Over the past two decades, urban highways' social and economic ramifications have been brought into focus as a large part of this mid-century infrastructure comes to the end of its lifespan, prompting conversations over its role in contemporary urban planning. Freeway removal entails the replacement of the transport infrastructure with new urban developments, green amenities and alternative street grids to promote a healthier urban environment and smart growth. In some cases, the idea of removing highways is met with concern over the potential increase in traffic and gentrification of the areas adjacent to the road, but the pandemic has further exacerbated the need for quality public spaces and brought once again into question the hegemony of the car. The following highlights various highway removal projects, discussing how these interventions restore the urban fabric, reknit communities and recover urban spaces for city dwellers.
There is a widely held consensus among urban planners today that adding more transport infrastructure doesn't solve traffic congestion. Polluted and congested urban areas show the shortcomings of the 20th-century paradigm of prioritizing car traffic, with the benefits hailed around the mid-century failing to materialize fully. Highways create disconnections within the urban fabric and drive disinvestment in the areas they cross. In various cities, decision-makers and communities are looking to correct these repercussions and find a better use for the urban land occupied by highways.
A few months ago, New York announced plans to tear down the I-81 highway. The initiative is the latest in a series of plans to demolish or repurpose elevated highways that severed communities across the United States and are now reaching the end of their functional life. "Reconnecting neighbourhoods that were severed by asphalt highways is a cornerstone of our bold infrastructure vision for a better New York," said the state's governor Kathy Hochul. The US could easily be considered the land of freeways. The country saw a boom in highway construction across cities in the 1950s and 1960 that were meant to decrease the commuting time between the suburbs and downtowns. These massive infrastructure works led to the destruction of neighbourhoods, racial segregation and an over-reliance on cars. As the highways reach the end of their lifespan, cities across the US need to decide whether they are rebuilt or removed. Over 30 American cities are currently evaluating highway removal, while the administration allocated a budget to help reconnect neighbourhoods divided by this type of infrastructure.
The Congres for New Urbanism identifies several principles underpinning successful highway removal plans, starting with rooting the plans in community priorities. One approach to highway removal is replacing freeways with boulevards or a network of streets that would restore the urban fabric and, at the same time, conduct traffic. For the Syracuse I-81 highway, authorities decided to replace the highway with a street grid that would slow traffic through the neighbourhood and potentially spur development in the area. This "highway to boulevards" approach increases investment in adjacent areas and improves community health while being less disruptive to traffic needs.
Untapped Spatial Resource for Green Infrastructure and Public Spaces
In 2005, Seol removed an elevated highway and restored the water stream that had been covered with concrete slabs. The restoration of the 11-kilometre long Cheonggyecheon area was part of the city's strategy to re-introduce nature within the urban environment, highlight the history of the place and strengthen the development of the surrounding business area. As expected, the resulting linear park led to reducing the heat island effect and a decrease in air pollution. Similarly, Madrid converted its M-30 motorway into a sunken road with a six-kilometre linear park on top.
Not all urban freeways are elevated structures, and the ones that are below ground feature a different kind of opportunity for cities by capping the freeway to reconnect the urban fabric. In downtown Dallas, a section of the freeway was covered to create the Klyde Warren Park, a new public space that dramatically changed the city. In 2019, Bjarke Ingels Group explored the idea of covering the Brooklyn Queens Expressway wth a deck structure that would accommodate a public parkland. The vision hasn't gained political support, and last year, the authorities decided to delay any significant decision and simply conduct basic maintenance of the infrastructure piece.
In Paris, Voie Georges Pompidou or the Pompidou Expressway ran along the right bank of the Seine, connecting the Boulevard Périphérique to the city. In 2002, the first steps were taken to convert the road into a beach along the river by closing the expressway for a month each summer until 2010, when plans were revealed to permanently close the expressway and replace it with a pedestrian zone. The area now features a pedestrian promenade accompanied by spaces dedicated to sports activities.
Unlocking Valuable Development Land
Some cities see highway removal as an opportunity for the city to develop inward and densify the centre. In Rochester, United States, a section of the Inner Loop, a six-lane sunken road separating downtown from the city, has been covered and replaced with a narrower boulevard. The rest of the land was opened for development and currently features apartment buildings and various projects under construction. The scheme is part of the city's strategy to reverse population decline by creating attractive neighbourhoods that would drive investment and new residents to the area.
Despite this ethos to restore the urban fabric, seize the opportunity to introduce more green infrastructure and reclaim public space, as well as the underlining benefits for public health, some cities are still considering building new urban highways or expanding existing ones (Colorado plans on expanding its highway, while also meeting its climate goals). While not all highway removal projects hold the same worth for the local communities, it is essential to reconsider transport infrastructure through the lens of contemporary urban planning values, especially in light of current climate challenges. Urban highways represent an untapped spatial potential for cities to unfold more sustainable and community-oriented development strategies.