Goodbye Highways

February 7, 2017
The carving up of cities by expressways is still a civil rights problem, but it's being solved as an economic one.

Since freeways began slicing through cities in the United States more than 75 years ago, they have carved deep and lasting lines of separation through countless communities. Many of these communities—located in so-called blighted areas—were made up of people of color who were simply pushed aside by the transportation officials building out the nation’s vast network of interstates and urban freeways. In a somewhat surprising speech in March 2016, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, the nation’s top transportation official, acknowledged this dark history and the mistakes of his predecessors.

“We now know—overwhelmingly—that our urban freeways were routed through low-income neighborhoods. Instead of connecting us to each other, highway decision makers separated us,” Foxx said. Reflecting on his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, he noted how the “connective tissue” of the African American neighborhood where he lived rrns destroyed by two highways—infrastructure that was planned and built before federal civil rights legislation could intervene. “Neighbors were separated from neighbors. The corner store was gone because the corner was gone,” he said. “A new more convenient, high-speed thoroughfare had been created. But the way of life of another community had been destroyed.”

The huge gashes that freeways cut through cities will live on for the foreseeable future, as will their divisive legacy. But Foxx has vowed to try to undo some of that long-lasting damage. Though they may seem intractable, these divisions aren’t absolute. Increasingly, cities are finding ways to restitch the urban fabric this massive infrastructure tore apart, building under, over, and sometimes directly on top of freeways.

Freeway cap or deck parks are one of the more popular approaches. By building lid-like structures over depressed urban expressways, the formerly empty airspace above the concrete and asphalt becomes a blank slate of open space. Some cities are taking this approach even further, bolstering the strength of the lid structure to accommodate developable urban land, often in the downtown core. Even without a lid, decommissioned freeway spurs can be filled in to turn former traffic lanes into new city blocks. And when the freeways run overhead on elevated paths, the formerly dark and dirty space underneath can be redesigned into usable public spaces. Projects like these have been built across the country and more are on the way. ...