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Robert Moses is Dead

Biden’s “Reconnecting Communities” program is stuck in the past

At a November press conference, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg expanded on comments he’d made previously about the racism baked into American infrastructure. With a bright smile and broad hand movements, as if lecturing a class of kindergarteners, Buttigieg referred to “a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a White and a Black neighborhood,” and referenced a parkway that was built too low to allow in buses carrying Black and Puerto Rican residents.

Buttigieg was promoting $1 billion of new funds set aside for “Reconnecting Communities,” part of the recently passed $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill. The funds are meant to remedy the bisection, devaluation, and decimation of low-income communities, including many Black and Latino neighborhoods, during the construction of the nation’s interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s.

Buttigieg’s comments—which included a disputed anecdote from Robert Caro’s biography of former NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses—were praised by urbanists who largely applauded his analysis. To a generation of urban planners and reporters, Moses symbolizes the destructive, top-down and racist approach to planning that jammed disruptive infrastructure through once-thriving communities, displacing residents—what Moses dismissively referred to as breaking some eggs to make an omelet. Over the years, a knowledge of Moses’s biography has become a kind of cultural marker itself. In the early months of the pandemic, a copy of Caro’s tome on one’s bookshelf during a Zoom meeting was a nod to other professional politicos and urbanists, signaling an understanding of the shadowy nature of municipal power. Invoking Moses is easy shorthand for New York City’s, and the United States’, legacy of racist urban planning—a shameful history but, like legal residential segregation, one many view as consigned to the past.

The problem with this narrow obsession is that while Moses may be the paradigmatic racist urban planner, he was certainly no outlier. He has also been dead for forty years, yet urban planning continues in myriad ways the same racially harmful practices of his era.

Moses was unusual for the scope of his power and how deeply he shaped the landscape of a single city. Many cities saw in Moses’s New York highways inspiration for their own destructive planning. But he was not unusual in his racism: builders, planners, and the federal government had roughly the same disastrous approach to urban planning, as exemplified by the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act that underwrote the nation’s highway system and the hundreds of institutions, including state departments of transportation and elected bodies, that routed them through cities across the country. Portraying Moses as the sole bogeyman haunting American infrastructure downplays these other destructive histories and their legacies.

While Moses may be the paradigmatic racist urban planner, he was certainly no outlier.

But much like Moses and the engineers of urban renewal, today’s planners still jam through large developments where people have the least political capital to protest them, opting to slate construction in poor Black and POC neighborhoods. They have spent decades repeating variations on the urban renewal playbook; they treat race as an afterthought and proclaim that initiatives will be for the good of the community, without asking that community what they want or need. Planners and city leaders often approach the built environment as an engine to boost property values rather than a communal sphere to be co-created with residents.

“The same kind of thinking that led to highways being put through communities still exists in planning,” says Lynn Ross, a planner who runs an independent consultancy and who worked in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Obama administration. “I don’t think we’re exactly the same profession that we were then,” she says, but “the thinking that undergirds [highways being put through communities], which is that some places are more valuable than others, and some communities it’s okay to disrupt. . . . that is ultimately at the heart of any conversation about planning and community development.”

Without acknowledging this ongoing present harm, the “Reconnecting Communities” funds Buttigieg has been promoting risk repeating cycles of dispossession.

“Reconnecting Communities” was initially envisioned by the Biden administration as $20 billion in grants to redesign divisive highways. The negative consequences of these highways are abundant: exhaust has increased asthma rates, deaths from cardiovascular disease, and preterm births in adjacent neighborhoods. There’s sprawl and increased carbon emissions. By cutting through neighborhoods, highways separated people from work, school, and places of worship. Students in schools near highways perform poorer on standardized tests. The neighborhoods abutting highways suffered disinvestment, and many remaining businesses along highways closed or moved.

