Mission 66: The controversial plan that brought national parks into the modern era

Between 1956 and 1966, the National Park Service had 95 visitor centers, 216 utility buildings, 257 administrative and service structures, 575 campgrounds, 1,239 park housing structures and 2,767 miles of new and repaired roads constructed throughout the national parks, among other amenities. All structures featured a distinctive modernist park style. Spurred by a comprehensive program known as Mission 66, these new additions were built to address problems plaguing the parks, including outdated buildings that could not accommodate the expected 31 million increase in visitors by 1966. The program had its controversies – after all, it was a great departure from the traditional rustic style of park service architecture, it re-imagined the role of parks for the public and it caused friction with the mission of conservationists and environmentalists – but it succeeded in bringing the national parks into the modern era, transforming how we see parks even today.

The end of World War II drastically changed the American landscape – the housing shortage for soldiers returning home led to a huge housing boom that led to the creation of suburbs outside city limits, the creation of strip malls allowed for people to access many conveniences in one place, car travel increased thanks to the expansion of the interstate highway system, annual individual earnings increased nationally, and Americans now had time to spend on leisurely activities, such as visiting national parks. In 1940, 17 million people visited national parks. In 1956, the number had jumped to 49 million. The NPS expected the number to grow to 80 million by 1966. The actual number was much higher, at 127 million.

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