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Cities want to tear down these urban highways—and Biden can help

When a new elevated highway was built in New Orleans in the 1960s, like other “urban renewal” projects in the U.S., it ripped through a predominantly Black neighborhood that had been thriving. Hundreds of homes were razed. Hundreds of businesses were lost. On Claiborne Avenue, the central boulevard in the neighborhood, hundreds of oak trees were torn out of a wide median that neighbors had used as a park. A coalition of community members now want to take the aging highway down—and it’s the type of project that the new administration could help make possible.

“There was a lot of disinvestment after buildings fell into disrepair. We lost a lot of historic building stock in terms of homes and commercial buildings,” says Amy Stelly, a designer and planner whose family has lived in the community for generations and who is now part of Claiborne Avenue Alliance, the group pushing to restore the former boulevard. “And it also changed the climate, because we now have cars instead of trees.” The now-missing park in the center of the avenue had mitigated the urban heat island, the effect that makes concrete-filled neighborhoods hotter on hot days. The greenery had also helped absorb rainwater in storms. As the new highway physically divided the area and destroyed the neighborhood’s economy, it also added pollution: People living nearby have a higher risk of asthma and other diseases.

Cities throughout the country are facing the same challenges—almost always in communities of color—and as roads wear out they now have the choice of repairing highways or completely transforming them. “There are many highways in the United States that are simply underutilized and therefore are ripe targets,” says Ben Crowther, who studies urban highway removal at the nonprofit Congress for New Urbanism. The nonprofit publishes biannual reports about which highways should come down first.

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