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Jul. 22 2010 - 11:47 am | 2,267 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Freeways and the death of the great American city

Tim Lee’s post on the decline of St. Louis is fascinating and heart-breaking all at once. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a visceral dislike of city freeways. This is partly because I’ve lived in cities that avoided this catastrophe and in cities that, sadly, did not. A city like Phoenix which is essentially built for freeways will never be a great city; a city such as St. Louis which was once a far more vibrant metropolis, has had its vitality strangled out of it by the network of freeways cutting one neighborhood off from the other.

If you’re not convinced, just imagine if the anti-freeway camp had lost the fight to keep a freeway out of downtown Manhattan.

Tim describes the destruction of a downtown neighborhood in St. Louis to create a park and to revitalize downtown by constructing the Gateway Arch.

St. Louis, where I lived between 2005 and 2008, is a textbook example. Consider the St. Louis Arch, which began as a Depression-era project to “revitalize” downtown St. Louis by leveling about 20 blocks of prime riverfront real estate to make room for a park. Not surprisingly, this plan drew fierce opposition from the people who were living and working in those 20 blocks. But the government used its power of eminent domain to take the properties over their objections. (As an aside: the Arch is formally the centerpiece of theJefferson National Expansion Memorial. There’s something perversely fitting about the fact that thousands of people were forcibly evicted from their land to make room for a monument to commemorate the forcible eviction of Native Americans from their land.)

Anyway, after a few years of litigation, demolitions began in 1940. Then the project got bogged down in budget problems and more litigation, and so the area was used as a gigantic parking lot for two decades, before work on the arch finally began in 1963.

Meanwhile, work began on the urban portion of the Interstate Highway System. Planners in St. Louis, as in most American cities, decided that the new expressways would run directly through the cities’ downtowns. One of them (I-44/I-70) now runs North to South between the park and downtown. Not surprisingly, if you visit the park today you’ll find a light sprinkling of tourists, but nothing like the throngs of locals you’ll find in successful urban parks like New York’s Union Square, Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, or DC’s Dupont Circle. Whatever “revitalizing” effects the park might have had on the rest of the city were undermined by the fact that the park isn’t really accessible to pedestrians in the rest of the city.

Unsurprisingly, the careful planning and exorbitant spending required to ‘revitalize’ downtown areas by bulldozing buildings and erecting inaccessible parks, and the ‘convenience’ afforded residents of a city by paving huge freeways through their most interesting urban areas, all fall short of the economic boons that dense, walkable areas provide:

Cities generate wealth by bringing large numbers of people into proximity with one another. Two adjacent high-density neighborhoods will be richer than either could be alone because businesses at the edge of each neighborhood will be enriched by pedestrian traffic from the other. Driving a freeway through the middle of a healthy urban neighborhood not only destroys thousands of homes, it rips apart tightly integrated neighborhoods. Pedestrians rarely walk across freeways, so businesses near a new freeway are immediately deprived of half their customers. Similarly, residents near a new freeway lose access to half the businesses near them. The area along the freeway becomes what Jacobs calls a “border vaccuum” and goes into a kind of death spiral: because it contains little pedestrian traffic, businesses there don’t succeed. And because there are no interesting businesses there, even fewer people go there, which hurts the sales of businesses further from the freeway. The harms from such a freeway extends for blocks on either side.

All of which pushes urbanites out of the city and into the suburbs. As Tim notes, this exodus is hardly chosen.

If there was ever an item so ripe for liberal-libertarian cooperation, this is it. Really, this strikes me as a human concern, and one which members of whatever political stripe should be up in arms over. Whether there is much that can be done to repair the damage already wrought on American cities is another question.

On a side note, this reminds me of Austin Bramwell’s post over at The American Conservative earlier this year. He wrote at the time:

It’s odd that self-described libertarians such as Stossel are so slow to grasp that government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous. You would think that libertarians would instinctively grasp the deeply statist nature of suburban development.  First of all, with a depressingly few exceptions, virtually every town in America looks the same. That is, it has the same landscape of arterial roads, strip malls, and residential subdivisions, accessibly only by car. Surely, given America’s celebrated diversity, you would also see a diversity of places. As it turns out, all but a few people live the same suburban lifestyle.  Government, as libertarian assumptions would predict, is the culprit.

Second, the few places in America that have a distinctive character are also exceedingly expensive. John Stossel himself admits to living in an apartment and walking to work most days. Now, I don’t know where exactly Mr. Stossel lives, but it sounds as if he lives in Manhattan, where residential space costs over $1000 a square foot (that means a two-bedroom apartment where a family of four could fit costs at least $1.5 million).  If Mr. Stossel’s lifestyle, as he puts it, is less popular than the suburban lifestyle, then why does his cost so much more? He apparently never asks himself the question. Had he done so, he might have discovered that government artificially restricts the supply of Manhattan-like places but artificially increases the supply of sprawl. That’s the reason Americans “prefer” to live in the suburbs. They don’t have a choice.

I think on a psychological (or spiritual) level we haven’t even begun to understand the effects these policies have had on American cities and the residents either displaced or whose economies have been so irreparably disrupted by these clever city planners. I’m not sure the American city will ever recover.


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  1. collapse expand

    I’ve often wondered which parts of the U.S. might be able to draw tourists in the same numbers that much of Europe does. Long after various European countries were knocked from their spot at the top of the global heap – Spain, The Netherlands, France, England – they continued to draw billions of dollars annually not least because they retained distinctive urban areas wherein people from all over the world wanted to be, and basically for aesthetic reasons. (Do you go to Paris for bread and cheese? Yes. But mainly you go because *it looks like Paris.* Similar truths hold for Amsterdam, Barcelona…the list goes on, and would probably have to include even the small towns of the Rhine Valley.) Aside from a handful of American cities that have a recognizable, arguably unique aesthetic and atmosphere, and that function (for tourists) as quasi open-air museums – New York and Miami are two – I don’t see similar potential in the U.S. I hope I’m wrong. You do see unexpected initiatives in places like Columbus, Indiana, though, which is plugging its architectural plenty in surprising and smart ways. Fingers crossed for Detroit, too.

  2. collapse expand

    Pittsburgh does have a freeway running through it with the attendant “border vacuum”. On the bright side, the rivers are relatively clean and the shorelines are being developed into sustainable communities. Residential real estate prices are rising steadily, but not to the point of being unaffordable. Compared to what the place looked like 25 years ago, it’s a breath-taking transformation. If the pace continues (and there is every indication that it will), Pittsburgh will soon be a viable tourist destination. Come visit the City of Champions for a long weekend, ride the bike trails, go on a river boat cruise, do some world class whitewater rafting in the Laurel Highlands, and tour Falling Water. It’s a beautiful place with extremely friendly people n@!!

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