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Urban highway removal: 4 ways to reknit a city’s fabric

April 07, 2022

By Margaret Newman

Making the right decisions to create a positive urban legacy

During this past year, our urban planners and architects have been rethinking our approach to almost everything. In speaking with our public and private sector clients, we have been deeply involved in conversations around how to provide more equitable solutions in planning cities. That includes providing mobility and healthy, active transportation options. It focuses on taking careful account of the needs of diverse individuals, across economic, cultural, gender, and age demographics.

Lately, we have seen more stories in the media and statements from public officials than we ever have on the negative effects of the highways built in the last century. Those highways have often divided neighborhoods in artificial ways. They make equitable planning goals difficult, or impossible, to realize.

Undoing the damage done by urban highways and reknitting the fabric of America’s cities

When the US highway system was built, it brought vast connectivity, wider lanes, and higher speeds. But it also did great damage to the cities it intersected. The intentional paths chosen through minority and immigrant neighborhoods caused decades of dispersion, decline, and disinvestment.  

Rochester, New York’s Inner Loop East is an early success story in the highway to boulevard movement.

In some cities, investors have reclaimed these areas. In many others, the blight set in for generations. The ongoing negative physical, environmental, and social impacts of the highway system are well documented.

The good news is that municipal, state, and federal leadership are finally talking about fixing mistakes of the past. The federal government has included funding for planning highway removal and repurposing excess roadway capacity through the passage of the recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Included is $1 billion targeted to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access.” This funding is really a down payment toward the future by repairing our communities.

In 2021, the Congress for the New Urbanism identified 15 US highways that are functionally obsolete and are ripe for transformation. Titled Freeways Without Futures, this biannual report has identified dozens of other potential projects since its first edition in 2008. Some—mostly those along waterfronts—are proposed to be removed altogether, while others can be converted to more city-friendly boulevards.

It’s important to note that rethinking downtown highways affects more than just the immediate community. Studies such as the Value of US Downtowns and Center Cities, coauthored by the International Downtown Association and Stantec, have revealed that when a downtown thrives, the entire economic region thrives. Addressing infrastructure issues that hinder economic development and social cohesion is something that everyone in a region will feel.

Successful transformation and creating safer streets

Inner Loop East in Rochester, New York, is one project that went from highway scar to city-building boulevard. In addition to reducing traffic dangers, the project removed a major barrier to renewal in the East End, one of Rochester’s key downtown districts. Partially funded through federal TIGER funds and completed in 2021, the new Union Street features an at-grade parkway with improved pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.

New York City transformed its elevated West Side Highway into an at-grade boulevard that was more friendly for pedestrians and cyclists, kicking off a revitalization of Manhattan’s west side.

Another New York example is the West Side Boulevard, formerly the West Side Highway (or Route 9A). The deteriorating elevated highway bisected the west side of Manhattan. Transforming it into a boulevard helps prioritize pedestrians and cyclists. Years later, we see the benefits of removing the highway with increased development, tourism, and improved public space.

Other cities are looking to construct “caps” or “stitches,” particularly where highway removal is not an option due to traffic levels. This design approach places a lid over the roadway, enhances the lid with park space, and eliminates divided communities. One notable example of a cap over a rail line is in downtown Reno, Nevada, where new landscape designs and a community mural beautify the area.

In some cases, a full tear-down or cap isn’t the right answer. In Albany, New York, the award-winning Albany Skyway project is repurposing a little-used highway off-ramp into an elevated park. It includes high quality pedestrian and bicycle connections to the waterfront.

Building new crossings or expanding existing bridges can help reconnect communities. Wider sidewalks, lighting, and even civic art can boost neighborhood travel on new routes. In Columbus, Ohio, the Cap at Union Station used air rights to span the bridge with continuous storefronts. It makes the trip on foot enjoyable and reduces road noise in the process. A community designed mural added a cultural depth to one of the additional bridges built as part of the same project.

Building new businesses to provide positive economic impact

There is a clear economic impact with these projects. In addition to creating a better corridor for the people of Rochester by stitching the downtown back together, Union Street has attracted investment worth $229 million. It has breathed new life into historic buildings once blighted by the highway.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, 10 acres were made available after changes to on- and off-ramps along I-277 to support the construction of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. This led to more than $2 billion in new development. 

Of all the lessons learned thus far, the most important is a strong sense of patience.

The $110 million Klyde Warren Park cap over the Woodall Rogers Freeway in Dallas, Texas, has generated more than $2.5 billion in economic impact. These three projects had outsized net benefits, but they also represent solutions that are unique to their cities.

Equitable planning, equitable outcomes

As we plan for urban environments that prioritize environmental justice, how can planners and urban designers help communities make the right choices for their downtowns when a highway runs right through it?

