New Urbanism: Overcoming an Overpass
The freeway overpass on North Claiborne Avenue has dominated the downtown landscape for so long it’s hard for some people to imagine the area without it, much less remember how that part of the city functioned before it was built. But as the idea of removing the aging overpass continues to make the rounds among planners and community advocates, an expert with unique experience in urban freeway removal shared his perspective.
“This isn’t about tearing down a freeway, this is really about building communities and cities,” says Peter Park, former planning director for Denver and Milwaukee, where an overpass was removed beginning in 2002. “The reality is all freeways in American cities will come down. They’re not the Roman aqueducts. The question is what to do when they come down.”
Park was in town for an event hosted by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), a Chicago-based group that advocates for walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. The Greater New Orleans Foundation supported the event.
CNU earlier commissioned a report for the local Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition on the potential of removing the freeway stretch. That report concluded that doing so would “recover more than 50 acres of freeway-covered parking lots and empty lots near interchanges for public neutral ground, bike paths, transit corridors and sites for redevelopment.”
CNU president John Norquist previously served as mayor of Milwaukee and championed the removal of a downtown elevated freeway there. He says people were initially shocked by the idea, and many assumed it would create traffic nightmares.
“But now there’s almost no one who would advocate for putting it back,” Norquist said.
In fact, Park explained, people can get to downtown destinations faster when traffic flow is plugged back into a city’s street network, rather than funneled to the limited access points of a freeway.
“Freeways were originally not supposed to go through cities,” Park says. “That wasn’t part of the plan. It wasn’t a technical decision, it was a political one and it was a failure in every American city.”
As discussions in New Orleans continue, Park stressed that inclusion has to be part of the plan.
“There needs to be an emphasis on what is the process; how will people already there have a say?” he says. “It needs to be clear, and it needs to be fair.”