By Diane Jones Allen, D.Eng., PLA, FASLA
Highways, in their inanimate state, cannot be racist. However, the forces that located them and the consequences of their placement are inextricably connected to race. Deborah Archer, a law professor and civil rights lawyer, captures the central concept: “Highways were built through and around Black communities to entrench racial inequality and protect white spaces and privilege.”
In the new book, Justice and the Interstates: The Racist Truth About Urban Highways, editors Ryan Reft, Amanda Phillips du Lucas, and Rebecca Retzlaff explore racial injustice and the interstate highway system. They collect essays that address the dislocation caused by interstates. The book came out of a series of articles in Metropole, a publication of the Urban History Association.
The editors explain the mechanisms used in concert with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, including federal, state, and local housing legislation, that limited housing and economic opportunities for Latinos and Blacks. They outline how racial zoning maps adopted by municipalities across the U.S. in the early twentieth century established legal boundaries of segregated neighborhoods, making it easier to target these neighborhoods for disinvestment, demolition, and highway location.
The first part of the book brings together three chapters that explore the myths constructed by politicians, transportation planners, builders, and engineers to support building the interstate highway system despite the high costs to communities. One significant myth — the marginalization and destruction of Black and Latino communities were unpredictable consequences of highway development.
Case studies in the book show that the interstate highway system’s negative impacts on urban neighborhoods were known. And any legislation enacted to lessen the adverse effects provided little help to Black and Brown communities but often privileged the interests of their white counterparts.
Sarah Jo Peterson states that the common perception was highways were a system for interstate travel. Unintended impacts on cities were caused by their misuse for travel within cities. And everything terrible that happened in cities due to the development of interstates was the fault of city leaders and urban renewal.
Peterson offers a firm counter argument: racial injustices and the process of transforming urban transportation into highways are connected. Furthermore, these forces still influence American transportation policy and practice today. So it is imperative to articulate what occurred in the past to examine how the past still impacts current transportation development.
There has been a historical accounting of transportation in the U.S. — Edward Weiner’s Urban Transportation Planning in the United States: A Historical Overview, written in 1997. But Peterson points out that this history ignores the impacts of transportation planning and urban expressway construction on Black communities, offering little social analysis. Weiner’s book attributes the clearing of communities and the negative impacts of highway development to federal programs that had unintended consequences.
But contrary to previous historical accountings, impacts of highway development were anticipated by urban leaders. Highways weren’t developed for urban commuter travel demand; they were more suited for rural to urban commutes, especially as car ownership increased. Urban residents moved to the expanding bedroom communities of the suburbs. Urban communities were in the way. The massive acts of eminent domain required for urban expressways were barely acknowledged.
Peterson reveals a significant point: the Federal Highway Administration and highway industry knew. They anticipated the problems for urban transportation, including the dismantling of neighborhoods and the relocation that came with highway expansion, and claimed that these issues were outside of the highway planning process.
Additional citizen participation, which could have provided communities a voice in solving these problems, was mainly used to support highway projects, especially in the 1960s during the height of highway development.
In another chapter, Retzlaff and Jocelyn Zanzot, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Auburn University, look to Alabama to explore the complexities of highway removal in the face of their racist legacy.
They view interstate highways as monuments to the American racist past, similar to the confederate statues being removed. However, unlike this public statuary, highways cannot quickly be taken down because they underpin the automobile-oriented American transportation system.
How could highways been built without awareness or concern for negative impacts? Impacts include: higher asthma rates, heart disease, mental health risks, noise pollution; increased risk of premature death, neighborhood instability, and community trauma.
Highways were placed to create convenience for some groups at the expense of others. Through the political process, highways were planned in direct alignment with urban areas, near downtowns, and through low-income and minority neighborhoods. State and local highway directors and engineers had significant input into these decisions as they were familiar with local communities, land use, and social and economic conditions.
These local decision-makers found it politically beneficial to avoid white neighborhoods when possible and route highways through neighborhoods lacking political power, which were most often those of color. Using the excuse of removing urban blight, this dark destruction was allowed as it coincided with other tools of oppression, such as redlining and urban renewal.
Alabama provides Retzlaff and Zanot the opportunity to explore a case where the legacy of interstate planning is reckoned with, resulting in reconciliation, transportation access, and community health equity.
Under Sam Englehardt, who was director of highways in Alabama in the late 1950 and early 1960s, race was a critical factor in highway planning. The Montgomery, Alabama, interstate system designed by Englehardt and the Alabama highway department offered no off-ramps from I-65, disconnecting thirteen streets of the neighborhood from the rest of the city. In 1972, African American business people on the west side of Montgomery requested that their community be declared a federal economic disaster zone due to urban renewal projects and interstate construction.
The construction of Interstate I-65 and I-85 in Montgomery displaced 1,596 families and dismantled 74 small businesses. The highway system also impacted African Americans in rural areas of Alabama as they were excluded from gaining access to the services and economic development that freeways connect to.
Retzlaff and Zanot lay out a way forward in repairing the harm caused by interstates.
Transportation and urban planning professionals who design and route interstates need to be on the side of reparative justice for neighborhoods that continue to be harmed by destructive planning and engineering of highways. Planners must actively seek policy and funding opportunities provided by government agencies that address infrastructure investment, holistic revitalization, capacity building, historic preservation, affordable housing, and economic opportunity.
