In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the interstate highway system into existence — forever changing the country’s built environment and social infrastructure. Wealthy white families could now live in suburbs and commute to cities. While highways bridged suburbs and cities, they built straight through urban communities of color.
Garrett Dash Nelson, president and head curator at the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, explained the role highways played in forming this racial divide.
“The introduction of highways into U.S cities allowed white affluent communities to flee the historic industrial centers of cities, leaving behind oftentimes a Black and Brown population stuck in challenging circumstances,” Nelson said.
Air pollution, congested automobile traffic and unattractive aesthetics can make highways unpleasant to live near. Nelson explained that these negative externalities are often forced upon marginalized neighborhoods through urban planning.
“The cities that felt that they needed to accommodate themselves to highways did so oftentimes by placing highways in some of the most vulnerable parts of town,” Nelson said. “Those were the areas where it was relatively cheap to seize land … that had pretty little political power [and] pretty little ability to say no to the people in power.”
According to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, less than 30% of white residents in the Greater Boston region live in areas with the top 20% of air pollution intensity. At the same time, these severely polluted areas are home to 45% of Black and Asian residents and over 50% of Latino residents. These inequitable outcomes were caused by many decision-makers in U.S politics.
“It was made by governments, it was made by industries [and] it was made to some extent by ordinary people to really reorganize the nation's geography along automobile travel,” Nelson said.
As a city, Boston has been both a catalyst and an inhibitor in the development of highways. Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) and Interstate 93 (I-93) run directly through the city. There is a deep history of environmental justice activism against highway expansion projects in order to prevent future destructive impacts on communities of color.
“Boston actually historically has been a leader in this, both the famous story of the campaign against the Southwest Corridor [and] the Southwest Expressway, which [were] planning to run essentially through Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and eventually Cambridge, which was stopped by the early 1970s,” Nelson said.
Chinatown is in an area of Boston that has been extremely affected by highway development; it is also a majority Asian and lower-income population. Penn Loh, a senior lecturer in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts and previous executive director at Alternatives for Community & Environment, discussed the grassroots organization in Chinatown that occurred in response to the development of the Central Artery, a section of highway in downtown Boston.
“Chinatown itself is a neighborhood that had been basically cut in half by the Mass Pike and I-93. So both those highways built in the ’50s and ’60s took away land from Chinatown,” Loh said.
The City of Boston began planning in the 1980s for the Central Artery or “The Big Dig” — a three-decades-long project that totaled to be the most expensive public works project ever completed in the United States. The project involved undergrounding Interstate 93 in tunnels through downtown Boston. According to Loh, Chinatown had to continually fight for its urban space during this project.
“When the Big Dig was still being built, one of the planned proposals was to build an off-ramp from the Big Dig into Chinatown,” Loh said. “The reason for that was the hotels in the convention center in the Back Bay wanted a way for people to get off the Central Artery and make it over to their area.”
Chinatown was already suffering from harsh environmental and traffic conditions from other major roadways to the point where it was a safety concern. The proposed ramp into the Chinatown neighborhood would have exacerbated its existing issues and cause more displacement of communities of color. In protest of the ramp, a coalition was formed.
“The groups in Chinatown … had already identified pedestrian safety as one of the big issues,” Loh said. “It’s a public health issue, it’s an environmental [issue], and a built environment issue. So they fought back, and [Alternatives for Community & Environment] joined that coalition.”
Over the next two years, this coalition mobilized and organized people to disrupt the development of the ramp into Chinatown. Many different institutions came together — immigration organizations, the church, the Chinese Historical Society and the Tisch College Community Research Center, Loh explained.
At Tufts, former Professor Doug Brugge organized students in a research project in 2002 to capture the reality of pedestrian safety in Chinatown. Brugge and students looked at accident data from the Boston Police Department to determine the most dangerous intersections in the area. Then they went to those streets with video cameras and filmed them at all times of the day. When analyzing the footage, they discovered that there were many “close calls” of automobile and pedestrian collisions.
“Chinatown was one [where] traffic was bad all day long and all night, and that there were dangerous situations happening virtually 24/7,” Loh said.
