Separate infrastructure: removal of urban highways can repair neighborhoods ravaged by racist policies
The US $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill currently passing through Congress will bring money to cities for much needed investments in roads, bridges, mass transit systems, water infrastructure, power grids, broadband networks and road safety.
We believe that more of this money should also fund the dismantling of racist infrastructure. Many urban freeways built in the 1950s and 1960s deliberately crossed neighborhoods occupied by black families and other people of color, preventing these communities from jobs and opportunity. Although President Joe Biden has proposed $ 20 billion to reconnect neighborhoods isolated by historic federal highway construction, the bill currently only allocates $ 1 billion for these efforts – enough to help only a few places. .
As specialists in urban planning and public policy, we are interested in how urban planning has been used to classify, separate and compromise the opportunities of people based on race. We believe it is essential to further support the removal of highways and related improvements in marginalized neighborhoods.
In our view, this funding represents a down payment on restorative justice: addressing the deliberate discriminatory policies that have created polluted and poor transit neighborhoods like West Bellfort in Houston, Westside in San Antonio, and West Oakland, California.
Many policies have combined over time to isolate urban black neighborhoods. Racial rental and sale restrictive covenants began to appear in American cities in the early 1900s. They altered cityscapes by limiting certain neighborhoods to whites only, which concentrated blacks in other areas. Racialized zoning, banned by the Supreme Court in 1917, was followed by single-family or exclusionary zoning, which limited residents by socioeconomic class – an indicator of race in the United States
Next is redlining, a classification process that began in 1933 when the federal government assessed neighborhoods for its loan programs. In conjunction with real estate agents, the Federal Home Owners Loan Corp. created color-coded neighborhood maps to inform decisions by Federal Housing Administration mortgage lenders.
Any neighborhood with a significant number of black residents was colored red for “dangerous” – the riskiest category. Other New Deal programs, such as the Federal Housing Authority and Fannie Mae, have relied on redlining by requiring racial covenants before approving mortgages.
Beginning with the first federal highway law in 1956, transportation planners used highways to isolate or destroy black neighborhoods by cutting them off from adjacent areas. Once the highways were built, the social and economic fabric of these neighborhoods began to deteriorate. Leading environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard calls this transport racism, alluding to how isolation has limited employment and other opportunities.
The lasting impacts of highway construction
Today, low-income, minority neighborhoods in many US cities have much higher levels of fine particle air pollution than adjacent areas. In the United States, black and Latino communities are exposed to 56% and 63% more particles from cars, trucks and buses, respectively, than white residents. Decades of work by environmental justice activists and academics have shown that these neighborhoods are also much more likely to be chosen as sites for polluting industrial facilities like incinerators and power plants.
The districts formerly marked in red also have less tree cover and green spaces today than the white districts. This makes them warmer during heat waves. One of the results is that life expectancy in cities across the country is compromised, varying widely between the lowest and highest income zip codes. The worst cities have gaps of up to 30 years.
For example, Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis is a socio-economic and racial dividing line. North of Delmar, 99% of residents are black. South of Delmar, 73% are white. Only 10% of northern residents have a bachelor’s degree, and people who live in this area are more likely to have heart disease or cancer. In 2014, these disparities led researchers at Harvard University, based on their work on the “Delmar Divide”, to conclude that the postal code is a better predictor of health than the genetic code.
Transportation investments in the United States have historically focused on highways at the expense of public transportation. This disparity reduces opportunities for black, Hispanic, and low-income city dwellers, who are three to six times more likely to use public transportation than white residents. Only 31% of federal transit capital funds are spent on bus transit, although buses account for about 48% of trips.
Many highways built in the 1950s are now deteriorating. At least 28 cities have started or are planning to partially or completely remove the highways that have isolated black neighborhoods rather than rebuilding them. Cities began to do away with freeways, especially elevated ones, in the 1970s. While these teardowns were primarily aimed at promoting downtown development, more recent projects aimed to reconnect isolated neighborhoods to the rest of the city.
For example, in 2014, Rochester, New York, buried nearly a mile of the Inner Loop East, which served as a moat isolating the downtown area from the city. Since then, the city has reconnected streets that were divided by the highway, thus replenishing the neighborhood.
Walking and cycling in the neighborhood increased by 50% and 60% respectively. Now developers are building commercial space and 534 new homes, more than half of which will be considered affordable. The $ 22 million in public funds that supported the project generated $ 229 million in economic development.
Other cities that have removed or are removing freeways dividing black neighborhoods include Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Detroit, Houston, Miami, New Orleans, and St. Paul. There are only a few well-documented case studies of freeway withdrawal, so it is too early to identify the factors for success. However, the trend is for growth.
In our opinion, combining the removal of highways with major investments to improve the bus networks that serve these neighborhoods would significantly improve access to jobs, housing and healthy food. Removing highways would also open up land for new green spaces that can improve air quality and provide cooling. However, we are also aware that green amenities can lead to environmental gentrification in these communities if not accompanied by strong support for affordable housing.
Simply removing highways will not transform historically disadvantaged neighborhoods. But it can be a key part of equitable urban planning, as well as housing stabilization and affordability, carefully planned new green spaces, and improvements to public transportation. For an administration that is committed to putting racial and environmental justice first, removing the highways that divide is a good place to start.