The High Cost of “Free”ways

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Institute for Quality Communities

For our first blog post, Professor Goldsmith asked us to respond to a series of images from the Institute for Quality Communities (IQC) at the University of Oklahoma. IQC has produced perfectly matching aerial overlays of American cities in the 1950s and again in the 2010s. Their simple slider function (see GIF, above) provides a dramatic visualization of how our urban fabric has changed over time.

The IQC images speak for themselves – one devastating critique of urban land use and transportation planning in the United States after another. For example, consider this two-part closeup of the exact same location in Cincinnati, first in 1955 (black and white) and again in 2013 (color):

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Institute for Quality Communities

In the top panel, at mid-century, we see a tight-knit urban community. The image suggests walkability, local commerce, and a strong sense of neighborhood identity.

In the bottom panel, we see what sixty years of “urban planning” has done to the area. Former neighborhoods have been obliterated, in favor of freeways and parking lots, and the image now suggests single occupant vehicles, big box stores, and an oppressive sense of placelessness. This is ‘anywhere,’ USA, and it feels a lot like nowhere.

Such is the ubiquitous story of American planning. At worst, it is a willful insistence on destroying the places people love, in service of growth machine economics and politics. At best, it’s an unintended consequence of misguided efforts to make life more efficient and more convenient. In either case, the end result has been the same.

As a planner-in-training, these images are sobering and borderline embarrassing. Beneath the concrete and asphalt, I see forcibly displaced communities and bankrupt local businesses. I see the immediate danger of traffic accidents and the long-term danger of toxic auto emissions. I see a military-industrial complex waging war for oil, and a changing global climate. I see, in other words, that our “free”ways have been anything but free. Indeed, the costs have been all-too high, if also all-too difficult to measure.

At the same time, as a planner-in-training, I see in these same images an unparalleled opportunity. First, a chance to learn from our mistakes – let us not further embarrass ourselves by repeating the failures of the past. Second, then, a chance to make amends – let us heal the damage that has been done and transition to a more just, more respectful, more sustainable and vibrant future.

This is the two-sided coin that today’s planners inevitably face. We must admit our shortcomings and must commit to do better. In this blog, as in Professor Goldsmith’s class, I will strive to contribute on both fronts.

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