Archive for July, 2016

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The Intersection between Highways and Social Justice

As the result of well publicized documentation of police brutality against young African-Americans in the United States, social activists across the country have recently taken to major highways and interstates and blocked these roads in acts of non-violent civil disobedience to protest the treatment of their fellow citizens, bringing traffic to a standstill. Protesters in San Francisco, Atlanta, and St. Paul, MN, all used these roads that at one point erased the established communities that existing in the right-of-way long before the term “Interstate” was part of the national lexicon.

It can be argued that one of the single most destructive federal policy decisions that negatively impacted urban cities in the United States was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. With the enactment of this legislation meant to expedite cross-country travel and commerce, federal transportation planners began to seek avenues and thoroughfares that bisected and subdivided the civics cores of numerous metropolitan cities as the controlled-access highways left indelible marks on the urban landscape.

The decision making process, in regards to where the Interstate System would travel through, acted as a catalyst for suburban growth and eventually facilitated “White Flight.” The alignments and right-of-ways of the interstate system were destructive in their action through the razing of city blocks and the erasure of neighborhoods from their physical location to accommodate the space needed to allow for multi-lane highways to snake through the urban fabric, as no attention was paid to local interests and the significant impact that the of construction the freeway caused.

This construction displaced residents, destroyed the physical form of neighborhoods, and scarred (both physically and psychically) our cities for decades to come. “The desire of the car owner to take his car wherever he went no matter what the social cost drove the interstate highway system, with all the force and lethal effect of a dagger, into the heart of the American City.” (Carl Solberg 1973)

As time progressed, new highways were constructed, as homes were razed and neighborhoods disappeared to create space for the highway’s footprint, residents began to band together to counteract the top-down planning efforts of government agencies and entities that were focused on giving the motor vehicle primacy in the urban transportation network. Thus began the era of the “Freeway Revolt.”

Examples of citizens revolting against the destructive force of highway alignments and right-of-ways:

Wallace, Idaho, (pop. 790) sought National Register of Historic Places recognition for the majority of its Downtown as a historic district. This classification resulted in the Federal Highway Administration to reroute its planned level-grade alignment of Interstate 90 through an elevated viaduct, because a large majority of the buildings in Downtown Wallace gained National Historic Place status, thus legally blocking any attempts to raze the community for the freeway.

Interstate 95 (I-95) runs the entire length of the East Coast of the United States, some 1920 miles, from Florida to Maine. It is the longest North-South Interstate in the United States. But when plans were announced to have the alignment of I-95 to bisect the Nation’s Capital, opposition to these plans began to foment. After significant opposition from all segments of Washington society with a rally cry of “White man’s roads through black men’s homes,” the plans to take I-95’s alignment through Washington were scrapped, and the alignment was routed around Interstate 495, the Capital Beltway, thus making I-95 non-contiguous as a result of public opposition.

In recognition of the negative impact that urban interstates have burdened cities with, policy shifts by municipal leaders across the globe began to acknowledge the positive impact that removal of freeways could have on their communities.

In Seoul, South Korea, then-Mayoral Candidate Lee Myung-bak ran on a platform to “daylight” the Cheonggyecheon is a 4-mile creek that had been covered to allow for the construction of a major arterial highway through the center of Seoul. The removal of the roadway created a tabula rasa for landscape designers to create a three-mile urban park that has increased local biodiversity and incited economic development.

In San Francisco, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake several damaged State Route 480, also known as the Embarcadero Freeway. The alignment ran along the Bay front of San Francisco, acting a visual barrier between the city and the waterfront. As a result of damaged sustained during the earthquake, plans by Caltrans to rebuild the freeway were met by opposition by city residents and officials. Then-Mayor Art Agnos staunchly supported the complete removal of the Embarcadero, eventually being ousted from power when his political coalition shifted allegiance, but twenty years later the Port of San Francisco honored him due to his unwaivering support of the Embarcadero demolition with a monument stated “This pedestrian pier commemorates the achievement of Mayor Agnos in leaving our city better and stronger than he found it.”

By facilitating the removal of highway infrastructure in the urban core, communities can become reconnected to waterfronts, parks, and other physical space that people were once cut off from, as the highways themselves created physical barriers to urban connectivity. In light of the results of removal of freeways and interstates from the urban core, there is an emerging amount of empirical evidence and real estate statistics that show improvements in property values of real estate near areas benefitting from the removal of highway alignments and road infrastructure. The long lasting effects of the highways across the United States will reverberate for years, but the forward-thinking policy views of bold leaders can seek to begin the process to reverse the negative impacts that freeways have caused in our urban communities.

The direct social action by modern day social activists in utilizing the Interstate as a tool of protest, in light of the historical inequities brought upon the communities where the right-of-way of the roads were located, almost brings full circle the conversation about the impact of highways have had on the social fabric of the urban cores of our major cities.

David Simon, MCP, is a Community Planner who has worked in diverse communities across the United States ranging from the Rust Belt to Appalachia,  from communities metropolitan to rural, with municipal planning agencies and non-profit neighborhood Community Development Corporations. Returning to the DC Metro area where he grew up, after 15 years working and going to school in the Midwest, he is impressed at the growth and development that the Region has accomplished. As the newest team member of Nspiregreen, he seeks to make an impact in the communities that our team works with, through proactive community engagement, while utilizing his passion for urban environments and community development.

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Lessons from Planning Internationally

IMG_0979In June, I had the opportunity to travel to Belize to help the Belize City Council (BCC) think through ways to prioritize people walking and biking. The American Planning Association sent a Community Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) of five urban planners to help BCC prepare a short and long term plan for the Yarborough neighborhood in Belize City. The CPAT team spent a week meeting with the government staff, stakeholders, community members, and the youth.

