Does Highway Removal Make Cities Healthier?

Highway removal can improve the air quality and health of the immediate environment, but displacement and gentrification threaten to exclude former residents from the benefits.

2 minute read

July 30, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Toronto Freeway

NicoleTaklaPhotography / Shutterstock

The redesign of Oakland's Mandela Parkway has been heralded as an "appropriate, if partial, amends for the devastation wrought on low-income neighborhoods by the freeway-building boom of earlier decades." The full story reveals Sarah Digiulio, is more complicated. "Although the 1.3-mile strip of land that Mandela Parkway passes through has cleaner air and better amenities than when it was a freeway spur, many of the neighborhood’s original residents are no longer there to enjoy it, forced out by rising rents and housing costs. And West Oakland more broadly, bordered by the massive Port of Oakland, is still crisscrossed by elevated freeways where cars and heavy trucks spew hundreds of tons of pollutants every year."

The "new urban renewal movement" brought on by highway removal advocates faces its own challenges. "The effects of neighborhood 'greening' can be paradoxical, leading to 'green gentrification'" and displacement of its own.

"'Green gentrification' is a paradoxical effect of projects intended to support healthier communities, said Jennifer Wolch, a professor of city and regional planning at UC-Berkeley. Her research, focused on the overall public health effects of urban greening, shows that rising housing costs and displacement of longtime residents can also damage their health. Other research has found that residents from marginalized groups reported a lower sense of community after 'greening' transformations."

According to Dr. Richard Jackson, professor emeritus at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA and former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Highway removal and neighborhood renewal should focus on making communities less car-dependent, and adding affordable housing and other amenities." Community land trusts are another useful tool for maintaining affordability and community control.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in NextCity

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