The phrase “the other side of the tracks,” connoting declining neighborhoods across from railroad lines, could easily translate to the community havoc wreaked by urban interstates. Noise, pollution, and walls of concrete can be more than a little off-putting. But new projects in cities around the world prove that freeways don’t necessarily have to be urban dead zones.
In places like San Francisco and Oakland, where earthquakes led to the replacement of several freeway stretches, interstates have been redesigned and upgraded into walkable, pleasant spaces. Other innovative approaches are showing how to transform the right-of-way land, overpasses, and adjacent spaces to be visually attractive assets–and even raise property values as businesses and residents move closer and begin to look at their infrastructure more favorably. In Seattle, Freeway Park includes space on both sides of I-5 and a green-covered pedestrian overpass connecting them, giving a convention center easy access to a large parking structure across the freeway. Shanghai’s dramatic light-sculpture installation on its freeway placed the road in a new visual context for residents, and dozens of examples have followed. Melbourne used art panels and artful sound barriers to enable development to move closer to the freeway. Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, located underneath an interstate, attracts thousands of annual visitors to festivals and events and is facilitating adjacent property-enhancement by private owners.
As for what’s next, Atlanta is at the forefront in transforming its much-maligned Connector and its adjacent spaces into a series of enhancement zones that reflect the surrounding neighborhood and will attract new economic energy, from a museum to a forested nature area and a pedestrian park. Together, these projects present a snapshot of how the highway of the future can be a boon, rather than a blight on, the urban fabric.