Many urban highways from the 1950s and 1960s were deliberately built through neighborhoods primarily occupied by people of color, effectively walling these families off from economic opportunity and disrupting their sense of community. Urban planning and public policy researchers Julian Agyeman and Joan Fitzgerald explain in a recent article how allocating part of the new US$1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to redirecting these roadways could play a big role in reversing systematic discrimination in these communities.
These discriminatory highways are commonly found in areas like West Bellfort in Houston, Westside in San Antonio, and West Oakland, California. Redlining, the process the federal government used to rate neighborhoods for its loan programs, established areas with substantial numbers of Black residents as “hazardous” for loan eligibility, excluding them from economic opportunities. This racist policy was followed by the first federal highway law in 1956 which used highways to cut off or destroy primarily black neighborhoods.
By engaging in what environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard calls “transportation racism,” these policies have led to high levels of air pollution in communities of color as well as less tree cover and a higher likelihood that these areas are chosen for further damaging infrastructures like industrial facilities and incinerators.
All of these factors contribute to what Harvard researchers deemed the “Delmar Divide.” Looking specifically at Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis, the researchers concluded that ZIP code is a more accurate determinant of lifespan than genetic code.
So how do we fix this? Many of the highways included in the original 1950s schemes are now deteriorating. 28 cities have already begun or plan to remove these racist highways, and further redirection of roads, combined with other infrastructure investment, could serve as an act of restorative justice for these marginalized areas.
An example of the efficacy of highway removal and relocation can be seen in Rochester, New York. When the city removed the Inner Loop East, which isolated the city’s downtown, walking and biking increased 50 and 60 percent respectively in the area. Developers have also come in to offer more affordable housing options in the city and the $22 million in public funds that supported the project, in turn, generated $229 million in economic development.
Although other factors must be employed in tandem to deliver long-lasting benefits to these communities, the simple removal of highways achieves safer streets, reduced pollution, easier access to jobs, and a heightened sense of unity among residents. Agyeman and Fitzgerald write, “Simply removing highways won’t transform historically disadvantaged neighborhoods. But it can be a key element of equitable urban planning, along with housing stabilization and affordability, carefully planned new green spaces and transit improvements.”