Removing Urban Highways Can Improve Neighborhoods Blighted by Decades of Racist Policies

By Joan Fitzgerald, Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University and Julian Agyeman, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University. Originally published at The Conversation.

The US$1.2 trillion infrastructure bill now moving through Congress will bring money to cities for much-needed investments in roads, bridges, public transit networks, water infrastructure, electric power grids, broadband networks and traffic safety.

We believe that more of this money should also fund the dismantling of racist infrastructure.

Many urban highways built in the 1950s and 1960s were deliberately run through neighborhoods occupied by Black families and other people of color, walling these communities off from jobs and opportunity. Although President Joe Biden proposed $20 billion for reconnecting neighborhoods isolated by historical federal highway construction, the bill currently provides only $1 billion for these efforts – enough to help just a few places.

As scholars in urban planning and public policy, we are interested in how urban planning has been used to classify, segregate and compromise people’s opportunities based on race. In our view, more support for highway removal and related improvements in marginalized neighborhoods is essential.

As we see it, this funding represents a down payment on restorative justice: remedying deliberate discriminatory policies that created polluted and transit-poor neighborhoods like West Bellfort in Houston, Westside in San Antonio, and West Oakland, California.

Freeway construction has devastated minority neighborhoods in cities across the U.S.

Policies of Separation

Many policies have combined over time to isolate urban Black neighborhoods. Racialized rental and sales covenants began appearing in U.S. cities in the early 1900s. They changed cityscapes by restricting certain neighborhoods to whites only, which concentrated Black people in other areas. Racialized zoning, outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1917, was followed by single-family or exclusionary zoning, which restricted residents by socioeconomic class – a proxy for race in the U.S.

Next came redlining, a classification process that started in 1933 when the federal government rated neighborhoods for its loan programs. Working with real estate agents, the federal Home Owners Loan Corp. created color-coded neighborhood maps to inform decisions by mortgage lenders at the Federal Housing Administration.

Any neighborhood with substantial numbers of Black residents was colored red, for “hazardous” – the riskiest category. Other New Deal programs, such as the Federal Housing Authority and Fannie Mae, built on redlining by requiring racially restrictive covenants before approving mortgages.

Beginning with the first federal highway law in 1956, transportation planners used highways to isolate or destroy Black neighborhoods by cutting them off from adjoining areas. Once the highways were built, the social and economic fabric of these neighborhoods began to deteriorate. Distinguished environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard calls this transportation racism, alluding to the way in which isolation limited employment and other opportunities.

The Lasting Impacts of Highway Construction

Today low-income and minority neighborhoods in many U.S. cities have much higher levels of fine particulate air pollutionthan adjoining areas. Across the U.S., Black and Latino communities are exposed to 56% and 63% more particulate matter, respectively, from cars, trucks and buses than white residents.

Decades of work by environmental justice activists and academics have shown these neighborhoods also are much more likely to be chosen as sites for polluting industrial facilities like incinerators and power plants.

Formerly redlined neighborhoods also have less tree cover and green space today than white neighborhoods. This makes them hotter during heat waves.

One outcome is that life expectancy in the nation’s cities is compromised, varying considerably between the lowest- and highest-income ZIP codes. The worst cities have gaps as high as 30 years.

As one example, Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis is a socioeconomic and racial dividing line. North of Delmar, 99% of residents are Black. South of Delmar, 73% are white. Only 10% of residents to the north have a bachelor’s degree, and people who live in this zone are more likely to have heart disease or cancer. In 2014, these disparities led Harvard University researchers, based on their work on the “Delmar Divide,” to conclude that ZIP code is a better predictor of health than genetic code.

Transportation investments in the U.S. have historically focused on highways at the expense of public transportation. This disparity reduces opportunities for Black, Hispanic and low-income city residents, who are three to six times more likely to use public transit than white residents. Only 31% of federal transit capital funds are spent on bus transit, even though buses represent around 48% of trips.

Reconnecting Neighborhoods

Many highways built in the 1950s are now deteriorating. At least 28 cities have begun or are planning to partly or fully remove highways that have isolated Black neighborhoods rather than rebuilding them.

