Transportation tells the story of our culture: how we travel, in what style, what mode and to where. Depending on the design and form of our routes, it tells our priorities and the purpose of the roads.
Consider parkways of the 1920s-1940s: scenic, winding, stone bridges and underpasses, grassy medians, low speed limits. These roads were constructed for an enjoyable ride, making the journey part of the destination. Now consider interstates of the 1950s – 1970s or later: wide lane with wide shoulders, limited access, high speeds, blasting through the landscape. These corridors were built for efficiency and speed, getting the traveling public from one place to another.
Why is there such a difference in road construction? Just as our tastes in fashion, design, food, and culture change, so do our theories and methods of planning, construction, and transportation. Theories and methods change to fit our needs and wants, as evident by the evolution of our roadways.
Take note of where major highways are located, and you’ll see that many hug the waterfront of cities. These roads divide the waterfront from the city dwellers, which seem to ignore the potential high-value real estate. Don’t the best cities embrace their waterfront? Why would we ignore that by constructing roads instead of boardwalks, beaches, and parks? There are a few important factors to understand (note these are not all-inclusive).
(1) Until the modern era, the waterfront often represented the industry of a city. Shipping ports were major transportation centers, where goods would come in or leave the city. Waterfronts were for business, not play. Even little Burlington, Vermont had waterfront filled with railroad lines, oil tanks, the lumber industry, etc. It was much different than today.
(2) Since the waterfront was not a cherished place in cities, especially as industry changed in the United States, building a road along the shorelines seemed to make sense. Transportation was replacing industry, particularly the shipping and rail industry.
(3) Before the interstate were the low speed (relatively speaking) parkways were constructed (think early Robert Moses era), driving was recreation and leisure. A Sunday drive was leisure time to Americans, and driving on a scenic highway adjacent to the the water made for beautiful views and a lovely afternoon.
(4) Interstates often replaced parkways. And interstates caused devastation through cities across the nation. However, building the interstate along the waterfront often was a path of least resistance, as they would transport vehicles around the city at high speeds, avoiding the congestion of inner city loops. .
(5) Recreation and city planning changed. Whether a parkway or an interstate, this pattern of development left the waterfront divided from city dwellers. At the time when these roads were constructed, people were moving out of cities, not living in them. The effects to a city were less noticeable than they might today. When people began living in cities as opposed to living in the suburbs, city dwellers wanted to reclaim the empty waterfronts.
Half a century later and development patterns and planning theories have indeed changed. Today cities across the country are working to remove (yes, remove!) freeways and reclaim the waterfront by turning the roads into boulevards or parks. An article 6 Freeway Removals That Changed Their Cities Forever (Gizmodo) is an amazing collection of examples around the world. On the east coast, you might know the Big Dig in Boston. On the west coast, Harbor Drive in Portland, OR is a well-know case study.
And there are many cities with proposals in mind such as Syracuse, New York and Niagara Falls, New York. PreserveNet keeps a website by the Preservation Institute detailing freeway removal projects. These are not minor undertakings. They are an incredible feats, requiring major design shifts. Improving quality of life within cities by giving pleasant open space to all speaks volumes to how we view and use cities today. Gone are the days when people are fleeing cities to the suburbs and need the roads to get in and out of the cities as quickly as possible. Instead, we see the value in these dense, urban environments. Quite the bold revitalization, and an example of what good a dramatic change can accomplish.
What do you think? Anything to add?