Highways From Hell: How Prioritizing Automobiles Destroyed America’s Urban Environment

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By Avery Warren ’24

It is difficult to visualize our nation not being bisected by streams of black pavement.  Highway networks pumped mass destruction and administered the poison that would eventually deplete the most integral sect of the United States: cities. The urban landscape of our country has strayed away from the people and has been revitalized to foster industrialization. As extensive asphalt extends its grasps on our country, we see the elimination, displacement, and extinction of American communities.

The authorization of 48,000 miles of interstate highways by the Federal Highway Bill of 1956 is what ignited a period fueled by the development of crippling infrastructure. This enactment enabled the construction of parkways through the early 1970s. Ergo aiding in the interconnection of American cities; conjoining 42 state capitals and approximately 90 percent of all cities with populations over 50,000. The enhancement and design of the freeways in the United States was fabricated by the automobile industry in the 1930s yet the actual establishment of these roadways was further delayed by the eruption of World War II. They initially started to envision their expansive web of highways by the reconvening of this coalition of motor syndicates.

A 1947 map inaugurated the interstate highway system into reality. It was later formulated and succeeded by a 1955 Department of Commerce Document which is where we see the freeways carve through urban centers. Behind the guise of these ambitious maps were egomaniacal members of the auto industry and highway engineers. Urban planners were excluded from this imperative discussion. With highway engineers dominating the crucial process of designing infrastructure around human civilization, we see the neglectful nature of these roadways. There are adverse physical and mental repercussions of the construction of freeways, ranging from noise pollution to a list of neurological disorders.

Photo curtesy of Wikimedia.org

This system of roads enabled and incentivized the concept of “white flight”; the notion of white families absconding urban centers for suburbia. This white mass exodus tore the economic substructure of cities, leaving these communities in financial ruin. With the diminishing presence of the white demographic in these areas, the funding of resources was tremendously lessened and largely cut. 

Highways were employed to enforce segregation by constructing physical boundaries to prevent racial integration. Rooted within these plowed motorways is the prejudice that has been weaponized to destabilize and desecrate minority neighborhoods.

Midcentury highway interstate projects were explicit with their intent and overtly racist with the plotting of these freeways. The enduring effects of these fields of tar still scar and tarnish the neighborhoods it runs through. Expressways has blackened the earth with these symbolic monuments of racism. When given the option of establishing infrastructure through affluent, middle-class white neighborhoods or lower-income minority communities, developers would often choose the latter. Through the usage of eminent domain over 475,000 households and 1 million people were displayed.

Discussion of highway removal has arisen to annul the damage inflicted on these communities. At the turn of the 21st century, the Massachusetts state legislature in conjunction with the city of Boston funded a massive road project called the “Big Dig” which rerouted the Central Artery underground and created a communal green space between Faneuil Hall and the North End. Finally, The newly passed Infrastructure Bill under the Biden administration aids metropolitan`X areas with the daunting task of reclaiming the land stolen by highways giving hope to urban community revitalization throughout the country. 

Photo curtesy of University of Oklahoma

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