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Roads, Highways, and Ecosystems
John Stilgoe, Harvard University
©National Humanities Center
Guiding Student Discussion
Scholars Debate (below)
Links to Online Resources
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Bibliography & Works Cited

(part 6 of 6)

Freeway Truck, Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland, Ohio

National Archives
If you get over the two humps in the road at the beginning, classroom discussion ought to move rather smoothly thereafter.

The first hump: students have to realize the roads they take for granted. Too rarely are students encouraged to study something outside the classroom, and when they are so encouraged, the subject is usually a natural one. Asking simple questions at the start will pay off immediately:
  • How wide is the pavement?
  • How wide is the maintained shoulder?
  • How high above grade is the center line?
Such seemingly simple questions lead on to others:
  • How wide is an automobile?
  • How wide and long is an eighteen-wheel truck?
  • How tall are the roadside plants?
  • What sort of animals could be camouflaged by the roadside plants?
near Seattle, Washington
near Seattle, Washington

"What is the role of the
road in our personal ecosystems?"


One key to sensible discussion of engineered objects like roads is making the objects real rather than vague. This is a good place to introduce a bit of grade-school arithmetic, and perhaps a little high-school geometry. After all, roads curve in ways highway engineers understand in terms of degrees. But above all, students must begin by asking themselves What do we know precisely about any road?

And the second hump: students need to feel the astounding importance of roads in all their forms, from paths to interstate highways. Can a landscape, a city, a suburb, anything but a wilderness exist without roads? Are highways the chief human-designed thing? The chief society-designed, built, and maintained thing? Are we all now creatures of the roads we have ourselves created? Is the road system the biggest built thing in the United States?

Ducks in road, Washington

National Archives

What is the role of the road in our personal ecosystems? That question makes any discussion immediately personal. For small children, roads are barriers which they are forbidden to cross; for young adults learning to drive, they are routes of movement; and for any of us, they are quiet open places at daybreak on Sundays. The road is one ecosystem to the student babysitting, another to the student training for cross-country races, a third for a student doing odd jobs with a pickup truck.

One way I try to spark discussion of road-based topics at the college level is to ask student to imagine how many things cross roads. How does a raindrop flow across a road? How does a deer cross a road? a turtle? a chipmunk? a shadow? Such small-focus questions lead, at least sometimes, to larger issues almost immediately. Does a guardrail keep some animals away from roads while keeping stray cars more or less in the highway corridor?

Only very recently have scholars begun examining the ecological impact of roads and highways. While interest in railroad corridors dates back to the early 1980s [see John R. Stilgoe’s Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (1983)], scholarly research on roads tends to be much more recent and focused largely on heavily traveled paved roads.
Roosevelt Highway, California
Roosevelt Highway, California


Much scholarly effort focuses on vehicles that use roads, rather than the roads themselves, or on roads outside of ecological context. John B. Rae exemplifies scholars moving in this direction. His The American Automobile: A Brief History (1965) shaped his The Road and Car in American Life (1971), but his interest in roads and ecosystems shifted back to the car in The American Automobile Industry (1984). A few scholars have taken the time-consuming alternate approach, and driven entire highways, photographed them, and analyzed them over time in their different configurations. The work of Thomas J. Schlereth exemplifies this approach. See his Reading the Road: U.S. 40 and the American Landscape (1997). Other historians have struggled to analyze highways improvement, especially grading and pacing, across entire regions of the United States. Howard L. Preston epitomizes this effort in his Dirt Roads to Dixie: Accessibility and Modernization in the South, 1885-1935 (1991). But anyone studying the history of United States paved roads suddenly realizes how new the field is. About the only in-depth history of the interstate system, for example, is that by Tom Lewis. His Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (1997) hopefully will spark similar books about state highway systems and about engineering guidelines adopted nationally.

Hollywood Freeway, California
Hollywood Freeway, California


The most important figure in the ecological analysis of roads is Richard T. T. Forman. His Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions (1995) places roads within a new intellectual framework of corridors, patches, and edges. Like most scientists, his work is found chiefly in articles, several of which are in the foregoing bibliography. He has a new book on roads about to appear, however, which should shift in dramatic ways scholarly interpretation of roads, roadways, roadsides, and dozens of other subjects still without sophisticated analysis.

Links to Online Resources
Illustration Credits
Bibliography & Works Cited

John R. Stilgoe is Robert & Lois Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard University. His many books include Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845 (Yale, 1982), The Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (Yale, 1983), Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820-1939 (Yale, 1988), Alongshore (Yale, 1994), and Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places (Walker, 1998).

Address comments or questions to Professor Stilgoe through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."

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"The Use of the Land" Essays
History with Fire in Its Eye | American Civil War | Roads, Highways, & Ecosystems
Essay-Related Links

The Use of the Land
Native Americans and the LandWilderness and American Identity
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