Building Highways Made Racial Segregation Worse. Can Removing Them Undo That Legacy?

By on June 12, 2018

From StreetsBlog USA:  When Interstate 81 was constructed in the 1960s, the elevated highway sliced through Syracuse’s 15th Ward, decimating a thriving black neighborhood. To this day, the highway is a blight on Syracuse, and the 15th Ward has never been the same.

Syracuse is more segregated than most American cities, with some of the largest clusters of extreme poverty anywhere in the nation. Former City Council president Van Robinson has likened I-81 to the Berlin Wall, dividing the city between “the haves and the haves not.”

But like the Berlin Wall, this highway might come down. New York State is seriously considering a plan to remove the 1.4-mile stretch of I-81 in downtown Syracuse and replace it with a local street grid. The teardown is one of three options the state is now considering, along with rebuilding the viaduct and constructing a (very expensive) sunken highway.

The teardown of I-81 presents an opportunity to rebuild Syracuse in a way that rights past injustices, says Anthony Armstrong of the planning firm Make Communities. Removing the highway is still far from assured, but if New York Governor Andrew Cuomo does go through with it, Syracuse could make serious progress reversing the city’s history of segregation.

In a new report funded by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, Armstrong proposes analyzing the I-81 project not through the traffic engineer’s lens of moving traffic, but through an “Equity Impact Statement” that seeks out opportunities to lessen segregation and redress social inequities [PDF].

The idea is to transpose the Environmental Impact Statement process to a different goal: ensuring that people who’ve been marginalized by past planning efforts benefit from new initiatives. The model has been applied to school planning in Boston and Minneapolis, and by the Obama administration in its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing initiative. As part of that effort, HUD, U.S. DOT, and the Department of Education developed programs that jointly addressed segregation in housing, transportation, and education.

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About Dede Hance

One Comment

  1. Andrew Bolin, CFP

    06/12/2018 at 8:42 PM

    Fantastic article. I wish more cities would take a closer look at this option.