February 10, 2021 Housing Action Coalition

The Past, Present, and Future of Freeways

HAC intern extraordinaire Olivia Bergin takes a deep dive into the history of freeways, examines their adverse effects on communities of color, and looks toward the growing momentum for tearing them down and building more vibrant and inclusive communities.  

A brief history of freeways 

Freeways were mass-produced following the passing of the Federal Highway Act of 1956 that created the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, also known as the Interstate Highway System. This was the largest and most expensive public works project ever completed and it left a legacy of inequality and automobile culture in the United States. The integration of the automobile and the freeway led many affluent whites to leave the cities and head to the suburbs. With people of color and lower-incomes left behind, many cities began to grapple with underfunding and neglect. 

Freeways as a (misguided) solution to urban decay

As cities began to deteriorate due to underfunding, city planners were quick to view them as eyesores that needed to be removed and redeveloped. While redeveloping and revitalizing new neighborhoods was expensive, building more freeways through cities was far less costly because it was federally funded up to as much as 95 percent. With highways this cheap to build, many cities began using them as a means of “urban renewal.” After the passing of the 1956 Federal Highway Act, more than 41,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System were created. As highways began popping up in cities, they not only led to white flight but also left behind divided and under-resourced communities. While planners and government officials believed that highways would remove urban decay and promote prosperity, these desirable effects were limited to white residents and the many negative consequences fell on people of color. 

Living near freeways is horrible for your health 

In addition to segregating and polarizing communities of color, living near a freeway is horrendous for one’s health. This has raised an enormous environmental justice issue, as communities of color are disproportionately impacted by negative health consequences. For example, the air pollution caused by higher levels of GHG emissions near freeways has shown signs of long-term detrimental effects on children (respiratory issues, cognitive development, ear/nose/throat infections), pregnant women (high blood pressure, gestational diabetes), fetuses (low birth weight), newborns (low birth weight, impaired cognitive development), and seniors (bronchitis, asthma). 

 In addition to damaging the respiratory system, recent studies have shown GHGs to negatively impact emotional and behavioral development in children of all ages. Living in close proximity to freeways can lead to cognitive problems in infants that persist as their brains develop, and studies from the University of Southern California show that these tiny toxic particles can also cause damage to the areas of the brain responsible for emotion and decision making. This can cause youth who live around freeways to have a higher risk of teenage delinquency and behavioral problems.

The health consequences of living near freeways are in fact so severe that the California Air Resources Board discourages building homes that are located within 500 feet of freeways. The Los Angeles City Planning Commission has even extended this warning to 1,000 feet because of the growing evidence of the severe health impacts. Despite these explicit warnings, however, the state of California continues to fund the creation of housing next to these monumental health hazards. 

Syracuse, New York: A case study in negative consequences 

One of the most notable examples of a freeway’s ability to decimate a community is Syracuse, New York. Syracuse wanted to become an East Coast hub and put northern New York State on the map. The city had been dealing with extreme segregation and poverty and government officials feared race riots would erupt. There were many deeply impoverished parts of the city that government officials thought needed to be eradicated to draw positive attention to the city. And as they saw freeways sprout up across the country in thriving cities, they believed that was the solution. 

One neighborhood known as 15th Ward was most affected by the sudden development of the freeway system. Located between Syracuse University and the city’s downtown, the area was predominantly Black and thought to be an eyesore for those traveling between the campus and downtown neighborhood. Syracuse placed the I-81 running straight through the urban center which decimated the Black communities and caused the white communities to flee (via the freeways) to the suburbs. As a result, the population of Syracuse City shrunk 30% between 1940-2000.

At the same time, the county of Onogonda (where Syracuse is located) grew in population by 55% as a result of white flight to the suburbs. The impact of this white flight can still be seen today, with increasing infrastructure being built outside the city of Syracuse, and since 2000 Onogonda county has continued to add 7,000 new homes, 147 subdivisions, and 61 miles of new roads. 

In contrast, in 2016 the city of Syracuse had the highest concentration of poverty in the entire county, with 66 percent of African Americans and 62 percent of Hispanics living in high poverty neighborhoods. While the stated goal of creating the Syracuse freeway was to improve impoverished neighborhoods, the consequence has been only to further isolate and concentrate poverty. 

San Francisco tears down a freeway and revitalizes a neighborhood 

In San Francisco, the city’s success with freeways has largely come from tearing them down. The Embarcadero Freeway, for example, was created in 1968 to connect the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge but it also blocked a highly scenic waterfront view, left much of the area inaccessible and underused, and created high smog levels that posed a danger to nearby residents.

Since the Embarcadero Freeway’s demolition in 1991, the Embarcadero waterfront has grown into one of San Francisco’s most popular attractions. One iconic attraction and landmark there is the Ferry Building which can be seen when looking east down Market Street. A once-vacant and underused building, it’s since become a highly popular ferry terminal, a hub for upscale office buildings, and a ground floor artisanal and farmer’s market.  

Another benefit of removing the freeway was making abundant open space available along the waterfront for all to enjoy. In addition to four public parks, there is a wide pedestrian path and other small parks and greenery to create the urban greenway system. 

A simple solution to a complicated problem 

While freeways have created widespread complications in cities, the solution is fairly simple: tear them down and reinvent the space. Many cities have had successful efforts in doing so and their city culture and demographics have changed to become more diverse. Tearing down these freeways has also reduced air pollution and created more accessible public open space. In addition to San Francisco, other cities that have successfully removed their freeways include  Boston, Milwaukee, New Haven, and Portland. 

In Boston, the I-93 once ran through the city and served as a central artery. Its presence made for a visually unappealing waterfront and divided the city. When the city tore it down it created more than 45 public parks and plazas to serve as a pedestrian-friendly waterfront.  

When Milwaukee demolished its Park East Freeway in 1999, new businesses moved back into the city (including Manpower Corporations) and resulted in a 180 percent increase in property value within the footprint of the old freeway. Similarly, New Haven removed part of Route 34 and created a new business district that has lured back thousands of former residents and persuaded Alexion Pharmaceuticals to establish their headquarters there. 

The Future of Freeways 

Having realized the detriments of building freeways through cities, there is a growing momentum both nationally and locally toward tearing them down and revitalizing the spaces they once occupied. For example, a recently-introduced Senate bill includes up to $10 billion for a program to help cities remove urban freeways and repair damages to the communities that they caused. Here in San Francisco, the architects (and HAC members) at Gould Evans are inventively reimagining a section of highway 101 as a public greenspace similar to New York City’s High Line.   

By tearing down and reinventing freeway spaces with the needs of the community at the core, our cities and the country can address past inequities and strive to create more inclusive and equitable cities.

Please join us on March 31st at 4 pm to learn more about the history and future of freeways.



Housing Action Coalition

The Housing Action Coalition is a member-supported non-profit that advocates for the creation of well designed, well-located housing at all levels of affordability. We believe more housing means more choices and better solutions.

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