On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the law that created today's interstate highway system. Ike inked the bill with no fanfare, in a hospital room where he was recovering from an illness.
Soon, groundbreakings featuring politicians and beauty queens ("Miss Concrete") were underway around the country.
At the 50th anniversary of the greatest public works project in history, we can look back at a profound mixed blessing. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, as the 41,700-mile asphalt ribbon is now called, has provided a theretofore unimaginable level of mobility, convenience and economic opportunity.
At the same time, it has made us dangerously dependent on foreign oil, generated an array of pollutants, all but killed mass transit and - thanks to the indefensible decision to run the highways through cities, which Eisenhower later disowned - eviscerated hundreds of America's finest and most handsome municipalities.
The job of the second half-century after World War II is largely to correct the mistakes made in the first 50 years. One of the organizations leading the charge is the Congress for the New Urbanism, which seeks to restore good city-making principles largely lost in the postwar rush to the suburbs.
The congress held its 14th annual conference in Providence last weekend. It drew more than 1,500 planners, architects, developers, mayors and others, including several Hartford officials. One of the sessions was on removing highways.
Boston, Milwaukee, Portland, Ore., and scores of other cities have taken down highways, usually elevated highways, and often replaced them with urban boulevards. This almost invariably has led to an increase in property values. John Norquist, the head of the Congress for the New Urbanism, removed a downtown highway when he was mayor of Milwaukee. Property values in the area went up 288 percent.
U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat from Buffalo, N.Y., just got funds to remove an elevated highway that separates Buffalo from its waterfront on Lake Erie.
He said the city's "transportation infrastructure was built in a haphazard way," cutting through an Olmsted-designed park system and rendering 400 acres along the lake "useless and of no value."
Higgins said his once-vibrant city's image and its self-image both suffered because of the condition of the waterfront, and he believes both will be substantially improved with a revived, exciting waterfront district.
Most of the highways that have been removed have been spurs, whose traffic could be dispersed to a boulevard and city street grid. The next challenge is how to handle main trunks or through roads. One way is to bury them in tunnels, which theoretically can be done without the cost overruns now associated with Boston's Big Dig.
I wondered about I-84. Toronto planner Ken Greenberg and his team have begun working on a land-use plan for the city. The elevated Aetna Viaduct is nearing the end of its useful life. Land use and infrastructure should be planned together, said Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. Greenberg's team, city officials and the state Department of Transportation should all be looking at I-84 with an eye toward healing the wound it inflicted on Hartford.
Of course, to want to heal the city it is necessary to value the city. Alone among Western countries, Americans have been ambivalent about their cities. From Jefferson forward, there's been a strata of an idea that cities were dirty and dangerous. Didn't Jefferson love Paris? Why are New York real estate prices so high?
What we build reflects what we believe. A city ought to be a place for the pleasant jumble of people, not the relentless march of cars. "Build the pedestrian structures down first, before the vehicle structures," said the visionary architect and thinker Christopher Alexander.
But cities aren't just infrastructure. They can't be revived by empty-nesters alone. Thus it was encouraging to see a panel on advancing urbanism through school reform. Flight from the cities has left many areas, including Greater Hartford, with a real estate-based public school system.
One panelist called it a "quasi-public school system," which perpetuates economic segregation. Somehow, Canada and most European countries do better with school choice than we do, said Norquist. Try vouchers, charter and magnet schools, regional schools, choice programs, private schools - and whatever else we can think of.
If we're to live less wastefully, we need to live more compactly. To do this, we need to change the postwar policies that produced sprawl. But to make changes, the leadership has to come from the state.
Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri was at the conference advocating the continued rebuilding of cities by among other things, getting rid of wasteful surface parking lots. "Who wants to walk by parking lots ... strip malls in cities are a waste ... cities should go up, not out."
I'm hoping to hear these issues discussed in this year's Connecticut gubernatorial campaign.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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