I remember the first time I drove into Vancouver in the late 1980s. Interstate 5 melted away into Highway 99 and eventually, I crossed over the Oak Street Bridge into a four lane city street with no turn lanes. How odd that the freeway didn’t just plow through the city with convenient exits at strategic points. What were they thinking?
Instead, it was a game of trying to pick the right lane and making the lights until we finally arrived in downtown Vancouver. Well, this was no oversight, as former Vancouver City councilmember and Sightline board member Gordon Price outlined in the Great Debate over the summer. Vancouver shunned freeways and, according to Price and others, that resistance to the freeway slicing through the heart of the city forms a core of the Vancouver’s well deserved reputation for being sustainable.
I had not realized, until reading Sara Mirk’s brilliant history of Portland’s dead freeways, that Portland can boast a similar history of resisting freeways. In her Portland Mercury article, Mirk highlights Portland’s Dead Freeway Society, a bike group that rides and remembers this chapter in the city’s formation.
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While other American cities have built, built, built, Portland’s freeway history is boom and bust: massive road projects were planned, mapped, and sold as progress by one generation, then killed by another. When current transit planners visit from exotic Houston and DC to admire Portland’s progress, what they are really admiring are the roads not built—freeways erased from the maps decades ago.
Mirk points out that the legendary Robert Moses visited Portland in 1943, and began drawing a vision for its future on maps and photos of the city. And lo, not too long after the Freemont Bridge was built across the Willamette River. Moses has been blamed by recent planners and historians for the invention of the city-busting freeway—and even suburban sprawl. Indeed Moses still inspires awe for his massive but, in many cases, unfortunate accomplishments. A book worth spending some time with is Robert Caro’s biography of Moses. Mirk’s piece inspires the imagination about what that visit by Moses must have been like.
And more recently, Seattle voters rejected a waterfront tunnel to replace the crumbling viaduct—a vote that was not only second guessed but ignored by state officials who are trying to move forward with the tunnel anyway.
It occurred to me while reading Mirk’s article how peculiar local politics, history and tradition can conspire against progress. Oddly, the same strain of sentiment that was behind stopping the RH Thompson expressway, the Lesser Seattle Movement, is often the source of resistance to designing the city to accommodate more people in a smaller footprint—foes of freeways and density alike. Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata summed up the feelings of many of the Lesser Seattle crowd when he said “we’re riding this wave of green guilt, but you just don’t throw more people in the box. You’ve got to throw something into the box to appreciate living in it.”
So, somehow, we have to align the interests that resisted big freeways in Vancouver, Portland and now, maybe, in Seattle, to envision the principles of smart growth, transit-oriented development and compact communities as crucial to making our cities good cities to live in. Today, our dialogue about growth too often characterizes density advocates as latter day Moses wannabes, trying to foist their values on an unwitting public.
One of my heroes is Kevin Lynch, a seminal figure in city planning. In his book Good City Form, he wrote:
Decisions about urban policy, or the allocation of resources, or where to move, or how to build something, must use norms about good and bad. Short-range or long-range, broad or selfish, implicit or explicit, values are an inevitable ingredient of decision. Without some sense of better, any action is perverse. (Emphasis is Lynch’s)
If we can combine the fervor of community resistance to freeways that has been part of the history of our most sustainable cities in the Northwest with the muscle of a Moses and the values of smart growth we will truly be on the road to making our cities better and good.