Biden’s plan to reconnect cities damaged by freeways moves forward

Urban experts say the investment pales in comparison to the long-term negative impacts of urban highways, but welcome the funding as a way to show the benefits of human-centered urban design, which could inspire more projects.

« Reconnecting is a deeply 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 to make our cities what we need – vital, functioning places where people meet and get to know each other. »

Car-centric living – including the highways – became a central part of American culture when the Interstate Highway System was funded in 1956.

President Eisenhower, who signed the legislation, had seen during World War I II the highways that Hitler built in Germany, and was impressed. But America broke with the typical European design and built its highways through cities rather than around them. Freeways were often touted as vital to saving a city’s central business district as suburbs and sprawling development grew in popularity. Many white Americans fled the cities for new suburbs that excluded black Americans and depended on highways to access cities.

Many communities rioted against freeway construction in cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., but most freeways were still being built. Urban highways were often paved in black neighborhoods, resulting in lost homes, shattered communities, and divided cities. Neighborhoods adjacent to highways became less livable as air quality declined, noise pollution increased, and places to walk were less attractive.

People doesn’t like traveling through the vast, dark open spaces created by freeways, Fullilove told CNN Business. Neighbors often stop going to the other side of a freeway once it’s built in their neighborhood, she said.

Fullilove estimates that thousands of communities have been divided by the construction of highways. The amount of damage varied by city. Robert Moses, the notorious New York builder, moved 250,000 people to New York to build highways, wrote his biographer Robert Caro.

“There was a very broad and drastic attack on poor communities,” Fullilove said.

The new funding could be used to plan grants to explore solutions, such as capping a freeway, so that traffic runs underground, leaving room for a pleasant neighborhood above with walkable streets lined with trees. Atlanta is currently exploring a freeway overlay project. According to Stephanie Pollack, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, other possible uses of the funding include building urban trails, called greenways, or bus rapid transit projects.

ReConnect Rondo, a nonprofit in St. Paul, Minnesota, has been working since 2015 on a project to heal a neighborhood that was decimated during the construction of Interstate 94. Construction of the freeway affected 61% of Rondo residents and 700 households, according to ReConnect Rondo.
This photo from 2010 shows a sign for "Old Rondo Ave. : 1865-1966" standing atop other street signs overlooking Interstate 94, left, and a frontage road in St. Paul, Minnesota, where homes, stores and other businesses once stood. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

« What are we going to do now? » Marvin Roger Anderson, who lived in Rondo, remembers his father saying in the 1950s after their house was condemned. Anderson said his father recently built the house and others in the neighborhood as he transitioned into retirement. He said his parents moved out of town to land that had been subdivided by a black landlord to accommodate displaced families. His dad was never the same, Anderson said.

ReConnect Rondo’s plan calls for the construction of a 22-acre land bridge over the highway, so that a traditional urban neighborhood can be rebuilt, including housing and retail. The project is estimated to cost $458.9 million. The non-profit organization will apply for funding to further plan their project.

Planning grants will be awarded between $100,000 and $2 million. Capital construction funding can range from $5 million to $100 million and cover up to 50% of costs.

“The federal government that played a role in making [Rondo] away, should bring us back and get us back on track,” Anderson said.

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