Originally published by Medium - April 9, 2024

“The construction of the federal Interstate system did not come without significant human and social cost. Built directly through cities, these highways and others like them displaced roughly one million people and left behind disjointed neighborhoods suffering the negative environmental and social effects.” — “Freeways Without Futures,” Congress of New Urbanism, 2021

The interstate highway system, initiated with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 to facilitate the movement of people and goods across the country, required significant land acquisition, often demolishing entire neighborhoods. In conjunction with urban renewal programs, which aimed to “revitalize and modernize” urban spaces, interstate highway construction was sold as an opportunity to reshape cities, to the detriment of Black and brown Americans.

Highways were often deliberately routed through lower income and Black and brown neighborhoods. They were both physical barriers, severing connections between people and other neighborhoods and social barriers, isolating community members from resources and opportunities. In most of these neighborhoods, public life and the public realm were diminished or outright obliterated as the federal highway system advanced. A community’s civic infrastructure — including parks and natural areas, local business districts and cultural landmarks — were often destroyed.

There is almost no American city that escaped the interstate highway system’s damage: construction of Interstate 93 in Boston destroyed the city’s vibrant West End neighborhood, displacing thousands, including many immigrants and working class families. San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood bore the brunt of the construction of the Central Freeway, displacing predominantly African American and Japanese American residents and destroying thriving businesses and cultural institutions. Hough, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, suffered significant damage due to the construction of Interstate 90, which bisected the community and contributed to decades of decline. And the list goes on.

Reconnection: more than just mitigation

Addressing the decades of social, economic and environmental impacts of freeways seems like a daunting task, though there are many communities that have begun the process of repair and rebuilding. Because the costs to do so can be high for local jurisdictions, there are a number of federal programs to help communities do the needed planning, design and construction.

One such program is the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant program, a first of its kind initiative created in 2021 as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Administered through the U.S. Department of Transportation, the program has had two grant cycles to date, with the second year grants of $3.3 billion to 132 communities just announced last month.

Yet reknitting communities that have been so divided by infrastructure is not just about removing or capping a highway. To ultimately be successful, this work requires an intentional focus not just on physical infrastructure, but on social outcomes — efforts that demonstrate tangible improvements to people’s lives. This includes projects that create places and programs that connect people and neighborhoods to each other, and rebuild the critical civic infrastructure destroyed when highways were built.

Here are three examples of communities in the Reimagining the Civic Commons network that received Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods grants, and are doing exactly that:

Akron’s majority-Black neighborhoods have suffered from 150 years of disinvestment and displacement, including the demolition of homes and the destruction of neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s to construct the “Innerbelt” freeway project.

In 2018, a mile of the freeway was decommissioned and the City of Akron took possession of a 35-acre piece. They began to reimagine a new place for the city’s Black community with an extensive visioning and healing engagement process led by designer and spatial justice activist Liz Ogbu. The work included various and diverse forms of resident conversations, from focus groups to popup engagement stations to on-site events.

An extensive final report of the engagement work provided a series of comprehensive recommendations for the site covering the short and long term, including continuing to provide residents with tools to manage their grief around the destruction of their community, creating more consistent communications with residents and developing partnerships with young people to bring them into the work.

In March of 2023, Akron was awarded a FY22 Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods grant for $960,000, for visioning and planning to take this work to its next phase.

“The construction of the Akron Innerbelt destroyed homes, businesses, and community that took decades to build. Now, we are working hand in hand with that same community to determine what’s next for the area they once called ‘home.’ This process is about doing things with our residents and not to our residents. The Reconnecting Communities grant is helping us take that next step towards the future of this space.” — Mayor Shammas Malik, City of Akron

Starting in the 1870s, Macon’s historic Pleasant Hill was a middle-class neighborhood and a hub of the city’s Black community. In the 1960s, it was literally severed in half by the construction of I-75, which destroyed homes and cultural institutions.

In recent years, Pleasant Hill neighbors have organized, and working with local government and nonprofit organizations, the neighborhood has begun to transform, creating new parks and connections to the rest of the community. Last month, Macon received a $500,000 Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods planning grant to continue this work, which has included the creation of the Pleasant Hill Connector to encourage more walking and biking, increased engagement at Jefferson Long Park, a program to repair and upgrade affordable homes for residents and efforts to reimagine Linear Park, originally built as part of a larger mitigation deal with the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods grant will be additive to this collaborative work, strengthening connections between Pleasant Hill and Macon-Bibb County’s downtown business district, strengthening families’ access to recreation, improving mobility, and increasing access to economic opportunity.

“Our team has been working for the last few years to create a stronger sense of belonging in the Pleasant Hill Neighborhood through regular meetings and events, cultural preservation and collaborative planning with partners. This opportunity to expand upon the State Mitigation to achieve our goal of neighborhood sustainability with Federal support is another important step in the right direction.” — Tonja Khabir, Principal, Francis and Wade, LTD

The Underdeck in Miami is a project “conceived and designed with the intention of bringing Miami together.” The one-mile, 33-acre linear greenspace runs from the Miami neighborhood of Overtown, once considered the “Harlem of the South,” to Biscayne Bay underneath the I-395 freeway, which was constructed in the late 1960s.

A formal partnership between the City of Miami and The Underdeck Committee cemented the approach to the project to provide intensive, community-driven recommendations for design, operations, governance, programming, and maintenance. This agreement also facilitated a collaborative commitment to secure state and federal funding to advance The Underdeck project, and last month, the project received $60 million from the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods grant program.

From its inception, the Underdeck project has relied on an intentional process to draw out recommendations and guidance from everyday residents, business owners and community leaders. A yearlong engagement process culminated in a 400-page report of the community’s recommendations, which was submitted to Miami City Commission in 2022. This infusion of federal funds will provide capital dollars to make The Underdeck a reality and reknit Overtown to downtown and the waterfront after decades of disconnection.

The sheer demand for the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant program is astounding. The latest round had more than 550 projects apply–from all 50 states, two territories and seven federally recognized tribes–that went unfunded. This demonstrates that communities of all shapes and sizes across the U.S. are working to address this legacy transportation infrastructure that reinforces isolation, disconnection and racial and socioeconomic divides.

Now is the time to refocus on reconnection and repair.

The process of reknitting the public realm can be a catalyst for communities to become better places to thrive. This program and its $10B in unmet demand offers an immense opportunity for governments at all levels–local, state and federal– to invest in this way for a healthy, resilient and prosperous nation.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration of The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, William Penn Foundation, and local partners.

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