What will become of the most famous road in America?
There is no more famous American road, and possibly no more evocative representative of the things we collectively call “Americana,” than US Route 66, once stretching unbroken from Chicago to Santa Monica. The road was immortalized in the famous song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” recorded by everyone from Nat “King” Cole to the Rolling Stones to Depeche Mode to Jason and the Scorchers (and even my own musical hero, Van Morrison, as a youngster back with his Belfast group Them):
“Now you go through saint Looey
Joplin in Missouri,
And Oklahoma city is mighty pretty.
You see Amarillo,
Gallup, new Mexico,
Don't forget Winona,
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.
"Won't you get hip to this timely tip:
When you make that California trip
Get your kicks on Route Sixty-Six . . .”
Once dotted with popular attractions and thriving towns, the road today stands in many places as decaying testimony to the past, the fantastic landmarks of yesterday now faded or abandoned (though, in some places, restored as nostalgia). The tale of Route 66 is partly the tale of small towns and rural America disinvested as the Interstate Highway System took different routes, ensuring that travelers would no longer pass through many of these communities. It is also an environmental story, since so many properties along the road, particularly old gas stations, became contaminated brownfields. The question is whether there is a future for these remaining places.
Here’s how the Center for Creative Land Recycling, a nonprofit organization using innovative land use to help communities to develop sustainably and equitably through restoring underutilized, blighted sites to productive use, puts it:
“Once a thriving thoroughfare, Route 66 was abandoned for faster freeways leaving abandoned gas stations and economic strife in its wake. The EPA Brownfields Program and state and local initiatives are addressing the issue: How can Route 66 be cleaned up to promote economic vitality and bring new life to rural communities? Brownfields have already been cleaned up and restored to new use as parks and transit depots in communities like Winslow and Flagstaff. Potential redevelopment opportunities also include land for green technology such as solar and wind energy.”
Route 66 raises issues of historic preservation, economic development, environmental cleanup, and future sustainability all at once. For a provocative and poignant, yet entertaining look at the possibilities, check out this well-produced video from CCLR:
- The importance of legacy to sustainability (November 28, 2011)
- Does the sustainable communities agenda have something to offer rural America? (December 7, 2011)
- The long and winding road that made me an environmentalist (October 15, 2010)
- Check out our growing video library for smarter, greener communities (July 2, 2012)
- How cleanup and redevelopment of city brownfields reduces pollution (September 21, 2011)
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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media. For more posts, see his blog's home page. Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channels.
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