Author Archives: Ed McMahon

Ed McMahon

About Ed McMahon

Ed McMahon holds the Charles E. Fraser Chair in Sustainable Development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC.

Make the Journey Better

There are many great destinations in America, but there are very few great journeys left. This is because we live in a world of rapid change, but also growing homogeneity. Today, if you were suddenly dropped along a road outside of most American cities, you wouldn’t have the slightest idea where you were because it all looks exactly the same. Over the past 50 years too many of our townscapes have gone from the unique to the uniform and from the stylized to the standardized.

New building materials can be imported from anywhere. Hills can be flattened and streams put in culverts. We can transform the landscape with great speed and build anything that fits our budget or strikes our fancy. Technological innovation and the global economy make it easy for building plans drawn up at a corporate office in New Jersey to be applied over and over again in Phoenix, Philadelphia, Providence or Peru.

The deadening sameness is particularly pronounced along many of our highways and at the entrances to our communities. Charles Kuralt, who spent a career “on the road”, used to say that “thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything”.

The staff, supporters and partners of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground have done a great job of promoting and protecting many of the historic destinations along the corridor, but they have done a much less good job of preserving and enhancing the journey: the experience of traveling from one end of the corridor to another.

We all know the difference between a road that beckons and one that depresses and driving along Route 15 can indeed be depressing: far too many billboards, strip malls, cookie cutter franchises and look-a-like subdivisions follow us down the road. And talk about “context sensitive road design”, there is none. Every new bridge railing is a Jersey barrier; every road project simply aims to move traffic faster, at the expense of everything else.

We see relatively little of any place on foot, therefore preserving what we see from the road is critical to the corridor’s sense of place. Place is more than just a location on a map, A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, environmental – that provide meaning to a location. Sense of place is what makes one town different from another town, but it is also what makes our physical surroundings valuable and worth caring about.

The more any community in Virginia or Maryland comes to look just like every other community the less reason there is to visit or invest. On the other hand the more a community does to enhance its uniqueness, the more reasons there are to visit. When it comes to 21st century economic development a key concept is “community differentiation”. Sameness is not a plus in the world we live in today. If you can’t differentiate your community from any other community, you will have no competitive advantage.

So what can be done to make the journey better? 1. Development design guidelines for new commercial buildings and signs within view of the corridor. Promote the guidelines heavily and give annual awards to business that do the best job of building to these guidelines. This is already being done in the Shenandoah Valley and in the PA Wilds (i.e. North Central Pennsylvania). 2. Demand that the Virginia and Maryland Departments of Transportation apply context sensitive design standards to all new highway projects with the corridor. US 15 should be treated like it is a parkway, not like a typical highway. 3. Consider establishing a new land trust that would focus on acquiring viewshed or conservation easements on properties along the road. The idea of “saving you view and getting a tax break too” has already been applied in areas like Washington County Maryland where the state partnered with groups like The Conservation Fund and the Maryland Environmental Trust to buy easements on land within view of the Antietam battlefield.

Author Louis L’Amour used to say that the “trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel to fast and you will miss all that is worth traveling for.” Let’s all work together to save not just the destinations but the journey as well.