This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.

Presentation Video and Transcript

By Mike Ford and Liz Sargent, ASLA


Spanning two states and constructed over fifty years, the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway exemplifies the evolution of NPS approaches to planning and design as manifestations of a national vocabulary of park architecture and landscape, and an articulation of environmental stewardship, interpretation, and public use of park resources over time. Construction of the 469-mile motorway began as a New Deal project in 1935 with several missions: to connect Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to highlight the unique cultural of Appalachia, and to provide work for Americans during the Great Depression. Initial design was rooted in the vocabulary of the “rustic,” a style that had become the hallmark of the National Park Service in the 1920s and which featured rustic materials and forms that blended with the natural environment. Site selection, road planning and construction, and landscaping would continue for another five decades, spanning the Mission 66 period when modernism began to influence park design. The monumental effort of building the Parkway was finally completed in 1987 with construction of the Linn Cove viaduct, considered to be one of the world’s most complex concrete bridges, built with 153, one-of-a-kind, 50-ton precast concrete segments.

Over this fifty-year period, Parkway designers maintained a dialogue regarding the importance of the rustic style, even as they were introducing features with a decidedly modern character. Parkway designers found creative ways to combine the two styles, resulting in some interesting hybrid architecture. Over time, as the road evolved to include examples of modernist architecture, features of the Parkway assumed a sleek, contemporary character. Also expressed along the Parkway are resources constructed of rustic materials that exhibit romanticized regional Appalachian influences. The union of Appalachian pioneer spirit, rustic heft, and modernist verve form a unique recreational motoring experience.

Based on a Parkway-wide survey conducted for the National Park Service in 2013–2015 that included architectural inventory and integrity assessment of over 600 structures, 235 overlooks, 99 bridges, and 26 tunnels, the built resources of the Parkway can be closely tied to a broader historic context of National Park Service stewardship philosophy and design approach as it evolved between the 1930s and the 1980s. Exploration of the evolving approach to national park design, management, and stewardship affords an opportunity to reflect on the changing ideas about nature and history in America. It also traces the origin of the Parkway’s unique sense of place. For the National Park Service, an added benefit of the survey project is the support it provides in making critical decisions in the stewardship of this unique national treasure.


Mike Ford, Senior Associate, Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.

Liz Sargent, ASLA, is Principal of Liz Sargent HLA, a historical landscape architecture practice based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Ms. Sargent works throughout the United States on projects involving cultural landscapes for varied clients, including the National Park Service. Ms. Sargent frequently collaborates with Ms. Slaton on cultural landscape projects for national parks. She is also active in several historic preservation organizations and serves as an advisor to a number of community-led projects. Her work on the Blue Ridge Parkway study recently received an award from the Virginia chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.