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

Olin-Rice Science Center, 249c


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 documents reader on the post-WWII history of environmental inequalities and the rise of the Environmental Justice movement.

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

Course Syllabi

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.

“In Car Country, Christoper W. Wells offers a compelling history of America’s signature car-dependent landscapes.  With lively anecdotes, effective imagery, and dozens of illustrations, the book also presents an accessible narrative that will help students visualize how Americans gradually and profoundly transformed their nation.” ― American Historical Review

“A fresh, well-documented history of roadbuilding policies in the United States between 1900 and 1960.”― Journal of American History

“Nothing over the past century has had a greater effect on America’s geography than the public’s evolving dependence on the motor car, and, as well, the motor truck. . . . Christopher Wells’s opus will excite more geographers to focus on automobility as a fundamental factor underlying the American experience.”― AAG Review of Books

“For students and inhabitants of car country, Wells offers a terrific excavation of the sprawlscape that still drives our days.”―Human Ecology

“One of the great strengths of the book is Wells’s meticulous work in revealing how the institutional, economic, and mental arrangements supporting ‘Car Country’ were set in place during the interwar years. . . . Wells’s book is a remarkable achievement.”― Southern California Quarterly


Other Publications

Honors Theses Advised

  • “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 Marketby 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.