How Can We Make Urban Freeways Places for People?

Study takes a look at eight cities’ response to urban freeways, transforming them from cold, concrete infrastructure into enriching community assets.

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Photo by Denys Nevozhai (http://dnevozhai.com/)

Freeways. The arteries of a region, the ugly ducklings of neighborhoods. They bring people together over huge distances only to divide them within urban centers. Over the last half century, urban freeways have gone from crown jewels of city boosters to necessary evil for promoting mobility in a modern city. Once considered to bring life back to downtown areas, today their obstructive and aesthetically unappealing nature make them a challenge for urban designers.

With so many cities across the world reinvesting in their urban cores, dealing with urban freeways has become a focus initiative, if not a requirement by default. As new money pours into downtowns, developers, residents, and city leaders are quickly beginning to see these drab concrete slabs as something more opportunistic. In a modern society, these highways are essential. But how can we turn a cold roadway into a space for people, and how can we turn a monolithic divider into an asset for a neighborhood or even region?

We take a look at eight cities and how they have used urban freeways as opportunities to build community.

Freeway Park – Seattle, Washington (I-5)

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Photo courtesy of Flickr (Maciek Lulko)

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A pioneering move for urban redevelopment, Jim Ellis Freeway Park opened in 1976 as the first community space to “lid” an interstate. Today, the park is a centerpiece for a thriving downtown district in Seattle.

Bartle Hall – Kansas City, Missouri (I-670)

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Built in 1994, Bartle Hall, the backbone of the Kansas City Convention Center, is an engineering marvel. Supported by four 324-foot columns, the structure, along with accompanying ballroom (completed in 2006) span a six-lane urban freeway in Downtown Kansas City. Topped by eccentric metal sculptures by RM Fischer (called “Sky Stations”), Bartle Hall is an integral part of the Kansas City skyline.

High Street Cap – Columbus, Ohio (I-670)

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While shopping on High Street in Columbus, Ohio, it is often easy to forget one is even standing above an eight-lane highway. In 2004, the city made a bold move to augment the overpass with shops and restaurants. The “Cap at Union Station” has since inspired a movement in cities nationwide to rehabilitate ugly freeway overpasses into community spaces.

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway – Boston, Massachusetts

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Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

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A result of one of the largest civil engineering undertakings in US history, the Kennedy Greenway is a linear string of parks and public gardens snaking through Downtown Boston. Beneath the greenway is a tunnel carrying automobiles on I-93. “The Big Dig” as the project came to be called, transformed an obstructive and foreboding elevated interstate into a central arterial harbor for city life.

Camden Street Riverwalk Bridge – San Antonio, Texas

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The San Antonio River has long been a central feature in the city of San Antonio. In the 1930s, the waterway was officially developed to be an attraction and hub for public activity through the creation of the Riverwalk. As modern development has grown around it, the Riverwalk itself has had to adapt. Beneath I-35 at Camden Street lies a peculiar art installation known as F.I.S.H. by artist Donald Lipski. This attraction provides color, life, and light to an otherwise dark and expansive underpass on the river.

Underpass Park – Toronto, Ontario

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Photo courtesy of Flickr (Rick Harris)

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In a section of Toronto marked by industrial vacancy and a myriad of highway overpasses, the city saw opportunity. Underpass Park was constructed as part of a larger goal of transforming “pockets of neglected urban spaces on the waterfront into valued public amenities”. The park today includes playgrounds, a skate park, public art, sports facilities and more.

Burnley Bouldering Wall – Melbourne (Richmond), Australia

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In order to feed a vibrant community of climbers in Richmond, Victoria (suburb of Melbourne), the city installed climbing walls beneath an overpass of CityLink, a major urban freeway, in 2006. After a 2013 expansion, the project now attracts a consistent base of local climbers as well as tourists, turning a dead underpass into a place for community activity.

Highline – New York, New York

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Photo courtesy of Flickr (David Shankbone)

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While not technically a highway, the High Line is an elevated linear park in Lower Manhattan converted from an old spur of the New York Central Railway. Opening in 2009 and followed by subsequent expansions, the park has become a global model for converting abandoned and seemingly unworkable spaces created by urban freeways and railroad infrastructure.

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