Future West Virginia

A landscape architect’s roots in Appalachia are the source for a new project from American Roundtable.

By Zach Mortice

Sprouting Farms, an 82-acre nonprofit farm and resource center in Summers County, West Virginia. Photo courtesy Merritt Chase.

Appalachia Rising begins with a simple prompt for a place that’s been exploited and maligned for much of its modern history: “We can start by listening to what the people of West Virginia are interesting in seeing in the future.”

Nina Chase, ASLA, is the editor of Appalachia Rising, and what follows is both design document and policy paper, and part of the final project for the Architectural League’s American Roundtable series, which is focused on better futures for small and medium-sized towns. American Roundtable was supported by the Graham Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and Chase (a cofounder of the landscape architecture and urban design firm Merritt Chase and a West Virginia native) will host a presentation on January 27 on the team’s findings along with several of the contributors. In addition to Chase, the Appalachia Rising team consists of journalists, academic researchers, photographers, and documentary filmmakers, each working to “understand communities through their land and people and the ways in which the two have interacted to make place,” according to the introduction by the American Roundtable project director Nicholas Anderson. Each of the nine reports commissioned by the Architectural League is arrayed across five themes (public space, health, work and economy, infrastructure, and environment) to better enable comparisons across the nine regions studied for the project. Beginning with Appalachia Rising, each multimedia report will be available online. Chase and contributors Caroline Filice Smith and Elaine McMillion Sheldon will present their research on January 27 in a webinar at 12:00 p.m. Eastern.

Natural resource extraction in West Virginia. Image courtesy Caroline Filice Smith and Merritt Chase.

Appalachia Rising looks at how land is valued, tracing historical precedents established in West Virginia from extraction industries (oil, gas, logging, coal) to ecologically restorative agriculture and recreation. An essay by the doctoral researcher Caroline Filice Smith sets the table, outlining how the condition of land in West Virginia has been shaped by the peculiar nature of industry. As short-term profit cycles led corporations to look to the next valley, there was little interest in quality infrastructure for the people who would stay once the wells ran dry. For much of the state’s history, the boom-and-bust cycles of extractive industries have created an environment antithetical to long-term design and planning. In 1925, 83 percent of towns were founded and run by private corporations, and small towns were more likely to be connected to larger commodity trading hubs than to the hamlet next door. This has generated developing world levels of infrastructural failure. In 1975, the town of Vulcan’s only access to the outside world—a rickety bridge not wide enough for a car—collapsed, and it was not replaced until the mayor wrote to the Soviet Union to shame his government into providing this very basic necessity.

“West Virginia has been owned by outside interests for as long as it’s been colonized,” Chase says. “Planning is not something that’s a typical process in West Virginia.” She argues that what’s needed is “a fundamental shift in valuing long-term goals and visions over short-term profits that benefit a very select few.”

West Virginia landscape infrastructure. Image courtesy Caroline Filice Smith and Merritt Chase.

The local energy reporter Brittany Patterson took on work and economy, offering counterexamples of ecologically restorative land-based efforts at economic development. One example is the Monongahela National Forest reforestation, which has planted 150,000 trees across 760 acres in its Mower Tract. According to an essay by Merritt Chase (the firm also includes cofounder Chris Merritt), 100 years ago, most trees in the forest had been logged for timber. So, from 1933 to 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corp hired 55,000 people in West Virginia to plant millions of trees.

“What’s incredibly powerful about the Monongahela National Forest [is] that this is not something new,” Chase says. “The seeds of this had been planted and were successful in West Virginia back in the day, and helped create some things that West Virginians value most—our outdoor spaces.”

Wheeling, West Virginia. Photo by Rebecca Kiger.

The photo essay by Rebecca Kiger (and the film by Elaine McMillion Sheldon) illustrate how these kinds of landscape initiatives work in a social context. The Wheeling-based Grow Ohio Valley combines urban agriculture tucked into repurposed spaces like vacant lots and steep hillsides. This food reaches West Virginians through a robust distribution network and a mobile food market, but it comes with something else, too. Grow Ohio Valley offers education, social services, and economic development programming with its fruits and vegetables.

Hazel Ruby McQuain Riverfront Park in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo courtesy Merritt Chase.

The report ends with Merritt Chase’s evaluations of ecologically restorative recreational landscapes across three scales, including a Merritt Chase project, the renovated Hazel Ruby McQuain Riverfront Park in Morgantown. The product of deep community engagement, it prompted the formation of the Morgantown Riverfront Revitalization Task Force to weave maintenance and planning into this critical natural resource for the foreseeable future.

Chase has sought to “leverage this collective reverence everybody has in West Virginia for the land,” she says. “This reverence for some people might be the coal industry; for others it’s the outdoors. How do we build on that collective value and start to flip the script a little bit on where we move forward?”

The most defining rhetorical choice in Appalachia Rising is presenting West Virginia as a place of abundance—not deficiency—while still acknowledging the public austerity and corporate largess that’s defined it. This December, West Virginia became home to the nation’s newest national park, New River Gorge, created by a little-heralded part of the recent COVID-19 relief bill. “To me, the landscapes of West Virginia are the best-kept secret on the East Coast,” says Chase. As these landscapes are valued more for their natural characteristics, there’s more opportunity to design and plan them. “As landscape architects,” she says, “this incredible abundance of beautiful landscapes is something that we can help shape.”

Appalachia Rising is available online on the American Roundtable website.

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