The Shovel and the Superhighway


Here, upstate, I see the fall-out of such monumental arrogance towards the landscape in the tragic city of Albany.  Albany has a lot going for it, in theory.  First of all, it is the state capital, so, unlike most upstate cities, it actually has a thriving industry–government–which employs many thousands of semi-intelligent and semi-well-paid people.  It also has a wonderful setting, on the hills rising above the Hudson.  It has incredible architecture–magnificent Gothic Revival townhouses, in particular, of a sort I’ve never seen anywhere else.  And it is one of the coldest, bleakest, most pleasure-free cities on the planet, thanks to urban planning,

What these far-sighted civic leaders did was bulldoze the oldest part of town in order to run a highway along the river. I can only imagine how lovely those 18th century neighborhoods were, because what’s left is very beautiful, if completely ruined by sitting in the shadow of the road.  The highway not only cost Albany a good part of its architectural heritage, it cut the town off from the great jewel of its setting, the river.  And, the coup de grace was, it also cut the town off from its biggest industry.  The highway runs right into the capitol complex, so all those thousands and thousands of state workers can shoot by vacuum tube every day from the suburbs to their desks and back without ever having any contact with the surrounding city whatsoever.  As a result, there is nothing worth speaking of in downtown Albany–no shops, no restaurants, no newstands, no place even to get a latte. 

Highway I’d argue that to make sure this kind of thing never happens again, we need to all think small, to get rid of eminent domain and that craven Supreme Court, too, to allow cities and towns to grow organically, not by Moses-like fiat–but of course, this is totally wrong. There are too many people in the world to allow completely haphazard development.  And well into our third or fourth or fifth generation of Ford drivers, people have so forgotten how to contribute to the landscape that we share, that without city planning the whole world would look like my native New Jersey–nothing but McMansions and would-be McMansions that can only be approached by car, so arrogantly sited on their lots that they don’t even face the street, and don’t even have a walkway from the street to the house.  Houses that shout, "It’s mine, for me alone!  You have no role here, except to envy me from afar!"

So maybe we need planners that, like today’s Ford Motors, are little humbler than they used to be.  Maybe what we really need is for Ford to disappear entirely and the rest of us to figure out some non-car-based means of getting from place to place.  Not too likely, given the car’s legacy in sprawl.

I frequently feel that the only people fighting the cancerous uglification of our landscape are the gardeners.  We are shoveling against the tide, arguing that when an ordinary person steps out into the world, it ought to look good and smell good and sound good.  It ought to be an encouraging place.  Not one that makes us want to roll up all the windows in the Ford, use the automatic door opener to head directly from the Ford into the attached garage, and from the attached garage into the house…where we can throw ourselves into bed, pull the covers over our head and dream that the 20th century never happened. 


  1. Michele, what a fabulous post, leading up to this, which really says it for me, too:

    “I frequently feel that the only people fighting the cancerous uglification of our landscape are the gardeners. We are shoveling against the tide, arguing that when an ordinary person steps out into the world, it ought to look good and smell good and sound good.”

    That’s worthy of being added to our Manifesto.

  2. Thank you, Michele. Just a little shout out from Brooklyn, NY, where lots of us are gardeners and where all of us are suffering at the hands of bad, avaricious planning. What has ’til now been an organically booming borough will soon become a wholly-owned subsidiary of rapacious developers and their toadies-in-office. Even as nurseries and farms (yes, I said nurseries and farms) are popping up in our neighborhoods, a huge, land-grabbing, revenue-sucking, eminent-domain-abusing, shade-producing, done-deal of a development is steamrolling its way toward realization on the edge of our downtown. While our citizenry becomes increasingly aware of and obsessed with green growth, our elected officials and their appointees cede our economic growth to the most inorganic of processes.

    A ray of hope? People really are gardening up a storm around here. Maybe it’s just a way of tuning out our political miseries, but it can only be good to have more of us tuning in to the way green things grow.

  3. Ah, Michele, assuming the mantle of Jane Jacobs, you are…may she rest in peace.

    The problem with asphalt of course is it begets more asphalt, period. So yes indeed I second the notion that we lift our shovels against this tide, and plant more stuff.

    Trouble is, we need to persuade people that gardens, greenery and of course trees are a progressive idea. Or more desirable, at least, than a new stripmall or a new off-ramp.

  4. I kept waiting for a mention of Howard Kunstler, who lives right up there with you in Upstate NY. He is first and formost about the mindless devastation of the American landscape accomplished through surburbanization, a misdirected love for the automobile and also zoning commissions across the country, along with their handmaiden, the corporate agriculture establishment in Washington. Kunstler is an advocate of the New Urbanism, or the style of planning you are wishing for. So it isn’t exactly true to say that gardeners are the only people engaged in this issue. Read Kunstler.

  5. I don’t have to read Jim Kunstler, Ed Bruske. I can just drink his liquor and listen to him rant in person. I agree–he’s totally brilliant on this stuff, and I’m sure I’ve stolen every idea in my piece from him.

    And Molly, I hope you save brownstone Brooklyn! I lived in Carroll Gardens for three years and thought it was beautiful.

