Friday, October 8, 2010

Freeway mitigation

The Dallas Morning News published an interesting story about the efforts to mitigate the strangling effects of the ring of freeways around downtown. In essence, it acknowledges that freeways, particularly elevated ones, diminish the urban quality of life (though conversely, it is essential to the suburban quality).

It detailed the mitigation effects, like the Woodall Rogers deck park over the sunken portion of that freeway, cleanup and landscaping under the elevated that crosses Ross, landscaped rocks by the new train line and painted columns and fancy shapes painted into the elevated beams near Deep Ellum.

This elicits several reactions from me, but the first is always why must we accommodate the car as is? Several cities have removed freeways for various reasons and several more are in the planning stages of removal. Why can't Dallas join them?

I'm not advocating removing all freeways, but it makes sense to remove the stubs and subsections within the urban core. If I had it my way, Woodall Rogers and I-345 that connected U.S. 75 with I-45 would be built at-grade and require cars to slow down. If they are through traffic, they would then route on the outer loops, fulfilling their original purpose.

But back to the mitigation effects. Aside from the park, which has other issues I may delve into at some other point, none of those fulfill any urban requirement. A good urban area doesn't have places you just pass through. All components add something to where the whole functions at a much greater rate than the sum of its parts. Very few people go to an area to look at its landscaping. People do go to a restaurant to eat its food, pass by a shop to by its and purchase its wares or a park to recreate. The better the public space, the more activity it brings, the a public space it becomes, the more activity, and so on.

Jane Jacobs, in her seminal piece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, describes the effect much better than I can, but essentially, the dead spaces magnify the dead zone, as those on the periphery of the "active" zone are performing less than optimal. A good urban area is one where boundaries are arbitrary. One urban area ends right where another begins and the definitions vary between people. Freeways are an absolute boundary. No one questions were downtown ends and the other areas begin.

So, as per usual Dallas, instead of working for optimal, they are working to maintain the status quo, only a little better. Aside from the limited deck park, the rest is purely lipstick on a pig. The freeways are still dividing the neighborhoods, still creating dead zones and still holding back cohesive urban development. Downtown will always be separated from Deep Ellum, Uptown, The Cedars and The Trinity.

From an aesthetic standpoint, it is better to do something rather than nothing. But, in my mind, this is trying to put out a house fire with a bucket. It is better than nothing, but in the end, it makes little difference.

Finally, I see a lot of ironies here. The same people who are acknowledging the boundaries the freeway makes were the same ones who said that the Trinity River tollroad would be a divider in the park. Either they have had a change of heart or this is politics as usual. I know which one I pick.

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