In the years after World War II, car ownership boomed in the United States, and so did the development of urban freeways. In many cases, making it easy for people to drive from suburban areas to downtown business districts came at a severe cost to low income neighborhoods, and especially to places with high concentrations of Black and brown residents.
Today, ambitious climate goals and new considerations of environmental justice are causing some cities to reconsider those long-ago decisions in urban planning, especially since many of those highways are deteriorating and nearing the end of their useful lives.
But plans to remove highways, while potentially offering benefits like cleaner air, less noise and more walkable neighborhoods, also raise new questions about development, open space and exactly who will benefit from these changes.
Rochester, N.Y. is one city looking to repair the damage. It started by filling in a nearly-mile-long section of the sunken road, slowly stitching a neighborhood back together. Today, visitors of the Inner Loop’s eastern segment would hardly know a highway once ran beneath their feet.
“Rochester has shown what can be done in terms of reconnecting the city and restoring a sense of place,” he said. “That’s really the underlying goal of highway removal.”
The project’s successes and stumbling blocks provide lessons for other cities looking to retire some of their own aging highways. Nearly 30 cities nationwide are currently discussing some form of removal.
The highway removal and other deconstruction projects are part of a long-term plan for a city still struggling to come back from years of economic and population decline. The big bet: Rebuilding more walkable, bikeable and connected neighborhoods will attract new investment and new residents. And city officials hope it might even reduce car-dependence in the long run.
Local residents and business owners said they were glad to see the highway go, but many of them had mixed feelings about what followed.
“The success was: It got filled. You now have people living somewhere that was just road before,” said Shawn Dunwoody, an artist and community organizer who lives in Marketview Heights, a neighborhood near the removal site.
“We don’t have the moat that was there,” he said, walking along the new corridor. “But now, when you look down, there’s just a whole series of walls,” he added, pointing to the large, new apartment buildings that repeat down Union Street.
Others echoed the concern that the redevelopment project brought in too many higher-end apartments (though a portion are reserved for lower-income tenants and other vulnerable groups) without opening up any space for the public: No parks, no plazas.
To make sure that city officials listen to these concerns, Mr. Dunwoody started a local advocacy group three years ago with Suzanne Mayer, who lives on the other side of the highway, in the Grove Place neighborhood. The group, called Hinge Neighbors, aims to bring local residents into the planning process.