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Leisure landscape

Blue Ridge Parkway-04

Roads and landscape

The road in the landscape is a  multi-faceted subject, as we could read in the previous posts by Gerdy Verschuure and Steffen Nijhuis. Driving as a means to experience the landscape is one of these aspects, which sometimes has been exalted to an art in itself.

When traveling through the United States, one of the greatest experiences is the travel itself: driving days on end through expansive landscapes on roads straight as an arrow where the landscape morphology permits, or following the contours of the natural landscape where it doesn’t. This fall I fulfilled a long since wish: driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. Starting from the northernmost tip, we drove south for two days, zigzagging from breath-taking view to breath-taking view, until a flat tire forced us to return to the inhabited world.

 

Blue Ridge Parkway-07

Parkways

The tradition of building parkways goes back a long way, to one of the godfathers of landscape architecture. When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had created Prospect Park in 1868, they felt that, although the park was recognized as a magnificent natural reserve, it lacked any corresponding system of roads leading to it. So they created the Eastern Park-Way, the first parkway. Parkways – wide avenues, with a differentiation in lanes for pedestrians, horse riders and carriages, supported by planting – were not quite parks in themselves, but not just streets either, and became known as ‘ribbon parks’. In Olmsteds days the car did not play a big role yet, but in the following decades, when mass-production of automobiles made motorised traffic widely available, the idea that one could enjoy nature while driving on the road remained an issue. Half a century later the concept of the urban parkway was extended to the scale of the country, by creating grand scenic parkways – roads across the land leading into the wilderness, allowing independent journeys into National Parks which were previously accessible by public transport only.

 

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The Blue Ridge Parkway

One of the first scenic parkways to be built was the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. It runs between Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park – a distance of 469 miles. Stretching across the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains range, it was designed to respond to the contours of the land. It was designed and constructed in sections: as land was purchased by the states, rights-of-way were approved and contracts secured through the Bureau of Public Roads. Construction began in 1935, and when work halted due to the outbreak of World War II, some 170 miles were complete. In the 1950s construction resumed, and by 1968 the parkway was complete, except for a 7.7-mile stretch. It was not until this section was completed in 1987 that the Blue Ridge Parkway fully opened, 52 years after the project began.

Essential for the experience of the parkway are its rest-stops, positioned at a bend in the road which opens up to an unexpected wide view, or just before a tunnel, which as an impressive feat of engineering, is considered a worthwhile view in itself.

As befits a true National Park the Blue Ridge Parkway received its own sign, expressing the value ascribed to what is basically just a road. The sign highlights a remarkable landscape architectural aspect, repeated over the full length of the road: often the forest is cut away to allow for the view, leaving one last tree standing, creating depth in the perspective and anchoring the viewer to the place in relation to the horizon.

 

Nature experience  

While the urban parkway introduced the benefits of nature to the city, the ever-present problem of cross-traffic managed to erode the ideals of a continuous passage in nature. The creation of national parkways allowed for a complete removal of the parkway from any reference to urban contexts. In the design of the parkways, infrastructural space is considered a valuable territory on its own, carefully choreographed in the landscape, interconnecting parks and park areas into a coherent system, in such a way that motorists could enjoy nature while in transit. More than just a feat of engineering, these infrastructural lines can be seen as a cultural phenomenon where movement is the motor of a physical and visual experience.

 

References

Engle, R.L. (2006) The Greatest Single Feature… A Sky-Line Drive. 75 years of Mountaintop Motorway. Luray, VA: Shenandoah National Parks Association.

Zapatka, C. (1995). The American Landscape. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Mongolian Buffalo

The magnificent steppes always seem to be framed by mountain chains; wherever you move you experience a 360°of both space and enclosure. The gently flowing rivers cross carpet-like grass lands, on which cows, horses, sheep’s and buffalo’s are running freely and peacefully. Once in a while a group of two or three white round tents called gers shine in the sunlight. As you move through the steppe you are free to choose any path you desire, there are almost no preconceived roads. This is Mongolia. It’s landscape is one of the most breath-taking and well-preserved landscapes on earth. While traveling through Mongolia you are sure that what you see today is also what Chinggis Khaan has seen too. Well, almost.

