The bane of banal Illinois roadscapes
May 4, 1989
Much of Illinois is famously flat. Illinois can’t change that. Most of it is famously dull to look at. Illinois could do much more than it does to change that.
That stretch of 1-55 that connects Springfield to Chicago might not be the dullest-looking 200 miles of rural interstate in the U.S., as so many local travelers contend, but it is indisputably the dullest stretch of interstate between Springfield and Chicago. A kind of numbness settles over one on that trip that puts some people in mind of waiting rooms and others of a [Gov. James] Thompson budget speech. Everybody will agree that the scenery makes the drive seem longer than it is.
How could it be otherwise? Medians wide enough to berth tankers. Acres of mowed grass interrupted only by dead raccoons. Borrow pits so banal in their shape and accouterments that relic strip mines in Grundy County look as fine as the Oregon coast by comparison. 1-55 is one of those roadscapes so impoverished that the hippies who years ago dumped their van into a pond near Mile 133 deserve a highway beautification award.
The route's dullness is commonly, and unfairly, attributed to the flat farmscape through which it runs. But the indifference of the views stems from a larger indifference. "You'd expect that a nation that drives 1.8 trillion miles annually would pay strict attention to the aesthetics of its 3.9 million miles of roads," writes Michael Leccese in the current Landscape Architecture magazine. "You'd assume that people who say that recreational driving accounts for two-fifths of all their outdoor recreation would be inspired to create landscapes that would rival the country roads and boulevards of Europe." Actually, 1 would neither expect nor assume any such thing of Americans, but then I—probably unlike Mr. Leccese—have driven this stretch of I-55.
Indeed, it would appear at a glance that there is no way to reconcile the automobile culture with the demands of civilized design. It was inevitable that a nation in which 75 percent of the adults drive cars with automatic transmissions would delegate the design of its national highway system to civil engineers, soulless men for the most part to whom the bottom line is always the straightest one between two points.
We didn't invent interstate-type roads, nor do we build and maintain them as well as do several more advanced nations. Nonetheless, few artifacts speak as eloquently of the postwar culture of the U.S. Simplicity, the essence of any good design, might be described as complexity distilled. Our interstates, however, reduce the complexity of travel to simple-mindedness. For example, Europe's narrow, twisty roads force a certain competence upon the driver; in this country we demand roads that require only steering, not driving. The gentle grades, the extravagantly proportioned curves, the endless straight lines make 1-55 driver-proof, but only at the cost of visual boredom.
Most of the Springfield-Chicago route crosses flat land. Alas, the fields can only be apprehended, much less appreciated, from a certain height. The engineers inadvertently provided a few such scenic vantage points in the form of overpasses, but one spends only a few seconds atop any one of them—not enough time to see, much less take in the view it affords. A well-designed road would take advantage of whatever natural elevations the landscape provided. It wouldn't take much; perhaps a rise of fifteen feet above grade. Yet when 1-55 encounters such a rise it slices right through it rather than riding atop it. In a terrain likened so often to a sea, we do not ride the waves but steam right through them.
Look at the way the road greets Funks Grove. Funks Grove is a famous stand of hardwood south of Bloomington, amid which now sits a rest area. The road's right-of-way is so wide that the trees stand beyond even a driver's peripheral vision. The sense of envelopment which is part of the experience of the forest is impossible.
We used to do these things better. The great urban parkways of the 1920s and '30s attempted to integrate road and landscape by designing transportation links that (in the famous directive of the National Park Service) "lay lightly on the land." The parkways design tradition is being revived elsewhere in the U.S. Had its precepts been applied to that portion of 1-55 that runs through Funks Grove, we might today have two separate (and thus narrower) rights-of-way for north-and southbound lanes. The trees would crowd closer to the road, providing travelers some sense of entering a woods rather than merely passing them, and recreating in a small way the experience of nineteenth century travelers who found refuge from the open prairies in such groves.
One of Illinois's true parkways is Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, which lies at one end of 1-55. But while it was not designed as a parkway per se, 1-55 between Chicago and the Grundy County town of Gardner has some of a parkway's pleasing intimacy. That stretch was completed in the 1960s, when design standards were not so extravagant. One feels oneself to be on a road again, not an airport runway. The median is narrower, the cloverleaf interchanges tighter, the shoulders steeper. After 20 years the roadside plantings have matured, gracing the road the way they might an older subdivision. (The impact of the junipers that jut out from some of the overpass shoulders there is almost architectural.) The taller of the trees by now challenge the overpasses and interchanges in scale, reducing the latter's bulk, and the shrubs in the median interrupt the monotony of watching oncoming traffic pass like water dripping from a faucet.
The old interstates, in sum, took less land and used it better. The apparent scale of 1-55 south of Gardner could be reduced by more, and more artful plantings. Roadside planting is not a revered art in the U.S., whose landscape architect students deride it as "putting lipstick on a pig." The term is often mistaken to mean screening. With rare exceptions, the problem along 1-55 is finding things to look at, not hiding them; plantings are best used to offer contrasts in color and shape to the monochrome backdrop of farm fields.
Roadside planting along 1-55 has changed over the years. Invasive exotics like crown vetch and multiflora rose are no longer used; natives such as dogwood and viburnum are going in along new roads in their place. In 1980–81, prairie grasses were planted experimentally along the road between Lincoln and Bloomington, an experiment about which IDOT is, in the words of maintenance staffer Larry Stainton, "ecstatic. Every year it's going to be better and better." Many motorists agree. Otherwise, the handsomest stuff between Mile 100 and Mile 227 are the occasional stands of cattails—usually self-seeded, and despised by maintenance staff since the plants slow down the flow of water through ditches designed to speed it up.
Safety imposes certain constraints on art when it comes to roadside plantings. Stainton notes that shrub hedges in interstate medians act like snow fences, collecting drifts in their wind shadow. And to minimize crash impacts, trees with trunks thicker than four inches are not placed closer than forty feet to the pavement. (This is why we will never enjoy the corridors of Lombardy poplars through which one can drive in parts of Europe.) However, designers still have available 'breakaway" trees such as serviceberry that satisfy the needs of both good design and safe driving.
The point of such plantings is not to "beautify" the road. The very concept of highway beautification imagines the road as something apart from the landscape, while the best-designed plantings merge the two. A road can be a place as well as a route. Accepting that roads are necessary in the landscape does not mean accepting that roads must necessarily be an affront to the landscape. But by making our roads into mere routes, we give ourselves nothing to savor except our eventual arrival. Going somewhere too often is nowhere. ●
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A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
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Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.