Could Biden’s plan to remove urban highways improve the health of US cities? | cities

Could Biden’s plan to remove urban highways improve the health of US cities? | cities

Mandela Parkway, a four-lane boulevard extended by a median lined with trees and a winding sidewalk, stretches along a 24-block section of West Oakland. It is the fruit of a grassroots neighborhood campaign to prevent the reconstruction of an elevated freeway leveled by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and completely remodeled to replace it.

Since the parkway’s 2005 completion, 168 units of affordable housing have emerged along its route. The air is largely free of pollutants compared to when the Cypress freeway ran through the area.

A federal report hailed the project as the type of socially-minded renovation that might justify, if in part, the devastation inflicted on low-income neighborhoods by the freeway-building boom of earlier decades. makes amendments.

“Community participation was a very important part of the rebuilding process,” said the report, which concluded, “West Oakland residents got what they wanted.”

Unfortunately, this is not entirely the case.

Although the 1.3 miles of land that the Mandela Parkway runs through has clean air and better amenities than the freeway spur, many of the neighborhood’s natives no longer enjoy it, forced by rising rents and housing costs. . And West Oakland more broadly, is surrounded by Oakland’s sprawling harbor, still punctuated by elevated freeways where cars and heavy trucks spew hundreds of tons of pollutants each year.

The successes and failures of the Mandela Parkway symbolize the challenges facing a new urban renewal movement, which seeks to replace the dozens of elevated urban freeways built in the 1950s, 60s and 70s across the United States. These highways divided cities, displacing residents and businesses often into low-income, working-class, non-white neighborhoods. Pollution and noise affect the health of people who are constantly in the vicinity.

Today, many of these roadways are at or near their intended lifespan, with policy makers, social justice advocates and urban planners calling on them to come down.

President Joe Biden’s administration agrees. His infrastructure plan calls for highway removal to correct historical injustice and improve the health of people living nearby. At least four bills in Congress would fund such efforts, although none have been assured of passage.

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But the Cypress freeway conversion shows how complex it is to complete highway removal in a way that improves the health and well-being of residents long suffering from the roadways’ legacy. The effects of neighborhood “greening” can be contradictory, leading to “green gentrification”.

Regan Patterson, a transportation equity research fellow at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, said the evidence is weak on whether these problems can be addressed by changing roadways.

A 2019 study by Patterson and Robert Harley of the University of California-Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering showed that rebuilding the Cypress Freeway – Interstate 880 – and building the Mandela Parkway resulted in a 38% annual reduction in nitrogen oxides. There was a cut by average, and up to 25% along the soot parkway. But in general West Oakland is still heavily polluted by I-880 as well as I-580 and I-980.

“If you don’t talk about the impact of all three highways, you can’t talk about the Mandela Parkway,” said Margaret Gordon, 74, a founding member of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, an environmental justice organization.

And much of the area’s upgrades along the Mandela Parkway—along with the arrival of Big Tech Company offices in the area—have contributed to the spiking in property values ​​and leaving longtime residents. According to Patterson’s research, black residents, who made up 73% of the population around the expressway in 1990, were only 45% in 2010. Median home values ​​increased by $261,059 along the parkway in that time frame.

“Green gentrification” is a paradoxical effect of projects aimed at supporting healthy communities, said Jennifer Wolch, a professor of city and regional planning at UC-Berkeley. Their research, focused on the overall public health impacts of urban greening, suggests that rising housing costs and long-term displacement of residents may also harm their health. Other research has found that residents of marginalized groups reported a lower sense of community after “greening” changes.

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Urban activists say none of these problems seal the argument against removing the highway. Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit focused on sustainable urban development, has identified 15 highways in major US cities that are ready to be removed in its 2021 “Freeways Without Futures” report.

The lesson, instead, is to heed the wishes of longtime community members in planning these infrastructure projects, said Jonathan Fearon, a member of the Oakland Planning Commission and founder of ConnectOakland, an advocacy group that plans to tear down 2. is included in. Redesign the mile-long I-980 and area.

Highway removal and neighborhood renewal should focus on making communities less car-dependent and adding affordable housing and other amenities, said Dr. Richard Jackson, professor emeritus in the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA and former director of the National Center for Environmental Health. . in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For example, creating community land trusts – nonprofits that buy vacant lots in communities and sell them back to residents at reduced rates – can help ensure affordable housing and the sustainability of rents.

If the projects are completed, talks about them should happen quickly, said Ben Crowther, program manager for the Boulevards program for New Urbanism’s highways for Congress. But it is “very encouraging”, he said, that federal bills to fund the remake include strategies to ensure current residents benefit.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that conducts in-depth journalism about health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a thriving non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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