Alternatives for Community & Environment also hired a transportation engineer to look into alternative routes for the ramp that would allow those hotels in Back Bay to have access to the new highway.
“[The transportation engineer] spent hours and hours pouring through all these plans [and] came back to the coalition and said, ‘You know what, I think there’s another way for them to do what they want to do without going through Chinatown,’” Loh said. “He presented that to the folks at the Central Artery, and their engineering people said, ‘Maybe this could work.’”
At the end of the two years, Boston decision-makers did not follow through with the construction of the ramp into Chinatown.
“That, to me, was a really nice example of how community organizing and coalition-building paired up with this kind of technical assistance that really made a difference,” Loh said.
While the Big Dig may not have ramped into Chinatown, there were still many other environmental injustices that came out of the project. One was highlighted by a lawsuit filed by the Conservation Law Foundation in 2005. Originally, the city agreed to offset the burden of traffic and air pollution to communities by increasing public transportation. They were relatively quick to expand the commuter rail to suburbs, but they did not file the same attention for MBTA passengers in the City of Boston.
“In the early 2000s, [the community and the CLF said], ‘Hey, you’ve done all these mitigation projects that serve the suburbs, but none of the ones that you had promised to do in the inner core have been done yet,” Loh said. “That’s an environmental injustice. It’s saying these environmental benefits were not applied evenly.”
This lawsuit led to the agreement for the extension of the Green Line to Union Square and Tufts University, as well as into Dorchester and Mattapan.
Loh explained the duality of the Big Dig in that it expanded urban green space through the Rose Kennedy Greenway — Boston’s contemporary linear park — but did so at such a high cost to the public. It leaves society to question how public money could have been directed differently.
“Some of the biggest and most expensive developments are right along that Greenway now. They’re the ones that reaped a lot of windfall benefits from that public project,” Loh said. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, there were 15 billion dollars in public money spent on several miles of underground highway.”
The construction of highways has fueled society’s dependence on automobile transportation. In order to decrease the expansion of highways, other transportation solutions need to be discussed. Nelson explained that it is critical that equity plays a role in planning future travel.
“We’re going to have to think about how to prioritize investments in alternative forms of transportation and prioritize those investments in a way that really puts the most exposed communities first,” Nelson said. “I think a good example of what not to do is … the current effort around moving people to electric cars [because it] benefits the most privileged first. Almost all of Massachusetts subsidies for electric vehicles have gone to people living in wealthy suburbs.”
When thinking about alternate forms of transportation, senior environmental engineering student Emika Brown brought up the need for walkability, bikeability and public transportation in Boston. She argued that solutions need to be catered to the unique needs of specific areas of Boston.
“It allows people to have access to important services and reduces this area’s overall carbon footprint,” Brown said.“I think it’s really limiting for people that have limited mobility anyway if they don't have access to … [public] transportation.”
What makes Boston unique is that it is so diverse and densely populated that an issue in one area of a town can be vastly different than in a neighboring area. Brown argued that solutions need to be prioritized for specific areas of Boston.
“Brickbottom [has] really horrible bikeability and walkability, but it’s still in Somerville … [yet] Davis [Square] on the Somerville Community Path has really good walkability,” Brown said. “I've learned that it is important to prioritize solutions that are geared toward specific communities in this area.”
Brown also explained that the divide of highways can be very hindering to an area's walkability which feeds into a good public transportation system.
“It’s a more physical barrier than I think people realize. … [It becomes] challenging [just] to cross,” Brown said. “Especially if your community relies on public transportation more than others. That’s really horrible because walking and biking are inherent to public transportation. You can’t have it without that, so if you’re creating a huge divide it almost doesn’t matter if you do have good public transportation.”
Equitable investment in public transportation is one solution to dealing with the harms of highway expansion in Boston, Brown summarized.
Reflecting on the history of highway expansion in Boston, it becomes clear that there needs to be intersectional solutions.
“There’s no way we can think about the environment or environmental questions without also dealing with people and the issues of power, politics, justice and injustice which are intimately connected to how people create their societies,” Nelson said.