The architects of America’s interstate highway system knew it would alter life there in many ways but we wonder if they looked ahead sixty years and saw it as the stage for so much civil unrest.
Why highways have become the center of civil rights protest (with video)
image: George Kelly via Flickr/CC
image: Clément Bucco-Lechat via Wikimedia Commons
Austin, Texas has raised its profile among the cities of North America in an enviable kind of way over the last few years. Even Toronto’s uncool, anti-urban mayor lumbered down there recently to see what the buzz is about. Popular music, culture and university life as well as a tech-driven commercial bustle there have become a calling card for Austin, the state capital, which has a metro area containing about 1.8 million people. Visitors are drawn to a kind of prosperous liberality and local pride that sustains an atmosphere many cities find elusive.
A recent two-part feature from the Austin Chronicle describes the challenges of moving forward with transportation and development projects to meet Austin’s metro area needs well into the twenty-first century. For decades the city has been chopped in half by the I-35, a classic example of 1950s highway building. State and local officials are hoping to reengineer the I-35 into a smarter artery that will enhance rather than hem in downtown living. Accommodating growth while preserving liveability and economic success through sprawl repair, highway removal and below-grade infrastructure, public transit, changes in density and general community aesthetics are combining into an exciting mix. It won’t be cheap or easy for Austin but the city is better placed for success than most.
image: Seaholm power station in Austin, TX by roxannejomitchell via Wikimedia Commons
Few single artefacts symbolize the transitional state of major communities in 2012 as much as the elevated expressway. Conceived in the 1930s, they altered most of North America’s major urban areas in fairly deep ways on behalf of suburbia and automobility. By the 1960s the glamour of it all was being eclipsed by accidents, energy issues, pollution, congestion, and the social issues associated with exurban growth and the battering ram effect on the physical fabric of cities of highway construction. Decades after Jane Jacobs (and others) began to propagate an important take on urban reality and autmobile fantasy many cities remain stuck with expressways.
In Canada the undertaking of highway construction was less epic than in the United States because the population was smaller but here in the Greater Toronto Area we have a prime example of a 1940s style dream becoming if not a full on nightmare then at least an expensive pain-in-the-ass called the Gardiner Expressway. In the picture above stand several support columns from a short stretch of the expressway dismantled about a decade ago and left behind for their raw sculptural value. How static a fate for an artefact once so full of intentions of movement and dynamism as an expressway.
The Gardiner was possibly the single most important piece of infrastructure in the GTA’s initial transformation from a modest nineteenth century, grid-based city into a sprawling megacity. Lumps have been falling off of it forever, every few years it gets major rehabilitation work and recently an engineer’s report about the condition of the expressway caused public alarm and much media comment. Plans to make plans to tear it down and start over come and go frequently. Keeping the Gardiner is expensive but a tear down and replacement package would be even more expensive. A situation reproduced in many places where the golden age of automobility and suburban sprawl is past by a full generation or more.
What to do is made all the more important for those with a social conscience or concern for the environment that supports life. Continued spending on expressways retards the ability of a community to adapt to a changing climate or injustice in its social environment. Where are the hundreds of millions of dollars going to come from to adapt to a more walkable, cleaner, less carbon producing, quieter, safer, smarter type of city and suburb if we are plowing vast sums into maintaining a way of life dreamed up decades ago that no longer really fits reality and produces all kinds of injustice, including suburban poverty?
Tough choices yes, don’t know if we are exactly seeing a “teardown movement” yet.
A lot of municipalities in the United States are bankrupt or have been in dire financial straits for some time now. Maybe through neglect and lack of money we’ll see more of a “fall down movement.” In Canada there seems to be a reluctance to embrace very large and expensive public infrastructure projects in a number of locations. Fiscal prudence is cited in these cases but we wonder if there is not also a problem of deeper mentality? Either way, the future is rushing up faster than we think.
Tear down the Gardiner before its too late Royson James in the Toronto Star
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photo: George Socka via Wikimedia Commons