Cities began removing expressways, particularly elevated ones, in the 1970s. While these teardowns were mostly to promote downtown development, more recent projects aimed to reconnect isolated neighborhoods to the rest of the city.

For example, in 2014 Rochester, New York, buried nearly a mile of the Inner Loop East, which served as a moat isolating the city’s downtown. Since then, the city has reconnected streets that were divided by the highway, making the neighborhood whole again.

Walking and biking in the neighborhood have increased by 50% and 60%, respectively. Now developers are building commercial space and 534 new housing units, more than half of which will be considered affordable. The $22 million in public funds that supported the project generated $229 million in economic development.

Rochester, N.Y., is filling in the Inner Loop highway that formerly isolated its downtown, catalyzing new street improvements.

Other cities that have removed or are removing highways dividing Black neighborhoods include Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Detroit, Houston, Miami, New Orleans and St. Paul. There are only a few well-documented case studies of freeway removal, so it is too early to identify factors leading to success. However, the trend is growing.

In our view, combining highway removal with significant investments to improve bus networks that serve these neighborhoods would significantly improve access to jobs, housing and healthy food. Removing highways would also open up land for new green spaces that can improve air quality and provide cooling. However, we are also mindful that green amenities can cause environmental gentrification in these communities if they are not accompanied by robust support for affordable housing.

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. For an administration that has pledged to prioritize racial and environmental justice, removing divisive highways is a good place to start.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. PlutoniumKun

    While I appreciate that the notion of healing urban racial divides may be a ‘selling point’ for this, the exact same process occurred worldwide without the racial element, and it has been actively reversed in many countries to the great benefit of cities. Urban highways almost invariably hit the poorest hardest simply because it was cheaper to buy up land in run down neighbourhoods, and easier politically to ensure urban highways steered clear of places with PMC types with access to expensive lawyers living there. This is a feature in nearly every country in the world, its not a uniquely US phenomenon. Another element thats often forgotten is that many of those highways ran through ‘derelict’ industrial areas that actually produced many jobs, which then migrated to the outer urban fringes.

    Cities only bloom when people can walk or cycle easily across them. Highways are barriers, even if there are under or overpasses provided (because people almost never use them for reasons obvious to anyone who has lived near one). Birmingham in the UK (the original home of the car industry) removed much of its inner urban road infrastructure in the early 1990’s, and benefited significantly from this. Many cities across Europe have done so, and its increasingly a feature in Asia. Even car mad Seoul has done it (at enormous cost).

    1. 430MLK

      Agreed. A history of U.S. racism certainly set the conditions for poor city neighborhoods to have large black populations, but it also hit industrial areas and other low-value urban areas where white communities lived (Appalachian diaspora, ethnic enclaves, etc)

      And the article seems to miss (as nearly all urban planners do) the larger context of gentrification in this progressive push: these are projects using the ‘let’s fix structural racism’ banner to make better living spaces for the largely white, largely wealthier people (like me) who are now coveting urban living. As a black resident of my town used to say about the bike lanes going into his black neighborhood (after a $12 million TIF that went to a white progressive developer for a project that began to break ground, 10 years later), those bike lanes aren’t being put in for him.

      Breaking down massive highways in urban areas is a net positive, as PK attests, but I’ll believe the ‘we’re righting our racist planning history’ rhetoric once planners begin to design accessibility in places where poverty and race is moving—the suburbs.

    2. Carla

      Thank you for this informative comment, PK. Some (by no means all, but some) of what we in the U.S. assign to racism is actually a visceral and almost universal fear of poverty. Because Black people have been so oppressed, for so long and so many ways, resulting in far higher rates of poverty among Blacks than in other racial groups, I think it is difficult for Americans of many races, including some African Americans, to separate fear of poverty from fear of Blackness. And I believe that difficulty serves many powerful interests.

      Of course, the late Bruce Dixon and the late Glen Ford both wrote about this regularly in The Black Agenda Report. I hope Margaret Kimberley and others are able to continue their vital work.

