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Urban Highways as Land Banks

Land freed up after the I-195 highway removal in Providence, RI.

Last week I attended the “Re-Imaging Urban Highways” program in Philadelphia with my friend Scott.  Organized by Drexel University and The Next American City, the event was a who’s who of visionary planners at the top of their game. The presentations focused  on portions of the Interstate system that cut through cities and ways in which communities, planners, and local political leaders can ameliorate the negative impacts of these behemoths.

The history of the Interstate System is long, and going into it here may squander the 10 readers I have left, but I’m willing to take that chance. What we can say is that the core decisions which led to the Interstate being built through cities were made by powerful people at the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, the highway lobby, and an array of other suits at the state and local level who couldn’t wait to “renew” cities, sell cars, and move people as quickly as possible from cubicles to suburban homes in time for their 6pm noodle salad dinner.

Highway promoters and builders envisioned the new interstate expressways as a means of clearing slum housing and blighted urban areas. These plans actually date to the late 1930s, but they were not fully implemented until the late 1950s and 1960s. Massive amounts of urban housing were destroyed in the process of building the urban sections of the interstate system.

By the 1960s, federal highway construction was demolishing 37,000 urban housing units each year; urban renewal and redevelopment programs were destroying an equal number of mostly-low-income housing units annually. The amount of disruption, a report of the U.S. House Committee on Public Works conceded in 1965, was astoundingly large. As planning scholar Alan A. Altshuler has noted, by the mid-1960s, when interstate construction was well underway, it was generally believed that the new highway system would “displace a million people from their homes before it [was] completed.”A large proportion of those dislocated were African Americans, and in most cities the expressways were routinely routed through black neighborhoods.  Raymond A. Mohl, The Interstates and the Cities:
Highways, Housing, and the Freeway Revolt

This is how it was. In the mid 20th century, cities were just places on a map, traffic problems to be solved, and often times, vibrant neighborhoods were destroyed in the name of efficiency. As urban living and the reputation of cities have seen a resurgence during the last 20 years, these anachronistic viaducts have created more problems. Places like San Francisco, Portland, Providence, and Boston were left with blighted freeway ribbons through prime (sometimes waterfront) real estate. To paraphrase Peter Park, former Planning Director of Denver and Milwaukee and Loeb Fellow at Harvard, we used billions of dollars of federal money to devalue some of the most valuable real estate in America.

As much as it’s about getting rid of ugly freeways which divide neighborhoods, it’s also about economics.  A comment made by the panel at “Re-Imaging Urban Highways” rang especially true; The land dedicated to urban freeways is an open faucet leaking money from the city. Instead of property tax revenue, new businesses, vitality, and population growth, these highways consume land, depress land values, and give nothing back except a marginally shorter car ride for (usually non-resident) commuters. I could make a mother-in-law joke here, but I won’t.

But getting rid of urban highways sometimes takes an act of god, or god-like political will and community mobilization. To paraphrase Thomas Deller, Director of Planning + Development, City of Providence, most state DOTs (agencies that have control of Interstates), don’t give a damn about cities.  In Providence, where I-195 was torn down to create 20 acres of  land which will be used to improve the social, economic and environmental health of the city core, requests by city officials for RIDOT to study highway removal alternatives were originally ignored. It took work by community groups which, in turn, pushed the hand of the governor to demand that RIDOT study highway removal, to make the project happen. Other removals, like the Embarcadero in San Franscisco, were catalyzed by earthquakes, while proposals like the teardown of I-95 in Philadelphia are piggybacking off of regularly scheduled highway repair/rebuilds. If hundreds of millions are being spent to repair infrastructure, why not make the city a better place for it?

Hearing about the successes of urban highway removals in Providence,  I thought about US 40 in West Baltimore.  While it won’t happen tomorrow, the Red Line will be built, and eventually, a higher use will come out of the 20 blocks which are now dedicated to a redundant highway stub. If there’s some good that came out of urban highways, it’s that these structures serve as land banks which can spark imaginations and encourage planners and politicians to re-imagine what neighborhoods around urban highways can be.


See the Seattle Mobility Plan’s case studies of urban freeway removals for a rundown of projects all over the world.

***Shoutout to BIKEMORE, Baltimore’s new bicycle and livable streets advocacy group.  Don’t think they have a blog yet, but you should follow them on twitter: @bikemorebmore

  • Michael Anthony Farley

    The most all-around beneficial and financially feasible way to remove the freeways would be to offer the land for free to the private sector in exchange for public amenities like affordable housing and a linear park space incorporated into developments. Letting the private sector pay for highway demolition in exchange for development rights would save the cash-strapped city a ton of money and generate jobs, tax revenue and new open space. 

  • Ted

    Perhaps, but considering the huge costs of highway removals, would the ROI numbers even work in the private sector?