This article appeared in the April 05, 2021 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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Why unbuilding highways matters as much as building them

Jim Mone/AP/File
Interstate 94 in St. Paul, Minnesota, runs past street signs from a neighborhood disrupted in the 1950s, when construction for the highway meant clearing residential and business space for a link to Minneapolis.
Clayton Collins
Director of Editorial Innovation

Hear the word “infrastructure” and – if you don’t go and find a new conversation partner – you might be treated to a lamentation about the state of U.S. roads and bridges, power grids, pipes, and digital networks.

The word evokes revitalization, expansion: fresh pavement and rebar to ease physical connections; broadband to ease virtual ones, serving rural students and digital workers who’ve fanned out to far-flung “Zoomtowns.”

The $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that the Biden administration announced last week does lean into building. It’s ambitious, and has met with both praise and dismissal. Christa Case Bryant reports today on what’s perhaps unexpected about it, politically. 

Another element of the plan amounts to unbuilding. The creation of the interstate system meant the bisecting by blacktop of many communities of color, ripping their social fabric. Such moves have not gone unchallenged. Some populations seen as being “sacrificed” for others’ transportation needs have brought to bear civil rights legislation to keep new projects’ bulldozers at bay. Others have used grassy installations to patch imposed divides.

President Joe Biden’s proposal earmarks $20 billion for reconnecting such neighborhoods. That’s a kind of intentionality that Ben Crowther calls a good start. Mr. Crowther runs a program called “Highways to Boulevards” at the Congress for the New Urbanism, which welcomes what it sees as the start of a thought shift. 

“This is the first time that we’ve seen highway and transportation infrastructure considered through a social lens,” he told The Washington Post, “as well as a transportation lens.”

This article appeared in the April 05, 2021 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 04/05 edition
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