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An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning

In its original concept, the Appalachian Trail was a wildly ambitious plan to reorganize the economic geography of the eastern United States.

Each year, about a thousand people complete a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, walking the 2,192 miles that run from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Millions more follow the trail for some shorter stretch, whether along the alpine ridge of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, or the downtown sidewalks of Damascus, Virginia, making the trail corridor one of the most well used and widely recognized recreational sites in the world.

But the original concept for tracing out a hiking path along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, dreamed up almost a century ago by the planner, forester, and idiosyncratic social reformer Benton MacKaye, was so radical that MacKaye himself feared it would be dismissed as “bolshevistic.” What MacKaye envisioned when he first proposed the trail in a 1921 article for the Journal of the American Institute of Architects was something far beyond a woodsy recreational amenity. This “project in regional planning,” as MacKaye called it, was meant to be a thoroughgoing cultural critique of industrial modernity — a template for comprehensive economic redevelopment at a scale never before attempted in the United States. The project drew on ideas ranging from forest conservation to socialist central planning, and its effects were intended to be felt just as strongly in the booming urban centers of the eastern seaboard as in the devastated hill towns of the Appalachian uplands.

Above all, in MacKaye’s original vision, the Appalachian Trail would aim to put back together the various parts of American life that were rapidly coming undone in the early 20th century. It would fuse leisure and industry, environment and labor, community development and wilderness preservation into an interrelated project. It would rebalance the vampiric relationship between city and hinterland, and align the dimensions of regional planning with the geography of ecological zones rather than political jurisdictions. It was, as MacKaye described it, “a new approach to the problem of living,” an attempt to reckon with technical and productive forces which had opened up dizzying new possibilities but also shattered communities and left behind barren cutover forests, polluted cities, and the grisly battlefields of world war.

The brief article in which MacKaye laid out his scheme for an audience of architects and planners is by turns utopian and technical, brilliant and cockamamie, syncretic and specific. Many of the proposal’s conceptual gestures are now hard to decipher without some knowledge of the author’s other ...