The assignment wasn’t simple, but it was relevant: Find ways to help communities around the country address racial injustice created by the nation’s biggest infrastructure project — the U.S. interstate highway system.
“No other policy shaped the built environment in the U.S. more than the Interstate Highway System. I’m in awe of it in many ways. But its influence wasn’t all, or even mostly, good,” said Daniel D’Oca, an urban planner and associate professor in practice of urban design at Harvard Graduate School of Design, who led a fall studio for students to reimagine how public land might be used if the highways were removed or relocated. The exercise was inspired by President Biden’s pledge to set aside funds from the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act to redress the harm done to communities of color by federal public works projects.
Launched during the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. interstate highway initiative added close to 50,000 miles of new roads in about two decades, speeding travel and the transport of goods, boosting auto sales, and ushering in the era of suburbia. But it came at great cost to the environment, to public health, and to Black, Latino, Indigenous, and low-income neighborhoods that were targeted for clearance or split by highway planners.
Residents lost homes and businesses, churches, and parks to freeway bulldozers. Neighborhoods were divided or sheared off from the surrounding community by multilane highways, decks, and ramps, further depressing property values. The roads meant more people spent more time in cars, releasing more pollutants into the environment and worsening asthma and other negative health effects, particularly for those who remained in more congested urban neighborhoods.
Working with liaisons in a dozen U.S. cities, students reimagined how sections of the interstate system that had been a source of harm could become a community benefit. Students engaged with neighborhood, community, and civic groups, along with city and state officials, to anchor the designs in local priorities and better grasp the complexities of public works funding.
In addition the class visited several cities, including Boston and Portland, Maine, to examine projects underway and learn how local officials had resolved various challenges. Students toured a local success in Jamaica Plain with community advocates — the restoration of part of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace of parks and greenways and reconfiguration of the crossroads at Forest Hills that followed the state’s removal of the Monsignor William J. Casey overpass in 2015.