Monday, April 18, 2011

Unbuild Freeways

Another way of traffic-calming our way to a vibrant and livable community with open space and pedestrian access instead of impassable concrete structures carrying traffic is presented on StreetsBlog. The full post can be read here.

It's a good site for examining the arguments for removing existing highways that have become barriers to central city development and community engagement. It's called "Moving Beyond the Automobile" and presages the coming era of expensive gasoline and far fewer resources to maintain large infrastructure projects. The history of the highway and freeway in the USA is that of a military legacy that was ultimately offloaded to the states and counties to maintain, which is becoming more and more burdensome.

In this presentation, CNU president John Norquist stars in this video from Streetfilms about the problem of inner-city highways and the steps some cities are taking to get rid of theirs.

"If you look at the real estate anywhere near a freeway, almost always its degraded," says Norquist. "You'll get surface parking lots, or buildings that have high-vacancy rates. No walking. Because it's really hard to design a freeway that would look good in a city."

Freeways are a problem of divisively clashing scale in an urban network, which famously isolates parts of cities from each other, creating areas of lower valued real estate that is essentially left to blight. Cities are in the process of undoing freeways, undergrounding their viaducts as in Seattle, the removal of the Embarcadero in San Francisco, or creating lids over existing freeways to connect the fabric of the city together. It's an opportunity to make these locations part of the urban fabric and “lid” the freeway and incorporate parkway (like the High Line in NYC) or water (like the Freeway Park in Seattle). A decent-sized lid can create pedestrian and small commercial opportunities as well – the precedent for that is the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy. Ljubljana, Slovenia is building more pedestrian/shopping bridges to complement its old bridges in newly traffic-free zones around the river and weave the fabric of the city together. Seattle is in the process of replacing its old viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel which will reconnect the waterfront to the city and provide open space as well as opportunities to rehabilitate the areas that are currently down at the heels, facing directly into the viaduct structure.

This new paradigm makes the effort by LA County to ram the 710 freeway extension through South Pasadena to the 210 freeway in Glendale seem to be quite a retrograde and piecemeal project. The highway system is an old answer from another era - a little 710 history here - and it needs to move into our evolving sustainable future. New alternatives have been proposed for this problem, such as the rail extension of the Alameda corridor which would keep freight traffic off the freeways and minimize the impact of a below-grade route for these clusters of impacted cities.This alternative concept originates from a new vision of the Port of Long Beach transformation into a completely green facility that eliminates the need for the 710 tunnel for freight, as presented by David Alba. In addition, a light rail solution to this problem for human transit is proposed at, once again, LAStreetsBlog.

Update: Seven Cities Consider Removing Major Urban Highways, from The Architect's Newspaper Blog.