American highways ripped apart city neighborhoods. A $1 billion plan wants to do better
The Department of Transportation announced Thursday that it will soon fund up to $1 billion in projects to reconnect city neighborhoods that have been scarred by highways.
Urban experts say the investment pales in comparison to the long-running negative impacts of urban highways, but welcome the funding as a way to show the benefits of human-focused urban design, which may inspire more projects.
“Reconnection is a profoundly good thing,” said Mindy Fullilove, a professor of urban policy and health at the New School, who has studied how highways divide cities. “It’s part of a larger strategy of making our cities what we need — vital, functioning places where people cross paths and get to know each other.”
Car-focused life — including highways — became central to American culture when the Interstate Highway System was funded in 1956.
President Eisenhower, who signed the legislation, had seen in World War II the highways that Hitler built in Germany, and was impressed. But America broke with the typical design in Europe, and built its highways through cities, rather than around them. Highways were often promoted as vital to saving a city’s central business district as suburbs and sprawling development grew in popularity. Many white Americans fled cities for new suburbs that excluded Black Americans and depended on highways to access cities.
Many communities revolted against highway construction in cities like San Francisco and Washington, DC, but most highways were still built. Urban highways were often paved through Black neighborhoods, leading to lost homes, broken communities and divided cities. Neighborhoods adjacent to highways became less livable, as air quality declined, noise pollution increased, and walking places was less appealing.
People don’t like to travel through the vast and bleak open spaces that highways create, Fullilove told CNN Business. Neighbors often stop traveling to the other side of a highway once it is built through their neighborhood, she said.
Fullilove estimates that thousands of communities have been divided by highway construction. The amount of damage varied by city. Robert Moses, the notorious New York builder, displaced 250,000 people in New York to build highways, his biographer Robert Caro has written.
“There was a very vast and drastic attack on poor communities,” Fullilove said.
The new funding could be used for planning grants to study remedies, such as capping a highway, so that traffic runs below ground, leaving the opportunity to create a pleasant neighborhood above with walkable, tree-lined streets. Atlanta is currently exploring a highway capping project. Other possible uses of the funding include building urban trails, called greenways, or bus rapid transit projects, according to Stephanie Pollack, the deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.
ReConnect Rondo, a nonprofit organization in St. Paul, Minnesota, has worked since 2015 on a project to heal a neighborhood that was decimated when Interstate 94 was built. The highway construction impacted 61% of Rondo residents, and 700 homes, according to ReConnect Rondo.
“What are we going to do now?” Marvin Roger Anderson, who lived in Rondo, recalled his father saying in the 1950s after their home was condemned. Anderson said his father had recently built the home and others in the neighborhood, as he transitioned to retirement. He said his parents moved outside the city, onto land that was subdivided by a Black owner to accommodate displaced families. His father was never the same, Anderson said.
ReConnect Rondo’s plan calls for building a 22-acre land bridge over the highway, so that a traditional urban neighborhood can be rebuilt, including housing and retail. It is estimated the project will cost $458.9 million. The nonprofit will be applying for funding to further plan its project.
Planning grants will be given for between $100,000 and $2 million. Capital construction funding may range from $5 million to $100 million, and can cover up to 50% of costs.
“The federal government that played a part in taking [Rondo] away, ought to bring us back, and get us started again on the right path,” Anderson said.
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