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.