Friday, May 30, 2014


The January issue of Environmental History had a review by Rudi Volti of Christopher Wells's Car Country: An Environmental History (U Washington Press, 2013). Volti summarizes:
Covering a wide range of relevant topics, Car Country begins with efforts to improve roads and streets that antedated the automobile. This is followed by a chapter on the first phase of automotive evolution, culminating with the transformative Ford Model T. The narrative then returns to roads; efforts to design and build roads for the accommodation of the rapidly expanding automobile fleet are well-covered, along with largely successful efforts to re-define roads as conduits for automotive traffic rather than serving as sites for shopping, socializing, and play in addition to the movement of goods and people. Changing approaches to land use are then taken up in the next chapter, which emphasizes the development, application, and consequences of zoning. The chapter also describes the different perspectives of city planners and traffic engineers, and how the visions of the latter eventually triumphed. Next up is a chapter on the development of the petroleum industry and the significance of gasoline taxes for financing an expanding road network. The succeeding chapter looks into two diametrically opposed aspects of the automobile's domination: the construction of massive manufacturing facilities as exemplified by Ford's River Rouge plant juxtaposed with efforts to make “nature” accessible to motorists through the development of the national parks system and automotive parkways. The final chapter brings the story to recent times and the post-World War II efflorescence of suburbia. Singled out are the rules promulgated by the Federal Housing Administration for low-cost mortgages that favored car-dependent suburban growth. Also spotlighted is the movement of shops, offices, and factories to the suburbs. Greatly aiding these massive relocations was the greatest public-works program of all time, the building of the Interstate Highway System.
In the final two pages of the last chapter, Wells lists four forces that propelled the massive growth of postwar suburbanization: transportation policies that elevated the convenience of motorists over all else; government subsidization of low-density, car-oriented development; legal and institutional sanction of car-oriented development as the most acceptable form of development; and government policies that made suburban construction profitable and largely risk-free. 

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