  6. Great post. I can remember when I still lived in London, HAckney counsel used “wildflower meadow mix” which in itself was a badly named and fairly generic selection to seed areas that were hard to mow regularly around my area. Suddenly a few months later people were stopping all the time to admire a cornflower or watch a bumblebee instead of running home worrying about crime. Plants (and animals) do make a difference to our lives and our mental health/wealth and should be encouraged by one and all. As gardeners (esp. those of us with front gardens) we have a chance to fight that fight and bring a little bit of magic into someone’s lives. Even when fighting the tide looks like a canute-esque folly our plants can enrich lives not just ours so lets stay positive about these issues, keep planting and plant in style (ie no Acer platanoides drumondii please).

  7. A small correctiong to my earlier post: The Kunstler I’m referring to is, of course, James Howard Kunstler, author of “Geography of Nowhere” and, more recently, “The Long Emergency.” Kunstler has become a darling of those who see a Mad Max future for us as our supplies of fossil fuels decline. Kunstler sees a looming end to what he calls the “cheap oil fiesta,” bringing dire consequences to the “easy motoring lifestyle” and above all to the suburban landscape–the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of mankind, in Kunstler’s view. Kunstler’s vision hints at gardening on a huge scale, as suburbanites unable to fuel their Broncos and mini-vans, replace their chemicalized lawns with composted vegetable gardens. And while not all gardeners may buy into this scary vision, we should be engaged in these rapidly converging trends of declining fossil fuels, expanding population, global warming. We should all be examining our personal footprints on the planet and where we stand with lettuce that travels 3,000 miles to get to our salad bowls, blueberries and asparagus on our store shelves in January, the use of plastic tools and chemical products in our gardening. We should be adding our voice to the debate about zoning and land use and advocating for spaces that are greener and saner. Who knows, there may come a time when we have to dig up the parking lot in front of the local Wal-Mart to plant corn, beans, squash, and we gardeners will be leading the way. Maybe Kunstler would give you his riff on gardening in a guest column. He’s not hard to get hold of.

  8. “Kunstler’s vision hints at gardening on a huge scale, as suburbanites unable to fuel their Broncos and mini-vans, replace their chemicalized lawns with composted vegetable gardens. ”
    This is happening in Cuba today — take a look at their GREEN cities and is a great glimpse of the future for all of us. When constrained by lack of fossil fuels and imports, how self-sufficient and inventive will you be? (See

    On a related matter, I’m a board member of ACT – Action Committee for Transit – here in Montgomery County, MD, and we work to get regional (Wash DC) public transit products built – like the Purple, fight sprawl, promote pedestrain safety, etc.
    As an avid gardener I do feel not only a close affinity to these issues, but also a duty to be an activist in them.

  9. Good to hear from you, Kathy. I wasn’t going to take this discussion to Cuba for fear readers would think I’d gone completely round the bend. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba’s economy and fuel supply went with it. The whole country has been turned into a garden by necessity, to feed the population. The Cubans could teach us a lot about sustainable gardening and making a lot out of a little. Except our government has embargoed travel travel to Cuba. Hmmm.
    But returning to Michele’s original theme, the Sunday NY Times had a huge takeout on the museum exhibits being mounted to examine the legacy of Robert Moses. Moses, the former NY public planning and building czar, is credited with leaving an infrastructure of roadways, bridges and parks that have contributed in no small measure to the resurgence of the area in recent years. But the fact remains that he largely left the disadvantaged out of his calculations and ignored those who wanted a greater focus on mass transit. (Moses deliberately designed the overpasses on his parkways so that buses would not fit under them.) So Moses stands as the Ultimate Designer for a culture predicated on the automobile, a culture clearly unsustainable in view of the finite nature of fossil fuels and the planet’s dwindling capacity to absorb all the CO2 we are spewing (see Kunstler). Those are the big issues that gardeners should be engaging. But what I am also getting at are the small, daily choices we make. For instance I have relatives in Door County, WI, who are good liberals, active in the community, real nutrition and fitness freaks, who recently called me for advice about starting an organic garden. Apropos of their physical training, I learned that they drive 12 miles each way to get to the nearest YMCA. At the Maryland Master Gardener confab last year, I attended a workshop on sustainable gardening where many of the procedures advocated in the name of sustainability involved the use of black plastic and other plastic implements. I got a lot of nervous tittering from the audience of Master Gardeners when I asked if black plastic (made from fossil fuels) and the concept of sustainable gardening weren’t perhaps at odds somehow. Similarly, I met a grower of organic vegetables who supplies many of Washington’s trendiest restaurants, the ones who bray about their involvement in the organic movement, and learned that the growing medium this organic greenhouse farmer uses above all else is peat moss (not sustainable) trucked in from Canada. And I suppose I needn’t mention the Miracle Gro some of our friends like to spray on their potted begonias, the nitrogen therein having been produced using an industrial process that consumes vast quantities of natural gas. At the rate we are going, we may soon have to decide whether we want to eat or heat our homes, since natural gas is the primary feedstock for the same nitrogen used so prolifically in this country’s industrial agriculture. (We might also include whether we want to continue blogging on our electric-powered computers, since much of our electricity comes from generators burning natural gas.) But, by God, wherever we go with this, we’ll be able to get their in our cars, because by the time we run out of oil we’ll be swimming in ethanol, right? But wait, isn’t ethanol made from corn, which is fertilized with chemical nitrogen, which is made with natural gas…

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