As we stop on the way, a Mongolian shepherd invites us over for suutei tsai (milk with tea and salt) and something else. What this ‘else’ is, is not really clear, our Mongolian is far beneath the required level, but as we enter the ger we discover that they just have slaughtered and cleaned a goat. The guts and other intestines lie on one side, the best meat on the other. And on the side of this bloody scene we spot a memory stick. A what? Yes, and close to the home altar there is the I Mac. When taking a tour outside the ger we bypass children blue torching the head of the goat and see a boy jumping on his horse, while sending an sms. Then we stop and stare at the solar panel attached on the south side of the ger. It looks like the Mongols have skipped the exploitative and wired phase of industrialization and are now plugging into green energy and wireless communication instead. How come? Could it be really true?

Mongolia is locked between Russia and China with no access to the sea, being therefore somehow dependent on the policies of the two giants. With a density of population that used to be 1000x (0.41 p/ km2 in 1918) and now 300x less than nowadays in the Netherlands (404.5 p/km2), it was simply not profitable to make roads and wires. This lack of infrastructure was not very inviting for the big industry. And Russia, being the boss there between 1924 and 1989, didn’t want to make it interesting either. So the Mongolian existence kept on being based on its life stock, which provides milk, skins for clothes, transport and meat. As the cuddle needs fresh grass, the Mongols move their gers along with it, not bothering a lot about land ownership. (Every group of gers claims a circle of occupancy proportional to the size of the life stock, with the maximum size of the distance that a shepherd can do on a horse in half a day. If you are new in an area you search for your own circle where you don’t disturb the others). It has been like this during Chinggis Khaan and it still is. But the times are changing. Since the ‘90’s Mongolia is ‘on the market’ with its untouched natural resources like copper, coal, molybdenum, tin, tungsten, and gold. At this moment around 3000 mining licenses have been issues by mostly Chinese, Russian and Canadian companies. How many of them will provide solar panels in return?

Traditional ger + solar panelOld print of Mongolian landcape

From 18 to 22 April this year, as a representative of the Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving (PBL) I attended the yearly meeting of the Le-notre network in Antalya, Turkey. Under the name “Le-notre Landscape Forum” the first of a new series of meetings was organized with the aim to encourage landscape specialists from many disciplines to pool their combined knowledge and expertise in education, research and practice to focus on a series of key landscape-related issues of European significance (LE:NOTRE Landscape Forum (LLF))

Le-notre network consists 190 universities, 1350 staff members, 1200 students

90 design offices, 20 research institutions, 50 Municipalities, and 20 NGOs. Most of the time the network operates online via a purpose-built website ( LE:NOTRE website) and virtual meeting room facilitated by Vitero software. Once a year we meet “physically” in one of the participating countries. This year the meeting was organized by the University of  Antalya in one of the many holiday resorts – “Portobello Beach Resort” – direct on the famous Konyaalti beach. If one would google Portobello this is what would appear:

Porto Bello is heerlijk centraal gelegen aan het Konyaalti strand van Antalya, dichtbij de stad en voorzien van alle 5 sterren All Inclusive comfort. Vanuit Porto Bello bent u binnen een mum van tijd in het oude centrum van Antalya of bij het populaire Beachpark met vele cafés, restaurants en uitgestrekte (kiezel)strand. Porto Bello is een uitstekende keuze voor uw vakantie! (boek nu!)

And this paradise cost approximately 400 euro per person for 10 days.

Portobello resort and Konyaalti beach

Busy road between the beach and the resort and glasshouses in the Antalya valley

Construction of the new housing area on the north of Antalya

When I got to  Schiphol I discovered that the flight was fully booked with old-aged pensioners, families with small children and single women, and in between also some of my Dutch colleagues, among them Meto Vroom. This was for me for the first time in my (not so short) life that I was to stay in an all-inclusive resort but there were obviously a lot of people who can’t resist this kind of offer I realized. Upon arrival, to my surprise, a red band was fixed around my wrist and soon I discovered that it means that I can eat and drink without limit for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea time, dinner, and even have a midnight snack. I also had unlimited use of the swimming pool, sauna, Turkish bath, fitness, disco and beach beds.

Organizers of the Le-notre event this year have chosen for the very good concept. Every morning we had three or four plenary presentations covering the main themes and in the afternoon we were divided in working groups, each dealing with a different subject. The themes chosen for the four working groups reflect the growing importance of landscape at the European policy level and targeted some of the key issues highlighted by the European Science Foundation’s Science policy Briefing: “Landscape in a Changing World: Bridging Divides, Integrating Disciplines, Serving Society“. The four themes were:Urban growth and peri-urban sprawl, Sustainable tourism, Heritage and identities, Rural change: landscapes and lifestyles.

