Lately there’s been a flurry of bike/ped/urbanist social media comparing old aerial photos of cities against those same vantage points today. The difference is alarming. Where once compact, connected neighborhoods comprised most of the city space now reside deep freeway scars, endless seas of parking lots, and barren blocks. Be glad the ‘now‘ shots are taken from space – you’re spared the sight of smog.
This didn’t happen overnight. If it had, there would have been mass rioting in the streets to protect peoples’ homes (a few did). Eminent domain was only supposed to be used if it served the public good. Today you’d be hard pressed to find a planner who’d vouch for urban freeways as a ‘good’ at all.
Over the decades of so-called ‘prosperity’ following WWII, auto-centric infrastructure was prized above all other considerations. Hundreds of thousands of homes were wrecking-balled, deep grooves were dug into the Earth. Likely millions of Americans were eventually displaced. The end result honestly makes one want to weep for what we threw away for the sake of the car.
— Eric Budd (@ericmbudd) October 14, 2014
Today, children can’t cross the street, the elderly can’t walk to their doctors, and local shops have been replaced by big-box monoliths. All because 50 years ago the people in power saw to it that America would be a slave to the automobile. This abusive relationship is effecting our physical well-being and our collective social capacity while the burning fossil fuels emits billions of tons of carbon each year.
Looking down at these ravaged urban landscapes, it’s hard not to draw parallels to those ‘Faces of Meth‘ ads that show how rapidly a person suffering severe chemical dependency may see their health and physical appearance degrade.
Living in a drug-induced haze, it’s probably hard to notice the change until it’s too late. For those observing objectively at two ends of a timeline, the effect is a bit more striking.
Advanced stages of deterioration.
Streestblog.org writer Angie Schmitt assembled an incredible series of aerials of downtown Detroit. What we’re often told about that metropolis’s blight usually has to do with arson, white-flight, and economic despotism. Some of this may ring true, but you don’t have to look very hard to see how much damage was done by deliberately leveling entire neighborhoods to make room for the car.
For the sake of brevity, below are the first and last images in the series. Gratiot Avenue cuts diagonally through the middle of each photo. Deterioration indeed.
Here’s another example from Atlanta. Again we see a solid grid neighborhood leveled for parking, freeways, and professional sports. With such perverse mutilation of good urbanism for the sake of the automobile, it’s a wonder more people don’t literally fuck their cars.
Thankfully, most rational people have realized car addiction is just that. Widening lanes and building more highways doesn’t solve congestion, it incentivizes it. Like any other addiction, the more you consume, the harder it is to quit. Breaking such auto-addictions can involve a spectrum of methods, but first and foremost, an intervention is required.
We don’t have to coax every last person out of their car. What we do need is the persistence of vision and political will to make vastly increased investments in public transit, walkable neighborhoods, and streets safe & fun for commuting by bike – for all classes of city and suburban dwellers, not just the affluent and middle classes. ‘Livability’ is a meaningless marketing term if we don’t ensure working class people thrive in a metropolitan life.
Already, though, we’re seeing progress.
Portland, OR began the trend in the 70’s by replacing a highway with a park. They also slayed a boondoggle called the Mt. Hood Freeway. Jane Jacobs stopped Robert Moses from slicing Manhattan in half. Freeways have been toppled in other American cities like San Francisco and New York. Even Detroit is considering tearing out I-375. And the above parking crater of doom outside Atlanta’s Turner Field may well return to something far less painful on the eyes.
While most of these projects unfortunately lead to spikes in real estate value, tearing out parking lots and tearing down freeways ultimately provides a net benefit so long as the surrounding residents have a majority say in the direction of repair.
Enjoy the video below detailing Seoul, Korea’s own transformative freeway-to-public place conversion, narrated by the one and only Brad Pitt.
Thumbnail image: Portland, OR’s I-5 freeway construction and demolition of lower Albina.