Redwoods and Sprawl on the West Coast of America
I have just spent a few days enjoying the redwood forests of Northern California. Wandering amidst these magnificent trees was only possible because of the efforts of committed conservationists over the last century. I first saw the redwoods in 1980. That year we did a house exchange with the City Planner of Eugene, Oregon. This enabled me to see something of the workings of planning and zoning in this part of the US. We also travelled up and down the spectacular coast of Oregon. Riding once more on the iconic coastal Highway 101, what differences do I see?
At first, the sheer size of the redwoods protected them from destruction. They were simply too big to chop down: early loggers turned to other species that could be felled more easily. Then came chain saws, and a host of supporting tools and infrastructure, that made the rapid harvesting of trees that were over 1,000 years old a commercial proposition. Thus the area of redwoods shrank dramatically – from around 2 million acres to only 100,000. Such was the scale of the industry that it is not unreasonable to extrapolate the rate at which the trees were being cut down and to conclude that the last old growth redwood would have crashed to earth some time ago, but for conservationist activism.
What stopped the felling?
Calls to protect the redwoods began early in the twentieth century. Save the Redwoods League was established in 1918. Wealthy people played a prominent role. Tours were organised from New England taking potential patrons on a $10,000 cross-continental trip to see these wonderful old trees for themselves. Funds were raised to buy up sections of the forest, so as to protect it in perpetuity. By the mid-1920s the State of California had ownership of important stretches of old-growth redwoods. In 1980 the Redwoods National and State Parks was listed as a World heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.
Sprawl along Highway 101
Driving through Oregon to California on Highway 101 , my impression is that there has been a lot more development since I was here in 1980, most of it in corporate units and / or devoid of any kind of quality. Every settlement along the route now seems to have its commercial strip straggling along the highway. Parks for the large RVs have proliferated. RVs are the “recreational vehicle” vans in which mature Americans make their road trips snail-like, with their house on the back. Alongside the highway there are malls and gas stations, dog grooming parlours and holiday apartments, establishments purveying tarot readings and new age gemstones, fast food and auto repair shops, home furnishing stores and real estate offices., plus churches of more denominations than I knew existed.
Needless to say, each of the aforementioned has its own extensive parking lot. Looking at the mile after mile of such development, I struggle to understand what difference planning makes in these strip towns. Is anything ever refused planning permission? If not, why bother with planning at all?
The coast itself remains magnificent. There is free public access, As it was declared a public right of way. This has blocked the kind of development you get in Michigan, for example, where private houses or motels own the land down to and including the beach of the lake. The public today is able to benefit as a direct result of the foresight of a century ago
A series of bridges over the creeks and rivers connect Highway 101 and make it a through route. These were the products of the public works programmes initiated in the 1930s to get people into work, drive America out of the Depression. This investment to create jobs left a legacy of public infrastructure that made possible the economic development of coastal communities otherwise dependent on fishing and timber export. Over-exploitation of these natural resources might otherwise have been an even more severe problem than it is.
Crossing these bridges you cannot fail to note the modest yet authentic design work that went into each one. Sculpted headstones at the entry are minor classics of art deco. They still provide visual enjoyment and a reminder of the pride that built environment professionals put into public service.
Similarly, the lodges in the state and national parks were often the fruits of the labour of the Civilian Conservation Corps. In his inauguration speech, President Roosevelt famously told a world frozen into inaction by the economic orthodoxy of the day that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Within a matter of weeks 250,000 Americans had enlisted in the CCC, and tradesmen such as carpenters were back in work training them, giving poor and hungry men new skills, a new sense of their worth and new hope for the future. The physical products of their work helped to create places where citizens could enjoy the great outdoors and learn about the plants and animals in whose domains humans took their recreation.
Some 60 years on, is it too much to hope that conservation of the environment could once more become a force for economic revival, and leave a legacy of unique resources and facilities for future generations?