoid unsightly buildings and other roadside developments, which marred the ordinary highway.

It was built within a much wider right-of-way in order to provide an insulating strip of park land between the roadway and the abutting private property. It thus eliminated frontage and access rights, and protected and preserved the natural scenic values. In other words, an elongated park was provided to contain the roadway.

It was preferably located through undeveloped areas of scenic beauty and interest, and avoided built-up communities and intensively farmed lands.

It aimed to make accessible the best scenery in the country it traversed. Therefore, the shortest or most direct route was not necessarily a primary consideration. Grade crossings between the parkway and main intersecting highways and railroads were eliminated.

Points of entrance and exit were spaced at distant intervals to reduce the interruptions to the main traffic stream. A secondary parallel road was frequently provided to carry local traffic to an access point.

Scenic easements were introduced in order to secure a maximum of protection without increasing the amount of land to be acquired in fee simple. [132]

These became the standards that were applied in the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway.


The Blue Ridge Parkway refined the parkway concept to the utmost. Begun in 1935 and not completed until 1984, its construction started for two principle reasons: to alleviate unemployment during the Depression; and to provide the physical connection between Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. To minimize political involvement in the development of its route and to provide a framework for the parkway, designer Stanley Abbott and his team identified certain principles to guide its development.

First of these was the acquisition of a protected right-of-way through which the road would travel, which would allow for preservation and restoration of the surrounding roadside landscape. Next, the parkway and its structures were to possess a simplicity of character and informality that encouraged harmony with the natural environment. Design elements were to relate to each other so that driving the parkway would provide an unified kinetic experience, although some variety would be encouraged to alleviate monotony. The road would accommodate "ease and safety of travel" while revealing the character of the countryside through which it passed. The man-made roadside landscape was to be preserved and protected. Finally, the parkway was to provide the traveler with ample opportunities to experience the scenic qualities of the country through waysides, overlooks, picnic areas, and lodging. [133]

The combination of those elements in that masterful work of landscape architecture contributed to its significance, but the alignment of the road within the landscape and the, way in which it reveals the surrounding landscape may be its greatest character-defining features.

Blue Ridge Parkway
Fig. 20. In 1938 the basic layout of Blue Ridge Parkway connecting Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks was underway. This photograph was taken at Ice Rock in 1938. (National Archives, Record Group 79, Rinehart Photo)

Blue Ridge Parkway
Fig. 21. Glimpses of Appalachian culture were visible along the parkway. This photograph of an ox cart trundling along the road was taken near Bluff's Park in April 1938. The contrast between the technically advanced ongoing construction work and the primitive local conditions was sharp. (National Archives, Record Group 79, Rinehart Photo)


Many of the elements the developed under parkway construction were later incorporated in highway and interstate design under emphasis from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. First among these was placement of the road distinct one-way roads that conformed individually to their sites rather than a divided highway with a fixed cross-section. Bridge design was to fit the alignment and gradient of the highway and be subordinate to the surrounding environment. Additional land area on the edges provided space for easier vehicular maneuvering, roadside businesses, and screening. Natural landscape features were to be protected and preserved for use as waysides and in a manner that conformed as much as possible to the existing topography to have the road appear to lie gently on the land. With separated highways both sections should be overlooks. Borrow pits were to remain out of sight or naturalized following construction. Any construction scars were to be naturalized or minimized and revegetation of slopes completed following construction. The highway design and landscape treatment was to require minimal maintenance and possess a natural appearance. [134]

Even today, the large commuter-type parkways that up until recently came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service received rave reviews from their users. An article in the Washington Post in December, 1993, stated:

Among local road-builders, the National Park Service is the tortoise. The agency seems to take forever to finish a project. But when it's done, it looks beautiful. The trouble is getting to the finish line .... What other agency plants tulips and daffodils along its roadways? The Suitland Parkway, built as a connector between Washington and Andrews Air Force Base during World War II and left incomplete when the war ended, is being rebuilt to make a dangerous two-lane road into one that is four lanes wide and divided, and the segments that are finished are something to behold. Smooth road surface: a wide, grassy median; low stone walls; large grassy areas on both sides, with buffering trees blocking out development; flowering crab-apple trees along the roadway to vie something of the effect of the Tidal Basin in spring. [136]

Perhaps the best definition of a parkway comes from Landscape Historian Norman Newton. He stated that a parkway was:

a strip of land dedicated to recreation and the movement of pleasure vehicles. The parkway was not itself a road, it contains a roadway. The strip of land was not just a highway with uniform grassy borders; it was of significantly varying width, depending on immediate topographic and cultural conditions. The roadway itself differed markedly from that of an ordinary highway in that it was meant for comfortable driving in pleasant surrounding, not merely getting from one place to another as fast as possible. [137]


Considerable confusion has surrounded the term "parkway" because of the complex evolution of the concept. Parkways evolved from two sources: boulevards with landscaped edges connecting urban parks combining with the curvilinear roads developed in nineteenth century parks that presented the landscape to best advantage. While linear in form, parkways expanded to include appropriate treatment of the natural areas through which they passed. Additional facets of parkway development is the use of the parkways for reclamation of wastelands, particularly when it is developed as an urban connection.

Federal involvement in parkway design honed some of the legal tools for acquisition, design development, and management of parkways. Many of the design principles developed for parkways were later applied in highway and interstate development.

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