The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 caused a major expansion of our highways, creating the system as we know it today. The 1956 Act had several predecessors, but none approached its scope or ambition, which has continued to the present. The Act had many benefits in terms of improving transportation, the economy, national security, and housing options. However, in combination with the Country’s housing policies, the Act also did tremendous damage to cities and countryside alike.
In cities around the country, the Act ushered in highways, expressways, and freeways that damaged and divided communities, dislocated people and took their homes, and emitted toxic pollution in dense residential areas. The Act severely damaged the lives of those who were dislocated from their homes or were forced to live adjacent to these rivers of air pollution, noise, and blight. Existing neighborhoods and their residents were sacrificed for the benefit of new outer suburban neighborhoods. This pattern took place during the era of “white flight.” Thus, downtowns and urban neighborhoods were abandoned along class and racial lines. To add insult to injury, those who abandoned the urban core demanded the physical destruction of large swaths of the neighborhoods of the people they left behind in order to facilitate their long commutes to and from their new far flung suburban homes. While perhaps worst in the U.S., the damaging impacts of freeways was not unique to the U.S.
The after-effects of this over-emphasis on highways and auto-mobile transportation is:
- Divided neighborhoods
- Scarred urban and rural landscapes
- Removal of public transit as a viable transportation alternative for the majority of the population
- Increased air pollution
- Sprawled development patterns and associated infrastructure costs
- Aggravated poverty and decreased economic opportunities for people left behind in the outward migration
Jane Jacobs’s seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is one of the most widely read books about urban form. Jacobs activism started when she opposed the dissection of a New York City park (Washington Square Park) by a planned roadway near her Greenwich Village home in the late 1950s. The roadway through the park was part of an urban renewal and roadway program lead by Robert Moses. Moses had many accomplishments and was respected for his intelligence, ability, and integrity. He wanted cities that exuded light, open space, parks, and which were easily navigated. He wanted people who lived in slums to have better living conditions. Some saw him as the Baron von Haussman of New York.
However, Moses now is known more for his nemesis role in Jacobs life and authorship. He is associated with the evisceration of cities and neighborhoods to build highways and expressways (and “the projects,” i.e. low income housing which replaced the slums). Some attribute to him racism and disdain for the poor. Despite the renown of Jacob’s 1960 book, Moses auto-centric vision for U.S. cities remained dominant for decades, and arguably still does.
While wholesale removal or mitigation of neighborhood-dissecting highways is likely decades off, if ever, it is now widely recognized that these highways detract from the livability of the adjacent neighborhoods. Nevertheless, a ground swell has been building. The groundswell is comprised mostly of grassroot community efforts seeking to mitigate or cover up the scars and barriers created by urban highways, and to create open space for park starved urban neighborhoods. These efforts seek to repurpose all or a portion of the highway right-of-way. Few at first, these efforts have blossomed into numerous projects across the country. They can include, among other things: covering highways with parks or buildings, converting the space beneath viaducts and ramps into parks, and converting expressways into landscaped boulevards. Now, cities and communities are beginning to reconnect neighborhoods and heal the wounds caused by urban highways.
Freeway caps and other “healing” projects have other benefits too. Benefits to the surrounding communities include:
- Increased property values
- Increased density and housing
- Increased retail sales
- Increased hotel development and occupancy
- Increased area jobs
- Increased property tax, payroll tax, hotel tax, and sales tax revenue
- Improved park and recreational opportunities
- Improved air quality
Freeway cap proposals are still met with skepticism. However, their increasing number is breeding increasing understanding at all levels of government. Yet they are highly complex projects that are still in their infancy in terms of number of projects actually built. Regulations and regulatory agencies still insert unnecessary obstacles for their planning, approval, and construction. Construction techniques are still being pioneered. And of course, funding is difficult and complex. This book seeks to aid those contemplating such a project, and to serve as a reference manual.
 Baron von Haussman is both lauded and panned for the wide boulevards of Paris.
 Campanella, Thomas J., How Low Did He Go?, CityLab (Atlantic Magazine – July 9, 2017), retrieved from https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2017/07/how-low-did-he-go/533019/
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