Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Freeways without Futures

Congress for the New Urbanism



The Freeways without Futures series documents the harms of American freeways, along with the projects seeking to transform them into more liveable places. This 2021 edition describes 15 existing freeways whose overhaul is being advocated by the Congress for the New Urbanism. The 15 freeways were selected based on factors including the ease of removal, community support and potential cost savings. The authors of this report contend that this is a matter of environmental health as well as spatial justice (page 5): “Reclaiming the land underneath highways can boost and stabilize populations of cities, providing direct local control of land that can be dedicated to a range of housing choices for individuals and families, from affordable homes to workforce housing.

US freeways disproportionately cut through low-income, majority-nonwhite areas – often neighbourhoods where car ownership is relatively low, meaning that these areas receive the harms of air pollution without the benefits of mobility. For instance, the Claiborne Expressway, built in New Orleans’ Tremé neighbourhood in the 1960s, led to the closure of a number of Black-owned businesses. The Claiborne Avenue Alliance is calling for the expressway to be replaced with a median strip and a tree canopy, both of which existed before the expressway was created, which could also allow for infill housing and new businesses.

While replacing freeways with walkable space is one way to counter enduring patterns of racially discriminatory planning, one worry is that this type of freeway-covering renewal could induce gentrification. In Tremé, some activists are advocating for a community land trust model, where the land around the freeway would be sold below market value, to reduce the displacement of low-income residents. This is what happened with a different public space project, the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, DC (page 44): “Early in project planning, the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River created a community land trust that acquired properties on the market and sold them back to residents at subsidized rates to enable them to build wealth before the market appreciated.

The report also urges the active participation of affected communities throughout these planning processes, rather than just tokenistic requests for feedback on proposals dreamt up by non-residents. And the report emphasizes the interconnections between freeway replacement projects and non-transport issues important to affected communities, including health, jobs and access to services.

The report’s examples of “graduated campaigns”, or completed freeway removal projects, show that transitioning away from freeways isn’t a panacea; the implemented projects can remain more car-centric than the submitted proposals. But especially during a pandemic where residents have increasingly been walking and cycling to get around, Freeways without Futures is a useful reminder that massive motorways are not necessarily conducive to public, environmental and economic health – and that another world is possible.


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Further reading:

Biron, Carey (2021), “Neighborhoods united: Highway removal gains steam in U.S. cities”, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 12 April, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-cities-transportation/neighborhoods-united-highway-removal-gains-steam-in-u-s-cities-idUSKBN2BZ0VF.

Fazal, Shahab (2006), “Addressing congestion and transport-related air pollution in Saharanpur, India”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 18, No 1, pages 141–154, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0956247806063970.

Patterson, Regan and Robert Harley (2019), “Effects of freeway rerouting and boulevard replacement on air pollution exposure and neighborhood attributes,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health Vol 16, No 21, available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6862437/.

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