Christopher Wells

Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Associate Director of the Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching
Environmental history

Olin-Rice Science Center, 249c
Telephone: 651-696-6803

Curriculum Vitae

Professor Wells’ research and teaching focus on the ways that technology—and especially technological systems—have reshaped the American environment, mediating and structuring people’s relationships with the natural world. His book, Car Country: An Environmental History (2012), focuses on the proliferation of car-dependent landscapes in the United States before 1956. His current projects include a co-edited volume on Minnesota’s environmental history (with George Vrtis, Carleton College), and a history of the idea of “building with nature” in American domestic architecture.

  • BA in History and English, Williams College, 1995
  • MA in History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1997
  • PhD in History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2004


Selected publications

Car Country by Chris WellsFor most people in the United States, going almost anywhere begins with reaching for the car keys. This is true, Christopher Wells argues, because the United States is Car Country--a nation dominated by landscapes that are difficult, inconvenient, and often even unsafe to navigate by those who are not sitting behind the wheel of a car.

The prevalence of car-dependent landscapes seems perfectly natural to us today, but it is, in fact, a relatively new historical development. In Car Country, Wells rejects the idea that the nation's automotive status quo can be explained as a simple byproduct of an ardent love affair with the automobile. Instead, he takes readers on a lively tour of the evolving American landscape, charting the ways that new transportation policies and land-use practices have combined to reshape nearly every element of the built environment around the easy movement of automobiles.

From the dawn of the motor age to the establishment of the Interstate Highway System and the rise of the suburbs, Wells untangles the complicated relationships between automobiles and the environment, allowing readers to see the everyday world in a completely new way. The result is a history that is essential for understanding American transportation and land-use issues today.

"Wells seeks in this lively, playful, and wonderfully accessible account to introduce readers to the transformations wrought upon the national landscape of the United States to make it fit for Americans and their cars. . . . To grasp the complexities and fascinations and paradoxes of Car Country, I know of no better guide than this engaging book." -- from the Foreword by William Cronon

"Car Country offers a valuable historical perspective that is directly related to many pressing contemporary issues." -- Owen D. Gutfreund, author of Twentieth-Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape

"Car Country is the most comprehensive recent synthesis of the automobile in twentieth-century America. Of unusual scope and readability." -- Peter D. Norton, author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City

    Copies of other publications


    • "Restoring the Mississippi River Ecosystem in the Twin Cities: The Values of a Historical Approach" by Samuel Adels '09.  The National Park Service has begun the ecological restoration of areas along a 72-mile stretch of the upper Mississippi River known as the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.  These projects aim to ecologically restore degraded landscapes by removing invasive species and planting native vegetation.  The Park Service uses species compositions from pre-settlement Minnesota to inform its restoration efforts.  Sam investigated what plant species grew in the region centered around the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers through extensive research into eighteenth and nineteenth century sources such as the journals and notes of Euro-American explorers, government land surveys, and Native American cultural uses of plants.  His research culminated in a list of vegetation that grew along the river before Euro-American settlement in what is now the Twin Cities, which the Park Service can use in its restoration of historical landscapes.  His project illustrates the uses of a historical perspective to research and understand the underlying philosophy and values of the field of ecological restoration.  Sam shows that all ecosystems are the products of human economic activities, which change over time, which complicates efforts to restore historical, dynamic landscapes.
    • "Negotiating with Nature: An Examination of the Evolution of Urban Parks in the Twin Cities" by Ariel Trahan '07.  This paper examines three local case studies--Loring Park, Lake Harriet, and the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary--which illustrate the dynamic relationship between humans and nature. Urban parks have variously served as pleasure grounds for moral uplift, recreational/entertainment facilities, abandoned sites of urban decay, and most recently sites of ecological restoration that promote a harmonious view of cities and nature. Examined as a whole, the history of urban parks illustrates how changing social values and evolving ideas about nature have been manifested in the various forms of urban parks that have been developed over the years.
    • "From Local Food to Throwing Fish: An Environmental History of Seattle's Legendary Pike Place Farmer's Market" by Katie Edwards '06.  During the formative years in its history, the Pike Place Market acted as a locally and sustainably-oriented food distribution system that emphasized direct interaction between Seattle consumers and nearby farmers in exchange of locally-grown produce. However, since that time, the nature of both Market buyers and sellers has evolved dramatically. From 1907 to the present, the Market has always reflected the complexities inherent in creating, preserving, and maintaining an environmentally meaningful place to buy and sell groceries. As the structure of Seattle's economy has evolved, the relationship between producers and consumers has transformed Pike Place Market, the implications of its food distribution model, and its environmental meanings.