A comprehensive approach that focuses on equity at every stage of the project requires answering key questions. They include: Where are projects built? What projects are built? And how are communities engaged in the process? This means understanding the methods used in the past, reviewing the results of previous studies to find out if they led to meaningful changes, and determining areas that are still left behind and in need of more urgent investment and care.

Our team has developed three strategies to promote stronger and more inclusive outcomes for projects.

Equitable engagement: Ensure that “planning fatigue” from previous efforts is not a barrier by finding compelling and relevant activities to engage the local community. Focus groups and accessible community events are key.

Equitable prioritization: Huge amounts of data are available that didn’t exist when these highways were planned. Choosing proper means and methods for collecting data—what we collect and how we choose to collect it—can produce widely varied results.

Equitable metrics: Measuring progress and developing a process for assessing change is critical for reaching inclusive project goals. What we measure and how we measure will help determine the success of the project. 

Getting started and setting the project up for success

Every city can learn from recent experiences rather than beginning anew. I’ve mentioned several projects with measurable and demonstrated economic, social, and political returns for their cities.

One size doesn’t fit all. Whether the proposed highway change is a cap, a stitch, a strategic intervention, or a full-removal and conversion, there are key issues when recommending one solution over another.

In Reno, Nevada, a community engagement program sought to beautify a “cap” that covered a rail line through downtown. (Courtesy Downtown Reno Partnership)

1. Establish community specific goals and possible alternatives.

From Rochester, New York, to San Francisco, California, communities across the US are realizing that intracity highways are a barrier. They are starting to invest in ways to repair these breaches in the civic form.

Communities have similarly lofty goals for rethinking highways. Examples include improving health and safety for residents, providing economic benefits to accessible neighborhoods without displacement, and mitigating climate impacts. There may be several options for solutions that reknit a community. Working with residents to discuss what they really want is the first step

2. Listen and learn how to best serve the neighborhoods to build community support, leadership, and political will.

Of all the lessons learned thus far, the most important is a strong sense of patience. This includes recognizing that the lengthy process requires a long-term view of community investment. The replacement of less than a mile of Rochester’s Inner Loop was decades in the making and broke new ground in the national discussion.

To begin, communities need to build support for an urban planning vision. That vision should fit the needs of the area, offering options like connected networks for pedestrians and cyclists, public transit, and a quality public realm.

Many freeways barreled through immigrant and minority neighborhoods. They left the grid intact on either side but disconnected neighbors and condemned them to a pattern of decline. Consider a highway removal or reconfiguration project where these neighborhoods still exist and when a reconnection would aid in their resurgence.

3. Consider all the design options.

A new park over a freeway isn’t always the right answer. Communities can consider options including a boulevard, bridges, and park space, all with the goal of knitting things together.

With any major public investment comes the signal to investors that progress is occurring. Housing stability and affordability programs should go hand in hand with any such project. Include arts and culture in the planning process.

As various options are considered, it is important to prevent or mitigate gentrification and land speculation. Preserving housing affordability should be an early concern for any project. It’s essential to work with city and community leaders to establish appropriate land use around newly created street frontage.

And because these projects lead to major construction, they will have substantial impacts on a community for a long period of time. Careful planning is required to mitigate these impacts as projects move forward.

4. Leveraging the investment to create lasting value.

It’s critical to balance the vast sums of money spent on these projects with a return on investment. Many highway corridors through the center of cities are walled off by substantial buildings and parking structures.

As with any potential public investment strategy, it’s important to find “soft sites” where redevelopment can occur in a way that is complemented by the proposed reclamation. The conversion of a freeway to a surface street might provide places for new construction on the residual land like in Charlotte. Or for the existing buildings to have a better front door like in Rochester.

Using the investment to help provide affordable housing, create jobs, and boost economic incentives should be part of the plan. We should also evaluate the development and redevelopment potential along a freeway’s frontage to assess the potential for a truly symbiotic transformation.

Reimaging highways and reuniting neighborhoods 

We cannot bring back the people who were often forcibly displaced by the original project and planning mistakes of the past. But we can reestablish the city according to the norms that have created great cities for more than a thousand years: a network of flexible streets; diverse neighborhoods; walkable shopping districts; and a network of parks, health, and equity.

The right infrastructure connects and supports communities. Let’s continue the work in cities across the country to reunite neighborhoods and reimagine the highway barriers that have long divided them.

This article originally appeared on Planetizen.

  • Margaret Newman

    As a practice leader on our Urban Places and Smart Mobility teams, Margaret applies over three decades of expertise to public realm projects and the leadership of multidisciplinary teams.

    Contact Margaret
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