Trying to put back together urban neighborhood split decades ago by highways

New monies from the federal government are intended to help neighborhoods deeply affected by highway construction:

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Kansas City officials are now looking to repair some of the damage caused by the highway and reconnect the neighborhoods that surround it. To date, the city has received $5 million in funding from the Biden administration to help develop plans for potential changes, such as building overpasses that could improve pedestrian safety and better connect people to mass transit.

The funding is an example of the administration’s efforts to address racial disparities resulting from how the United States built physical infrastructure in past decades. The Transportation Department has awarded funding to dozens of projects under the goal of reconnecting communities, including $185 million in grants as part of a pilot program created by the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law.

But the project in Kansas City also shows just how difficult and expensive it can be to reverse long-ago decisions to build highways that slashed through communities of color and split up neighborhoods. Many of the projects funded by the Biden administration would leave highways intact but seek to lessen the damage they have caused to surrounding areas. And even taking out a roadway is just a first step to reinvigorating a neighborhood.

“Once you wreck a community, putting it back together is much more work than just removing an interstate,” said Beth Osborne, who served as an acting assistant secretary at the Transportation Department during the Obama administration and is now the director of Transportation for America, an advocacy group.

In the name of fast travel between outlying areas and the city, such highways removed people and buildings, disrupted economic corridors, and created barriers between neighborhoods.

From the examples provided in this article, it sounds like this money will be used to try to reestablish streetscapes. Wide highways made it difficult for pedestrians to walk between places. Businesses had to rely on vehicle traffic. Decades after the highways were constructed, there may be relatively little activity on roadways near the highways.

Simply creating better paths over a major highway could be helpful. Removing a highway can also help, as evidenced by at least a few projects in American cities. But, there is a lot that goes into a streetscape. It takes time and resources to recreate thriving neighborhoods with multiple factors at play. Even then, vibrant sidewalks and streetscapes are relatively hard to find in American communities given the other priorities Americans emphasize.

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