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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

Jane Jacobs Part III: How Efficiency Destroys Cities

In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs makes a comparison between Manchester and Birmingham England.  When the book was written in 1969, Birmingham was a rising star and competed with London as a world-class manufacturing center. Manchester was an economically stagnant place falling in influence. The difference, she wrote, was development. Development of new goods, innovations, R and D, and adding new work to old work.  Manchester was more efficient in pumping out widgets but concentrated on only one or two industries; Birmingham had an entrepreneurial culture and diversified manufacturing base which allowed for economic development over the course of decades. Less efficient, but in the long run, prosperous and sustainable. When the paths of these cities first began to diverge, Birmingham must have seemed more chaotic and “messy”. Less productive. A more organic city, but one that afforded opportunity to a broader range of people.

She goes on to site another example of the Roman Aqueducts, claiming that Rome’s utilitarian water needs were “amazingly neglected” except for the baths, gardens and homes of the wealthy. The aqueducts were conceived and funded by the wealthy, for the wealthy.

“Solutions to most of the practical problems of cities begin humbly. When humble people, doing lowly work, are not also solving problems, nobody is apt to solve them.” Economy of Cities, Pg 105

The most efficient solution to Rome’s water needs – massive aqueducts carrying millions of gallons of water, was mostly ineffective in getting water to people’s homes. Empowering people and giving them the tools to solve their own problems fills in the gaps that are left when the most efficient solution is riddled with glaring omissions.

The concept of efficiency is taken even further, describing our late 20th century urban planning models:

“It is most efficient for large construction firms to produce monotonous multiples of identical buildings; it is most efficient for architects to design multiples of identical buildings. Superblocks are more efficient than smaller blocks because there are fewer crossings and traffic can flow more efficiently; where there are fewer streets, utilities can be distributed more efficiently and maintenance costs are less.” Economy of Cities, Pg 101

Jacobs spoke out against architectural homogenization and superblocks in her previous book, Death and Life. The quest for efficiency destroyed large parts of cities across the country. A local example:

"The cycle of the machine is now coming to an end. Man has learned much in the hard discipline and the shrewd, unflinching grasp of practical possibilities that the machine has provided in the last three centuries: but we can no more continue to live in the world of the machine than we could live successfully on the barren surface of the moon." - Lewis Mumford

US-40 in West Baltimore, also called the “Highway to Nowhere”, and deemed the “The Highway to Somewhere” in the West Baltimore MARC Station Master Plan. 20 blocks destroyed, 1,000 households displaced and numerous churches and historic buildings demolished for a 1.6 mile freeway, its connection to the beltway canceled due to community opposition and funding issues.    I converted the map to monochrome to show the huge spaces of underutilized land, the mess of on/off ramps abutting neighborhoods and the desolate superblocks east of MLK Jr. Blvd. If you look more closely you can see the cow paths where people cross multiple lanes of traffic and concrete barriers to walk between the two halves of Fremont Ave. :

During the design and construction of the Interstate system, the most efficient solutions to traffic usually disregarded how people traveled within their neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods themselves.  This is the Manchester of urban design – it does one thing very well (move cars), but as originally designed it is inflexible in its use and myopic in its scope. There are plans, however, to turn this highway into a community asset. Let’s hope we are far less efficient today.

7/21/10 Update: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all the work BaltiMorphosis has done with their concepts for West Baltimore.  Their plans show the magnitude of destruction caused by this urban highway and the design possibilities which could someday revitalize an enormous area of the city.