An example of reconciliation: in 2021, West Jeff Davis Avenue in West Montgomery, named after the president of the Confederacy, was renamed Fred D. Gray Avenue in honor of the African American Civil rights attorney who fought against and overturned Montgomery’s segregated public bus system.
Mayor of Montgomery Steven Reed stated at the dedication that the renaming of the street was symbolic. However, concrete reconciliation would be reinvestment in the community, resulting in community health, economic opportunity, and joy.
The book then delves into how the tools engineers, planners, and civic officials used to construct the interstate highway system led directly to racial impacts.
Politicians’ planners and engineers knew the political targets of highway routing; they were communities of color. They created methods that ensured targeting and the predicted consequences. These methods included leaving democratic and meaningful public engagement out of the highway planning process, segregating highway planning from local land use planning processes, and connecting slum clearance with highway planning and development.
As described by Ruben L. Anthony Jr. and Joseph Rodriguez, communities also used tools to fight freeway expansion. Today, freeway opponents in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are strategically using history to oppose freeway expansion.
The history of freeways in this city is long and devastating. Between 1960 and 1971, urban renewal and highway development destroyed 20,000 homes in Milwaukee. Much of this displacement happened before the federal government instituted programs to assist communities with housing raised by highway expansion. These communities also lost jobs that went to the suburbs.
Suburbanization affected working-class Black residents who needed public transportation to access to suburban employment and other services. Those who remained in the community saw their property devalued. And the health of those remained were also affected. Many suffered lead poisoning and respiratory conditions from the building of freeways near their homes.
Gilbert Estrada and Jerry Gonzalez describe the displacement of thousands of ethnic Mexicans from their homes. The authors tell a history of forced relocation, neighborhood loss, and disregard for communities by civic officials in greater Eastside neighborhoods throughout Southern California. As with impacts on other communities, consequences were due to cold, technocratic planning.
In the case of Mexican communities, highway development displaced them from their segregated neighborhoods. It pushed them into a local suburbanized housing market, expanding the geography of Latinos in Los Angeles. The authors posit that this phenomenon resulted in delayed redress for displacement.
This demographic shift — or submerged migration, as author Michael Eric Dyson termed it — resulted in more Spanish-surnamed residents in the suburbs surrounding East Los Angeles than in East Los Angeles by 1970. A significant migration of Latinos from Mexico and Central America also contributed to this demographic shift.
Although Latinos live across Los Angeles, they have been most linked to the Eastside. During freeway construction in East Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s, approximately 2,844 dwelling units were removed, displacing 10,966 residents. The freeways have also increased travel time for residents and restricted movement of Eastside pedestrians through 35 new barriers to local streets.
Why did such targeted destruction occur in Eastside? Estrada and Gonzalez cite a lack of financial resources, little-to-know political representation, gerrymandering, and voter suppression.
One byproduct of the new freeways was the diversification of suburban Los Angeles, like the way many urban communities were before segregation and devaluation methods were employed. Another product was the adoption of Eastside highways as their own canvas for expressing their identities, similar to how New Orleans Tremé and Seventh Ward communities have adopted the space beneath the I-10 freeway in New Orleans.
The editors of Justice and the Interstates describe community-led efforts to restore torn communities and address the harm and injustices of freeway building. Amy Stelly eloquently describes the beauty of the Tremé neighborhood and the devastation and racial injustice that it endured with the building of the Claiborne Avenue Expressway.
Stelly describes her efforts to have the freeway removed and stop the Claiborne Corridor Innovation District, a plan to stabilize the uses that community members currently undertake beneath the freeway. She provides valuable techniques in this chapter for community action, including:
- Galvanizing like-minded allies to coalesce around a shared mission
- Publishing position papers
- Connecting to other organizations with needed expertise
- Working with political representatives
- Using effective lobbying
- And, most importantly, communicating with impacted residents through public awareness campaigns.
The District is in its first phase of construction. It doesn’t run counter to Stelly’s goal of removing the freeway and restoring Claiborne Avenue. It activates the space beneath the freeway, claiming and defying this structure in preparation for the time when the freeway comes down. It also forces planners of a post-freeway future to recognize this land as the community’s own.
Justice and the Interstates challenges readers to grapple with the problematic history of interstate development in America. It calls upon citizens, scholars, planners, lawmakers, and all concerned about urban infrastructure, mobility, health, and the equity of our cities to look at the unjust past so as not to repeat it.
The book exposes the intentional methods to remove citizens from their homes and level neighborhoods in the name of progress. Importantly, this text also reveals methods for reconciliation, healing urban scars — literally and figuratively — and planning a path forward. In this effort, landscape architects can play a major role.
Landscape architects dwell well in the space of community healing. We can lead and contribute to environmental and social-cultural reclamation and the renewal of places once devastated by highway infrastructure. Biden-Harris administration funding of highway removal signals that federal and state agencies are now working with local governments. The need to remove highways and increase climate mitigation and resilience provides landscape architects an opportunity to use their unique skills and expertise.
Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, is director and professor of landscape architecture, University of Texas at Arlington College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs, and principal landscape architect at DesignJones, LLC. She is author of Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form (Routledge, 2017).