Highways for the Neighborhood: Reimagining Our Road Infrastructure for Community Integration and Development
On June 29, 1956, a significant transformation occurred in the United States: the start of the Interstate Highway System. This network, spanning over 40,000 miles, connected the Nation from coast to coast. The highways, with their wide lanes and high-speed limits, revolutionized the safety and comfort of travel, marking a new era in American transportation. A construction marvel, our roads served as a testament to our engineering prowess, facilitated the efficient movement of people and goods across the country, and connected previously distant cities.
However, the development of this system was not without controversy. Critics argue that the highways disrupted local communities and altered the existing social fabric. The environmental impact of the highways—contributing to noise and air pollution—has also been a point of contention. Furthermore, critics contend that the highways, in their current form, prioritize long-distance transportation and daily commuters, often at the expense of local travel and community welfare. This negativity has led to calls for a more balanced approach to transportation planning, one that considers the needs of local communities as well as long-distance travelers. While it may not currently be feasible to address the issues of highways on a national scale, it is certainly possible to implement creative solutions that mitigate their impact locally. This article proposes the reimagining of highways as potential assets for local communities.
An excellent example of highway revitalization is in San Francisco, CA. Here, a transformation has occurred that challenges the traditional view of highways as disruptions to local culture and community coherence. Previously overlooked and blighted underpasses, once seen as barriers dividing the city, have been reinvented as vibrant parks. Progress Park, nestled beneath I–280 in the burgeoning Dogpatch neighborhood, was once a fenced-off area filled with rocks and debris. Today, it’s a community park where neighbors play bocce, dog owners bring their pets, and workout groups gather. This transformation has fostered community cohesion and turned once divisive underpasses into vibrant arteries of community engagement and recreational activity.
The space around and beneath highways also presents unexpected opportunities for economic revitalization, with Boston serving as an excellent example. Formerly overlooked underpasses have been converted into urban parks and cultural attractions. Landscaped pedestrian boardwalks and bicycle paths have created new connections between communities previously separated by highway infrastructure. Visitors also enjoy amenities such as world-class street art, a dog park, curated retail, fitness, food, and beverage experiences. These once empty areas, now transformed into lively spaces, not only generate economic activity but also stimulate local entrepreneurship and provide platforms for regional cultural showcase.
The city of Portland, OR, showcases a creative way to use areas near highways, showing dedication to environmental sustainability and community improvement. A key example is the “Gateway Green,” a 25-acre park situated at the junction of two interstate highways, I–205 and I–84. The Gateway Green is a versatile public area created with community feedback, acting as a center for outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, and bird watching. Additionally, it includes facilities for stormwater management and native plants, improving the urban environment and supporting the city’s environmental objectives. This creative use of unused space encourages community involvement and economic growth while proving that the transformation of existing land or structures around highways can be highly advantageous for local communities.
Despite the many positive examples, there are still thousands of locations across the United States where there is a great need for improvement. A prime example is the Cross Bronx Expressway in New York City, NY, a source of division and blight for surrounding neighborhoods, many of which are low-income communities of color. The highway restricts access to open spaces and adversely affects public health. To address this, a comprehensive plan could be developed to transform the highway into a community asset. This could involve decking over or transforming certain highway segments that cause the most harm to neighborhood health, prosperity, and cohesion.
Alternatively, transforming the highway into an urban boulevard would involve reducing the number of lanes, adding pedestrian and bicycle amenities, and lining the street with trees. This change would create a pedestrian-friendly environment and potentially free up land for open space and community amenities. Implementing such a plan would necessitate collaboration between State departments of transportation, city officials, and local communities, and careful consideration of costs, benefits, and potential impacts. If executed effectively, it could significantly improve residents’ quality of life and contribute to the area’s overall revitalization.
In conclusion, the concept of transforming unused highway spaces into thriving community areas is not just theoretical; it’s already a reality in cities like San Francisco and Boston. These areas have taken what was once seen as a problem and turned it into a solution, creating new cultural, economic, and green spaces that bring people together, stimulate local business, and help make cities more sustainable. This same potential exists across the United States, including places like the Cross Bronx Expressway. Through creative planning and teamwork between local communities, city officials, and transportation departments, we can redesign or repurpose these highways to make them more beneficial to the surrounding neighborhoods. By carefully considering the costs and impacts, we can help improve the quality of life for residents, stimulate local economies, and make our cities more connected and sustainable. So instead of seeing highways as problems, we need to start seeing them as opportunities for positive change.
Joseph Tso is a junior at Wilbert Tucker High School in Fairfax, VA, and will graduate in 2025.
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