The case study area for all working groups was the broader region of Antalya, which we went to see the first day. I took part in the first working group, but later by the presentations of the results of the groups we realized that the four themes often overlap. Antalya is situated in a perfect natural setting that in a way resembles Rio de Janeiro. Clear blue seas, beautiful pebble beaches surrounded with high, rough and steep mountains and fertile valleys in the background. What “God” gave to Antalya is simply perfect. Unfortunately afterwards men were not such a perfect creator.From approximately 27000 inhabitants in the 50’s, Antalya has reached more than one million inhabitants by now. The valley is fully built up with glasshouses and infrastructure, from the air it resembles our Westland. High-rise apartment buildings and hotel resorts stretch along the beach, behind them shopping malls, housing blocks and streets full of traffic.

During the excursion we visited municipal urban development department and spoke with several colleagues. We learned from them that urban planning system in Turkey is very centralized and sectorial. The ministry of traffic in Ankara develops the main infrastructure. Land ownership and “developer urbanism” are other two important factors that give the form to the space. What is left between the roads and the allotment is the area where urban designers and landscape architects can act. As one can imagine that is not much and the consequences of this approach are catastrophic. While initially the goal of the working groups was to help our Turkish colleagues with ideas what to do with this landscape, ultimately it seemed fairly hopeless that they can do much with our advices. Therefore one of the most mentioned conclusions of the Le-notre forum was that the only solution in cases as Antalya (which by the way can happen everywhere in Europe) is to act to put landscape to a higher position in the European political agenda.

Back to the Netherlands I returned to my work on the theme “leisure landscapes” which is the part of the PBL project “Nieuwe arrangementen en verdienmodellen in het platteland” (NAP). In search for the new business models in recreation sector I was recommended to study the pilot project “Dijk van een Delta”. Under the motto Surviving with water, a group of 12 recreation entrepreneurs launched the pilot project “Dijk van een Delta”. The area of the pilot occupies the entire east-west oriented Dutch river delta and the Zeeland from the Dutch-German border to the North Sea. Each of the twelve areas – “places of development “- has its own character and special offers. I chose to visit one of them, the Buitenplaats Panoven in the municipality Zevenaar (website Panoven).

Map of the “Dijk van een Delta” with the list of the twelve participating entrepreneurs.

One of the important question for the PBL – NAP project was the influence of the new arrangements on the landscape. It was often mentioned in the texts about the Panove that they  invest in spatial quality in and around the site and the owners of the estate see an attractive landscape as essential part of the image and touristic offer. The picture of neat, organized, clean, tight, polished Dutch rural landscape came to my my mind. Maybe that was the reason that I was surprised with what I in the first instance saw on the estate – ugly entrance, all kinds of buildings, caravans, tents, parking places everywhere, leftovers of garbage, unused machines and the car of the owner parked in the middle of the garden terrace So I asked myself: is that now this often mentioned quality of the landscape? Or do we have different view on what landscape is?

Buitengoed Panoven, Zevenaar.

But then I went looking around, and I realized that although the owners have no sense of aesthetics, what they’ve done is special – they could just sell this land and now a new housing area will stand on this place. When production of bricks stopped, the municipality put on a lot of pressure to force owners to sell the land to the municipality as Zevenaar wanted to expand with 1500 homes. One should have in mind that thirty years ago the trends in development of the rural area were different than now, the owners of Panoven were pioneers in their ideas and had to constantly fight with the municipality. Nevertheless instead of selling, they preserved the estate, reused the buildings and created new functions. Unconsciously these people also created the new opportunities for landscape architects – to help intervene and think about the form and design of such places. During the interview with Erna Kruitwagen she admitted that there is a lot of work in landscaping needed.

Thinking back to the Antalya experience I compared it with this heritage tourism place. The night in the Panoven bed and breakfast costs 90 euros, and then you have just opened your eyes and where is lunch, dinner, coffee and every drink that costs 2.5 euros? While in Antalya for 60 euros per day you have all this. In terms of travel time it takes 3 hours from Schiphol to the airport in Antalya, from The Hague to Panoven it takes two. Yes, I am glad to be a sustainable or a heritage tourist because that is how I grew up, but I wonder how many people in this country are like me? The plane to Antalya was full, but I was one of only seven guests at Panoven.

Answering that question Erna Kruitwagen was furious. She said yes, that’s a good question that should be put to the government. Because next to the many costs and taxes that the small entrepreneurs have to pay there is at the moment discussion about rising the taxes from 6 to 19% which makes it impossible to bring prices down. More recreational opportunities close to home is a trend that STIRR and other recreation entrepreneurs promote, but how realistic is this in these circumstances?