As cities have grown in size, so have their highways. And as the size of the highways grows, so too does the population. It’s a never-ending cycle that has become the norm in North American urban areas. As a result of this unsustainable pattern of development, our cities became more spread out, more dependent upon the automobile, and less walkable. For people in private vehicles, expressways provide an easy means of connectivity between neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries. Unfortunately, though, these highways are also very real dividers between communities, physical barriers as well polluters of noise and vehicle emissions.
In the mid-20th century, the adoption and construction of elevated highways spread as suburban populations grew. Elevated roadways minimized the land required for construction and reduced the number of at-grade intersections. As these roads have reached the end of their planned lifespan, many cities have undertaken studies to understand their futures. Some cities have successfully removed portions of their elevated expressways and others have changed the way the space is utilized.
The city of Dallas, Texas is no stranger to these kinds of discussions. As the Dallas population grew throughout the 20th century, more highways were built to connect the residential suburbs with the central business district including the elevated expressway known as Interstate 345. Over the years there have been efforts to beautify the area underneath I-345, with murals painted by the community and colorful light displays at night. However, the area is still undesirable to developers and intimidating to pedestrians.
The chorus clamoring for the teardown of I-345 has grown louder recently, but such a large-scale fix can take vast political and financial capital, not to mention an extraordinary amount of time. In my opinion, there is still an unrealized potential for revitalizing the space beneath I-345. Dallas can commit to making this corridor a good place within the city core, in a short amount of time, but we need to act now in order to humanize this potentially valuable urban space.
The ways in which cities around the world have chosen to address these spaces vary widely, from removal (as in San Francisco and Portland) to lowering or capping (like in Boston and Dallas). Other cities, such as Vancouver and Toronto, are evaluating their options for their elevated expressways. A few cities, however, have chosen to make these often-overlooked urban spaces assets to the community while leaving the existing infrastructure intact. Examples are in place around the United States, with solutions that address the function, programming, and aesthetics of the space to create better places for people.
In Dallas, if the consensus results in the Interstate remaining, there are a few examples of how infrastructure and civic purpose can be better entwined. In Houston, the Buffalo Bayou Promenade is an historic urban waterway running through the core of Houston. Due to accumulated pollution from shipping traffic and urban surface runoff, the bayou effectively became an exposed sewer. A master plan was released in 2002 seeking to restore the bayou and encourage economic development. A series of parks, hiking, biking, and running trails, and numerous building developments have transformed this former scar into a beautiful asset for the city of Houston, with the most urban section of the trail running under a major highway interchange.
The FDR Drive in New York City is a highway that has successfully co-mingled the automotive scale with a humanized and pedestrian scale. The main feature along the ten-mile stretch of highway is the East River Esplanade, a two-mile linear parks project connecting Battery Park and East River Park underneath the elevated portions of FDR Drive. Two redeveloped piers, bike lanes, and pavilions under the roadway will help to invigorate this portion of the East River in Manhattan.
Toronto is currently deciding on the future of the elevated Gardiner Freeway along the urban shoreline of Lake Ontario. This uncertainty has not prevented the city from working to improve the space below the freeway – the Underpass Park includes a playground, skateboard park, and basketball courts have that have provided the community with a gathering place. Artist Paul Raff designed and installed a series of mirrors underneath the road deck to draw natural light under the road. Colorful accent lighting livens the park at night, encouraging engagement after dark.
What if we applied these lessons to I-345? Imagine the corridor as a bike and pedestrian connector between the Arts District, the vibrant neighborhood of Deep Ellum, and the central business district of Downtown Dallas. Additional parks for people and dogs would provide the growing resident population in Dallas’ central business district with the much-needed urban outdoor space. Creating additional locations for food truck parking would bring a rotation of local cuisine, and band shells could showcase the musical heritage of Deep Ellum. Dallas is known for its well-lit skyline, from the historic Magnolia Petroleum Company red Pegasus to the modern green outline of Bank of America Plaza. Introducing an element of lighting would not only make the space more inviting, but also visually connect the new space to the Downtown Dallas skyline. And why stop there? It could be easy enough to transform the utilitarian roadway structure into a large sculpture, creating an urban sculpture that would wind for two miles through the heart of Dallas, sort of a Texan Metropol Parasol.
The discussion around the role of urban highways and their effect on communities is one that every city should be having as they plan for their future. I believe that the quick decision to tear down infrastructure that is hard to redo may be premature – there is no guarantee it will be the silver bullet to revitalizing neighborhoods without well-planned design. In Dallas, where there is unparalleled design talent, with big ideas waiting to be expressed, something spectacular can come to the underside of I-345. Dallas has an opportunity to re-imagine, re-define, and re-invigorate a part of town that desperately needs some attention. And embracing the urban fabric that is a defining piece of a large, modern city is a great place to start.