Atlanta Connector, Calder Pass

Among the busiest U.S. freeways, Atlanta’s downtown Connector is locally vilified and adjacent land is decidedly not at its highest and best use. Since Atlanta can’t reroute it or place it underground, the plan is to energize and integrate it into the city with parks, public art, and extensive landscaping. For example, a midtown promenade and trail will give Atlantans new pedestrian walks and areas for relaxing, buffered from the bustle by copious plantings and, in one area, dense bamboo. A proposed art walk near the city’s arts facilities would make freeway infrastructure a canvas for expression.

Atlanta Connector

Initial phases are aimed for implementation as soon as late 2012. Design by SWA Group.

Houston's Buffalo Bayou

The I-45 freeway corridor in downtown Houston was transformed from a trash-strewn dumping ground into today’s Buffalo Bayou Promenade, where Houstonians now run trails, watch concerts, and even canoe the waterway. The design, by SWA Group, provides public amenities year-round and improves the bayou’s storm-drainage, as demonstrated by how Houston withstood the storm water of 2008’s Hurricane Ike; the parks were back in operation within days. Real estate developers and investors have expressed renewed interest in buying and building in the area.

Buffalo Bayou

The project includes a pedestrian park.

Melbourne's Eastlink Freeway

A mixture of signage, tunnels, bridges, sound barriers, lighting, and sculpture along the Eastlink Freeway in Melbourne adorns 28 miles of freeway, integrating public art along the way. Highlights include four large-scale artworks and 10 smaller-scale pieces, designed to engage users and enrich the urban fabric of Melbourne. Other key strategies involved reducing noise pollution with artful sound barriers and capturing and treating all road-water run-off in constructed wetlands and retention basins.

Eastlink Freeway

The design is by Wood/Marsh Architecture.

Seattle's Freeway Park

Seattle’s 5.2-acre Freeway Park, which bridges Interstate 5 and a large city-owned parking lot, provides pedestrian access between the Washington State Convention & Trade Center and the First Hill neighborhood. The design celebrates the site’s urban nature while minimizing the freeway’s negative impact. The Lawrence Halprin–designed oasis has even been featured in the Michelin Guide as a special attraction.


3 Projects That Transform Highways Into Urban Oases

Cities are turning former dead zones into walkable public spaces that bring communities together, rather than dividing them, writes SWA Group’s Kinder Baumgardner.

The phrase “the other side of the tracks,” connoting declining neighborhoods across from railroad lines, could easily translate to the community havoc wreaked by urban interstates. Noise, pollution, and walls of concrete can be more than a little off-putting. But new projects in cities around the world prove that freeways don’t necessarily have to be urban dead zones.

In places like San Francisco and Oakland, where earthquakes led to the replacement of several freeway stretches, interstates have been redesigned and upgraded into walkable, pleasant spaces. Other innovative approaches are showing how to transform the right-of-way land, overpasses, and adjacent spaces to be visually attractive assets--and even raise property values as businesses and residents move closer and begin to look at their infrastructure more favorably. In Seattle, Freeway Park includes space on both sides of I-5 and a green-covered pedestrian overpass connecting them, giving a convention center easy access to a large parking structure across the freeway. Shanghai’s dramatic light-sculpture installation on its freeway placed the road in a new visual context for residents, and dozens of examples have followed. Melbourne used art panels and artful sound barriers to enable development to move closer to the freeway. Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, located underneath an interstate, attracts thousands of annual visitors to festivals and events and is facilitating adjacent property-enhancement by private owners.

As for what’s next, Atlanta is at the forefront in transforming its much-maligned Connector and its adjacent spaces into a series of enhancement zones that reflect the surrounding neighborhood and will attract new economic energy, from a museum to a forested nature area and a pedestrian park. Together, these projects present a snapshot of how the highway of the future can be a boon, rather than a blight on, the urban fabric.

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