  2. Tom Stone

    Highways in the USA were heavily promoted during the Eisenhower administration for logistical reasons.
    Moving military vehicles from here to there efficiently.
    The racist and class elements were a nice bonus.

    1. Darius

      My understanding is that Eisenhower envisioned toll roads connecting cities, but bypassing their cores. That would have served the defense functions. It was real estate interests that saw freeways as a way to spur development of suburbs on green pastures. Also, big city mayors saw construction jobs and slum clearance. Big urban highways were as destructive to cities like Detroit and St. Louis as carpet bombing, with much more long-lasting effects. I can’t see how they will ever recover.

    2. BlakeFelix

      Interstates through the countryside were a great idea both for national defense and traveling for either commercial or recreational purposes in my opinion. Highways in cities are a completely different kettle of fish. And I am rural, and don’t like highway driving.

  3. BeliTsari

    Now that once red-lined neighbors are gentrifying (scores-of-thousands of serendipitously vacant, formerly rent stabilized apartments, HERE in NYC) with lots more about to be flipped over the winter & disruptive evection apps “hiring,” elsewhere. My hometown’s revitalizing meanwhile, with BernieBros, indentured with student debt, replacing 1099’d “essentials” unable to remain in Pittsburgh, due to surprise ER, ICU or chronic PASC medical expenses. White kids don’t want to live amidst well-pads, dilbit bomb trains, homeless sick folks & peaking plants; there or Brooklyn? Tearing out street cars, bulldozing the home of Bop, for a hockey stadium and Black business districts, across US cities was racist Dixiecrats’ gift of Anthropogenic Global Warming to Joe, Nancy & Chuck’s white flight suburbanites. Slumlord superdelegates gotta eat too?

  4. Henry Moon Pie

    Things would be even worse had it not been for Jane Jacobs, who stopped Robert Moses’s evisceration of NYC cold and whose influential book, The Death and Life and Great American Cities, slowed down the destruction nationwide.

    The biopic below pointed out the remarkable impact of three women before the arrival of feminism: Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson and Betty Friedan.


    1. JEHR

      Jane Jacobs also helped save Toronto, Ontario (Canada), from poor highway planning although I think she would be mortified with the other highways that have been built since.

    2. Michael Fiorillo

      Not to take anything away from the great Jane Jacobs, but a little known fact (or rumor since it’s hard if not impossible to verify) is that real reason Robert Moses failed to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway was because Carlo Gambino, head of the eponymous Cosa Nostra crime family, was able to block its construction, at the behest of local bakery owner (and mob-adjacent community leader) Anthony Dapolito.

      The South Village, adjacent to and overlapping with Soho (or Hell’s Hundred Acres, as it was called back in the day) was heavily Italian at that time, and would have been destroyed by the highway. The story goes that Gambino used his sway with the construction unions and government officials to block it, which if true would be a strange and paradoxical convergence of interests. Needless to say, the mob largely benefitted from urban renewal and urban highway construction.

      If true, this wouldn’t be the first time the mob aided an unlikely cause, however inadvertently: it’s well-known that the location of the bodies of freedom riders Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner was only obtained when the FBI asked mob operator Greg Scarpa (aka The Grim Reaper) to help them. Scarpa drove down to Philadelphia, Mississippi, kidnapped the local Klan leader, tortured him, and was told where the bodies could be found. Scarpa then informed the FBI.

      Strange bedfellows, and all that…

    3. Hayek's Heelbiter

      God bless Jane Jacobs, wherever she may be.
      When I was a nat sci major at college, to get us out of our silo, we had to take at least one non-nat sci course a semester.
      One spring, on a whim, I took a student-taught course on city planning, featuring the remarkable doyenne’s philosophy.
      For our final paper, we had to do a case study on city planning.
      I chose to do mine on Stanleyville (at the time, the arts center in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, named after a local drugstore) and how the city was urban planning the uniqueness and livability of the area out of existence. Their goal was to create the standard suburban white collar rim surrounding a business center deserted at nights and on weekends.
      It was fascinating to watch the city planning commission violate every premise that Jacobs pointed out made a city livable. It’s almost as if they took her book as a negative tick box list.
      Ultimately they succeeded.
      Although the city center is now a lot more lively, and there is now at least a tram running to different areas, it’s not by accident the town’s nickname became “Car Lot”.
      If you plan to visit, especially during rush hour, be prepared to travel at a pace of around 15 miles an hour or less.

