Healing the scars left by cars

Leif Erikson Park - Duluth, MN

While individual car ownership has created many negative impacts on cities, the two that tend to be the most noticeable to me are the once-thriving neighborhoods that were carved up and divided by freeway networks and those downtown cores that are pot-holed with ground level parking lots.

The ill-effects of slicing and dicing of major cities with expressways has been long documented. Highways elevated on berms act as modern great walls warding off all comers; grand chasms from below-grade expressways act as concrete moats; and caterpillar-like elevated highways detract from the aesthetic continuum of the cityscape.

Several cities have demolished elevated freeways to bring vitality back to the abutting districts. These include San Francisco (Embarcadero Freeway) and Milwaukee (Park East Freeway). More cities should consider doing the same.

Other cities have constructed parks over segments of freeway or buried the freeway: Seattle (Freeway Park), Duluth (Leif Erikson Park), and Boston (Big Dig). Personally, I would like to see a park built over a section of I-496 in Greater Lansing as a way of reconnecting downtown with historic REO Town located just to the south.

Plan for Freeway Park - Seattle from seattle.gov

Lastly, some cities have vacated plans for new freeways altogether or converted the project to a commuter rail line or busway. Each of these options are useful and plausible for reuniting those areas cut off from the rest of the city. However, as is known from its case history, a project as ambitious as Boston’s Big Dig can be very pricey, especially when compared to lesser scenarios.

Personally, I believe no more expressways should be built through the heart of a metropolis unless one’s goal is to devastate the city. And this conclusion is coming from a person who as a kid 30+ years ago thought massive tangles of freeways were seriously cool when traveling through places like Atlanta. But, the impacts on the social and economic fabric of the community are too costly and the urban dynamic is left in tattered shreds.

For ground level parking lots, I suppose they are better than a decrepit or burnt-out old building that is about to collapse. But, that is about the only thing they are better than. Otherwise, they leave gaping holes in the streetscape that can weaken the vitality of a downtown core.  My personal preference would be to fend off attempts to demolish buildings without a certain (or as near to certain as you can get in today’s economy) site redevelopment plan.

It will be interesting to see if some of the burgeoning cities of the south and west face the same socioeconomic problems from car-centered planning in the next few decades as has befallen older industrial cities. My prediction is that they will, because certain errors have consistent results no matter the latitude or longitude. Hopefully…that will be the last time we have to shoot ourselves in the foot to learn that acquiescing to the car only leaves wounds and scars on the cityscape.

This entry was posted in cities, culture, environment, history, land use, planning, revitalization, transit, transportation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Healing the scars left by cars

  1. Nikko P says:

    I can’t say I’m an expert on this but one idea I heard thrown around that I liked was replacing the freeways with narrower boulevards (preferably with transit along the corridor) similar to The Embarcadero and develop the new space freed up by the absence of the freeway. While freeways did a lot to ruin neighborhood connectivity, we could take advantage of the ROW that was created to develop new dense corridors.


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