Monday, April 21, 2014

Freeways or Parks?

The Atlantic Cities recently ran Alex Marshall's article, Tearing Down and Urban Highway Can Give Rise To a Whole New City. It's an interesting read, and given the proposals for Penn's Landing, it's a timely read.

He accurately points out the ill effects of the country's mid-century highway initiatives. He cites numerous cities that have successfully demolished some of their arterial highways for park space. But it's not as simple as "highways are bad and parks are good," and the article hides some of the misleading notions in the sheer number of words.

After the Great Depression and most notably after World War II, Americans were fleeing the inner cities for a better life in the suburbs, a life that cities couldn't offer. While we may view highways as necessary evils almost a century later, they weren't built without reason. By the 1950s and 60s, city planners began to recognize that the problem needed to be addressed or our cities would be completely lost. In order to compete, they began offering suburban creature comforts to compete with neighboring counties, which included accommodating traffic.

This led to the construction of some of our more controversial freeways, including our own I-95 and Vine Street Expressway. It wasn't long after they were approved that residents began to grow concerned. By the 1980s many American cities were beginning to see a renaissance. But for the most part, these freeways ran through deplorable neighborhoods. When I-676 finished driving itself through Vine Street in the 1990s, few cared.

However, by then the United States had already created a need for speed. Even I-676 serves a prominent purpose. This is where Marshall gets lost, and you start smelling his farting unicorn. He points to Portland - naturally - as a shining example of a city that has successfully demolished a major highway for the Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Portland's waterfront seems to be the go-to for any waterfront park project. I mean, they tore down a highway. That's unheard of in the United States, right?

Well implying that Portland demolished a freeway for a park is just as inaccurate as implying that the freeway was unnecessary. Portland didn't demolish the freeway, they moved it to the other side of the Willamette River. The industrial east side of the river is a better place for a highway, but the waterfront parks seems like less of a good deed when you consider the fact that the city decided one neighborhood deserved a park while another deserved concrete flyovers. Those unicorn farts don't smell like cupcakes.

While there is a renewed interest in urban living and walkability, the hard truth is that it's not nearly significant enough to make major freeways irrelevant. All too often those touting public transportation and sidewalks look at an America with a large blind spot. Most of the country isn't Marshall's Brooklyn neighborhood, even in most of our cities. Suburbs have been established and they're going to grow. We can't deal with that by replacing roads with parks.

Ironically, Marshall's spiritual kin in Philadelphia, those who laude public transportation, walkability, and park space are seeking to convert one of our only ready-built rail lines into a sunken park just west of the Reading Viaduct. We'll be just as likely to see the Vine Street Expressway converted into a park.

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