As a child, Jay Tomlinson loved the drive from his home in Wilkesboro to his grandfather’s cabin in the mountains. The trip included a spell along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the sweeping curves and scenic views captured his imagination.
“I always knew it was a special road. It was different and exciting,” says Tomlinson, now assistant dean for extension and engagement in NC State’s College of Design. Work he has done in recent years to map the vistas along the 500-mile parkway in Virginia and North Carolina could preserve that excitement for future generations of residents and tourists alike.
Conceived in the 1930s as an economic development program for the poor, isolated mountain region, the Blue Ridge Parkway has succeeded in drawing throngs of tourists annually, benefiting other attractions like the Biltmore Estate and Tweetsie Railroad. But population growth is closing in on the parkwayit is buffered only by a narrow corridor the government purchased decades agoand left unchecked could diminish the road’s role as a tourism magnet in the future, Tomlinson says.
Using topographical maps, Tomlinson and Dr. John Fels, a cartographer and visiting professor of design research, created a digital mapping system that rates the “viewshed”the areas that can be seen by travelersalong each curving section of the parkway. The color-coded maps help Tomlinson educate people about protecting areas from development. Land trusts have already used the maps to target purchases of some properties and work with heirs to family farms to preserve others through conservation easements. “You can’t go out and make communities do good planning, but you can show them ways to avoid killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” he says.
Even more than the parkway is to the mountains, N.C. 12 is the golden goose for the Outer Banks. The highway is the main drag for tourists, residents, and commuting workers alike in Dare and Currituck counties, and all of that traffic sometimes overwhelms the road. “Congestion is not to the point yet where it is discouraging visitors, but we want to address the issue before it gets there,” says Tom Cook, co-director of the Public Transportation Group in the Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE), which is conducting a one-year study of Outer Banks traffic for area governments.
ITRE has gathered local input in five community meetings and is looking at locales from Cape Cod to Florida barrier islands to see how other coastal resort communities handle traffic problems. Lifestyle changes, such as shifting the check-in days on some beach rental houses or having commuters use shuttle buses, might have the most impact. “Widening a highway isn’t always the best answer,” Cook says. “Sacrificing what made the community attractive to tourists in the first place isn’t an option.”