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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.

MARC_AEM7s_at_BWI (1)

Sometimes Public Transportation is the Best Option

What’s the best way to get from Washington, DC to Baltimore, MD during the height of rush hour?

That is the question I asked myself when leaving work in Downtown DC recently, to go to an event that was held in Baltimore, MD, thirty-nine miles away. As our firm focuses on transportation planning and knowing how notorious rush hour traffic is in this area, I sought alternative modes of transportation to traverse the Washington-Baltimore Metropolitan region along Interstate 95, without being stuck in what Texas Tech Transportation Institute called in 2015, “the worst traffic in the Country.” In assessing the situation, using the regional rail network seemed to be the most prudent course of action, and getting from Union Station in Washington to Penn Station in Baltimore would mean traveling aboard Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Metrorail line and the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train.

The MARC train has three different service lines that run close to 100 trains a day covering the Washington-Baltimore region. Historically connected to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the MARC systems runs on some of the oldest continuously operated passenger rail lines in the country.

Since most of our staff already commutes to our offices by WMATA Metrorail service, I was able to completely traverse the region without relying on automobiles. Taking the Orange Line from our offices at McPherson Square to the Metro Center WMATA Transit Hub, then transferring from the Orange Line to the Red Line, and then taking the Red Line to Washington’s Union Station, where staff was able to transfer to the MARC train system. Arriving at Union Station, I was able to purchase tickets on the MARC line to travel from Union Station to Baltimore’s Penn Station. After arriving at Baltimore’s Penn Station, I walked several blocks to the location of the event on East North Avenue at the Impact Hub. Not having to deal with traffic congestion on Interstate 95, as well as not having to pay for parking or gas, while also disembarking several blocks from the event’s location showed me that taking the MARC train was an accessible means of regional travel. But while the train trip was convenient for all the aforementioned reasons, it could have been faster in terms of travel time.

Currently, the United States falls behind many other developed nations, in terms of investment in a national and inter-regional High-Speed Rail network. Within the past 6 years, several states have rejected funding offers through the Federal Government’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program to assist in the development and construction of a High-Speed Rail network in their respective states. Currently, Amtrak offers Acela, a High-Speed train that runs between Washington, DC and Boston, MA, that is so successful it accounts for close to 25% of Amtrak’s revenue as of Fiscal Year 2012. While there are currently plans underway throughout the country to invest more resources into High-Speed rail in the United States, we as a country as still playing catch up with other developed countries who have invested in their respective rail networks, in terms of offering alternative transportation modalities for those who live a car-free lifestyle or who do not have the personal finances to own a private vehicle. Having a faster, more reliable intercity rail transportation network option to traverse our region would lessen our reliance on cars, which in turn reduces congestion, reduces carbon emissions, and limits the frustration of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. This would be a positive impact on our region, as well as the country as a whole.

If the opportunity presents itself in your future travel plans, please don’t eschew mass transit for a personal vehicle. Sure, you get to select your own music and travel in privacy, but the benefits of trading your private mode of transportation for mass transit outweigh the perceived negatives of not being able to drive directly to your destination.

David Simon, MCP, is a Community Planner who has worked in diverse communities across the country ranging from the Rust Belt to Appalachia, and from communities metropolitan to rural. 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 Metro area 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.

Sewer Systems in the District of Columbia - Graphic

Designing to Connect Communities

Graphics and images serve as a universal language for communication. The first records of human communication are drawings, and they have served as a means of communication among many cultures and throughout many generations. Even today, as children, we start learning names and ideas through colors, graphics, images and drawings. Why do we stop as adults when it is clearly a useful resource for communication?

Transportation engineers, urban planners, environmental scientists, and architects are some of the specialists that use technical language as part of their day-to-day communication. Although technical terminology might be very helpful to communicate complex information in a specific field, it might also create a barrier in interactions with people without that technical knowledge. For instance, imagine a group of experts in psychology participating in an engineering technical meeting about how to construct bridges. Even though all participants might have extensive professional trainings, they do not share the same technical language, which will can make communicating difficult. Now instead of psychology experts, imagine people from very different backgrounds, education levels, and even languages going to that same meeting.

When we organize public meetings at Nspiregreen, we experience these types of situations where experts in a field want to share their ideas and obtain feedback from community members. Graphic designs, maps, and other ways of content visualization help to simplify ideas.  We develop graphics, content visualization, designs, and interactive activities to help connect these two groups, experts and non-experts, and support their communication. Visually appealing and colorful designs for posters, handouts, and informational boards translate technical information to help the community visualize and understand complex processes. The interactive activities we design allow people not only to understand, but also to generate informed decisions to provide feedback for the projects.

For example, compare Figure 1 and Figure 2. The figures show two different ways to describe the same concepts related to stormwater management.

Sewer Systems in the District of Columbia - Document vs Graphic

What figure did you look first? Did you look at the Word document or the graphic?

When organizing and designing public engagement events, we have to consider that people have limited time to understand new complex and technical ideas, and give feedback based on informed decisions. The graphic on Figure 2 summarizes the process of how stormwater is conducted through a system in Figure 1. In addition, there are are no unnecessary technical details. It highlights the basic elements of the system that people need to know to understand the process in a visually appealing and even fun way.

Surprisingly for us, not only has the community found the graphics valuable we have created for them; but, also the project team members who are experts in their fields, have found them very informative, visually appealing, and useful. Artistic and creative resources such as graphics are highly underused and undervalued in the scientific communities. Our society tends to separate art from science as if they were opposites, but in reality they complement each other. If used together, they might even create a more powerful impact in engaging more people to participate in public events and local projects.

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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