Any time you are doing a planning project in a new environment, there is always a learning curve. What are the cultural norms of this community? Who has the power? Who has influence? However, planning in another country was a new challenge and a great learning experience for me.

Five things that I learned:

  1. Check your US-ness at the door: While each city in the US has it is own vibe and flow, there is still an overarching US culture. When planning in another country, one has to be very careful not to bring the values, cultural norms, and assumptions from the US. One example is one of my colleagues on the team noticed that there were not any bike facilities and people did not wear bike helmets. I was asked my thoughts on recommending bike lanes and helmets and my response was they have a shared street/chaos culture that appears to work. In addition, changing behavior such as wearing helmets takes a significant amount of effort and energy.
  2. What works in US, may not work in another country: Things like bike lanes and traffic signals work in the US because we have a cultural norm of order and process. In Belize City, all the streets are shared streets. While it appears chaotic to an outsider, there is a rhythm and movement to how people move on the streets.
  3. What may not work in the US, may work in another country: Hell hath no fury like a resident that just lost on-street parking or a travel lane. In communities in the US, loss of parking or a travel lane becomes a stalling point for prioritizing people biking, walking, or using public transportation. However, in Belize the elected leadership and community are excited about the possibility of testing out prioritizing people biking and walking. As part of our recommendations, we will be providing the City with different options to test.
  4. You may be part of the problem: In talking with the youth, one thing that came across loud and clear is their feeling like everything in their city caters to tourist and the cruise ships. As we sat there listening, we quickly realized that we are the “tourist” they are talking about (not us specifically, but people from the US). As we began developing recommendations we had to change the paradigm from creating a tourist atmosphere to placemaking for residents that tourist could experience.
  5. When in doubt listen and ask questions: I came into the situation with very little knowledge of Belize other than the planning documents that were provided to us before our trip. I tried to avoid making assumptions by spending time listening and asking questions.

Nspiregreen has a mission to facilitate the empowerment and transformation of every community on the planet. With these lessons learned, we hope to continue to work with communities like Belize City and others.

 

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.

Micro bus in Caracas, Venezuela

Safety and Public Transportation

Last week was the first time I felt the impact of Metro’s SafeTrack on my life. The large crowds and the tight space between people on the trains made me flash back to my experience using public transportation in my home city, Caracas, Venezuela.

My experience using public transportation in Caracas goes back to more than 8 years ago. Since then, the country has faced countless changes (some good, many not that good). Because it has been quite a few years since I’ve used public transportation in Caracas, much of my observations may be outdated; however, my experience growing up using public transportation in another major world city provides me with some perspective about public transportation in the nation’s capital.

Hold your bag tight!

In my experience, moving around Caracas using public transportation was often a dangerous adventure. For me, safety concerns and public transportation could not be separated. I felt completely exposed when I was surrounded by crowds in closed spaces which happened often on public transportation in Caracas. I felt exposed to all kinds of people, crowded in small and moving spaces (buses and Metro), and this often created uncomfortable situations.

Before leaving home and taking public transportation I used to prepare for it. I dressed accordingly, with low-profile clothes and comfortable shoes, no jewelry or fancy bags (not even fake just in case someone did not know the difference). In other words, nothing that called unwanted attention. Because of the massive crowds on public transportation, I always held my bag tight. Although I was never a victim of robbery, I heard many stories of people who had items removed from their bags without them noticing.

While the District’s transportation system isn’t the poster child for safety, the massive crowding during Safe Track reminded me that I do not take the same level of preparation and precaution when using the Metro system. Furthermore, the alternatives to Metro are often safer here than the alternatives in Caracas.

“Camionetas” – An informal transportation method

Unsafe micro bus loading

Passenger getting in a “camioneta”

Using “camionetas” was quite an experience. The space inside was tight and they were usually crowded.  To request a stop there was no cord or button, you had to yell loudly “LA SIGUIENTE PARADA POR FAVOR” (“The next stop please”), and hope that the driver heard you.Because of the rapid and exponential growth Caracas has experienced in the past few years, the public transportation has collapsed. To move around the city, I along with thousands of people, used “camionetas” as a main transportation mode. These micro buses were affordable and connected many areas of the city that were not covered by Metro and other public transportation modes. They were often overcrowded, dangerous to people and the environment.

Although they had established stops, they were not strictly enforced by their drivers or even police. Since they were smaller than regular buses, they moved faster in traffic and with more frequency; therefore, transporting more people to their destinations in less time. The amount of passengers they carried, as well as the uncontrolled and unregulated loading and unloading of passengers put many lives at risk. People used to jump to get on the micro buses while they were moving. Bus drivers also let people jump out in the middle of the street instead of waiting to get to the next stop.

Unsafe micro bus unloading

Passenger getting off a “camioneta” in the middle of the street in Caracas

Camionetas were also a significant source of pollution because the majority of the microbuses were old and produced large amounts of exhaust. In addition, the particularly loud honks contributed to the noise pollution on the streets.

Since I have been working at Nspiregreen in the District, I greatly rely on Metro to commute to work. Next week, my commute will be significantly impacted by SafeTrack; however, it gives me great relief and comfort knowing that there are safe alternatives for public transportation. While I still have to be vigilant, I am more comfortable here than in Caracas using my electronic devices to get me through what might be a frustrating commute to work.

 

Fabiana I. Paez has a background in Geography and Cartography. She is passionate about creating visual designs to communicate and engage people in social and environmental causes.





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