  5. The Rev Kev

    I hope that this is not actually a poisoned chalice this removal of those urban highways. How so? It may be that with the removal of those ugly eyesores, that it might lead to some of those areas being open to gentrification. And that would mean that those areas would be cleared of the people living there as the area got more expensive to live in. It has happened before.

    1. Carla

      The best preventative is to keep those highways from ever being built — something that my NE Ohio community helped to achieve over 50 years ago:

      Unfortunately, when impoverished, inner city neighborhoods are targeted for EITHER freeway construction OR highway demolition that often leads to gentrification, they seldom have the clout that suburban activists can summon. Although I will note that stopping the proposed Central, Clark and Lee freeways back in the ’60’s saved inner city neighborhoods on the east side of Cleveland proper, as well as suburbs.

      1. Darius

        They’re still trying to do this in Shreveport, La. According to Strong Towns, it would destroy a neighborhood called Allendale right next to downtown. All the same racial and class biases are driving it, with the business establishment firmly behind it.

        One reason reorganization drives gentrification is that there is a big unmet demand for urban environments. Planning codes developed since WWII make your favorite urban neighborhood or small town illegal to replicate in new development. So the scarcity of these environments make them premium real estate. Strong Towns also goes into great detail on that phenomenon.

    2. Alex morfesis

      Rev Kev…you nailed it…the gentrification has run up to the one side of the highway in most of the locations “discussed” across the nation and now, by removing the highway…nice easy peezee out go the left behind folks in the (soon to be former) left behind neighborhoods…not sure where “they” are to go…but “Progress”…progress dammit… progress….

  6. Adam1

    The portion of the Rochester, NY inner-loop that was raised back to street grade is just outside my office window. The slightly ironic part of including this example in this article is that the portion of the expressway that was brought back to street grade and city street travel primarily had acted to cut off Rochester wealthiest neighborhood from its downtown.

    If the infrastructure package passes, the desire is to return the rest of the inner-loop traditional urban boulevards and streets. This would actually reconnect many poor neighborhoods to downtown.

  7. lordkoos

    It would be wonderful if New Orleans could get rid of the freeway that runs where Clairborne Ave used to be, but the damage was done many years ago and although it would benefit the neighborhood to have it removed, the damage has been done. The street was once home to many nightclubs that birthed New Orleans rhythm and blues music.

    From wikipedia: Claiborne Avenue was once a neutral ground and main street for Tremé, the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States. In the 1950s, this avenue served as a community space lined with large oak trees and azalea gardens.[1][2] During Carnival season, families would camp out, barbecue, and wait for the Mardi Gras parades to pass by.

    To much opposition from the neighborhood residents, a six-lane elevated Interstate-10 was constructed on Claiborne Avenue in 1969.

  8. Edward

    Let’s also remove HUD owned housing projects which were inserted into majority Catholic and white ethnic communities against their will starting in the 1950s.

  9. juno mas

    In California it is earhquakes (Northridge, Loma Prieta) that takes down the freeways. The Embarcadero in San Francisco is much better for it.

    1. JBird4049

      Yes, San Francisco’s Freeway to Nowhere. A looming monstrosity that put much of the eastern part of the city in shadow. That is one very good thing that the Loma Prieta quake did.

  10. McWatt

    No doubt there are many urban highways that have been destructive. Here in Chicago highway planners are talking about moving traffic back on to the streets. This is nonsense. A substantial portion of traffic on our roads is pass thru. People on their way to Michigan or Wisconsin or Iowa. Dumping this traffic on urban streets is a recipe for disaster. For the locals as well as the travelers.

      1. Eric377

        Both routes have their merits, but combining the Skyway-DanRyan-Kennedy(or Edens) pass-through (Indiana to Wisconsin direction) to 80-294-94 volume I bet would be problematic. They both are heavily used for transits at the same time.

Comments are closed.