Proposals to bridge communities by covering or removing highways have existed for years; at least eleven freeways have been removed or covered in the decades since the Highway Act. The decision is sometimes spurred by pragmatism: many highways, approaching seventy years old, are in disrepair. Ideas currently floating around include a proposal by New York Governor Kathy Hochul to cover the Kensington Expressway, which broke up the Black neighborhood of Humboldt Park in her hometown of Buffalo; a plan to submerge part of I-35 in Austin, Texas, and build public space on top of it; and a plan to remove part of the I-10 Expressway in New Orleans. Despite the apparent abundance of potential recipients, when the Build Back Better Act seemed less likely to pass, the “Reconnecting Communities” program was scaled down to a $1 billion pilot project, funded in the federal infrastructure bill, to be administered over five years.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will allot these limited funds through an application process, considering the racial impact of each project. But the Biden administration isn’t withholding funding for more highways or other disruptive forms of development with the rest of its infrastructure funds, $52 billion of which is being sent to the Federal Highway Administration.

Carlos Martín, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who researches infrastructure, says the federal government should not just fund ameliorative projects but restrict funding for harmful projects, like highway expansions that are disruptive to low-income communities. One such expansion is underway in Austin, where the I-35 highway was built in the 1950s and early 1960s as a physical barrier between West Austin and the redlined neighborhoods of East Austin. The highway is now congested as well as dangerous; a quarter of all traffic fatalities in the city occur there. For years, a nonprofit called Reconnect Austin has proposed submerging part of the highway and adding bridges and boulevards over it, creating a corridor with housing and retail space while reconnecting both neighborhoods. But the Texas Department of Transportation is insisting on a plan to expand the highway from twelve to twenty lanes to ease congestion, despite a consensus among transit experts that highway expansions do the exact opposite through induced demand. If you build it, people will drive on it.

The federal government should not just fund ameliorative projects but restrict funding for harmful projects.

More alarming is that TxDOT plans to use eminent domain to destroy 140 commercial and residential properties; among them is a bilingual preschool serving two hundred families. “It will not be possible to find [an alternate] facility that is affordable or even reasonably priced,” Jaime Cano, an assistant director at the school, said at a rally last September. Under one of the state’s highway expansion proposals, a seventy-unit affordable housing complex, only erected in 2019, would be demolished. The destruction of homes, schools, and storefronts recalls the razing of properties in East Austin when I-35 was first introduced, the same traumatic approach that Reconnecting Communities is trying to redress.

The state’s DOT is now weighing a compromise that would extend the highway and also connect the neighborhoods it divided decades ago—but the city has to pay for it. The highway expansion in Austin will cost $4.9 billion, which was set aside by the state before the infrastructure bill was passed. It may not have altered the outcome in Austin, but placing conditions on federal infrastructure money could limit harmful projects of this type in the future. “Money for reconnecting communities sort of won’t be as effective if we’re also building a ton of new and expanded highway infrastructure,” says Addie Walker, who handles communications for Reconnect Austin.

A 1970 federal law, the Federal Environmental Policy Act, requires projects receiving federal funding to undergo environmental review by the Federal Highway Administration. But Texas is one of several states that signed an agreement with the federal government allowing it to administer its own review. “The way the process is designed, Texas DOT is required to collect community input, not listen to it,” Walker continued. The state will make a formal announcement in 2023 and begin building in 2025. Despite protest, it does not appear to be swayed to end the expansion. “There isn’t a way those properties can be saved,” Walker was told. “They said we’re moving forward.” 

Even successful plans to reconnect highways risk harmful outcomes if they don’t plan around the most vulnerable members of the community. Planners have a history of uncritically inviting higher property values and rarely planning for displacement that can arrive with it. Martín, of Brookings, says that public transit projects, including highway remediations, often have these unintended consequences. “You’re either still building into harm’s way by doing displacement, or you’re doing the type of transit that increases land values,” says Martín.

These fears, rooted in historical memory, are sometimes dismissed as irrational by planners. “That’s a real fear. Why? Because it’s happened before,” Ross says. It doesn’t mean parks, playgrounds, retail space, and public transit shouldn’t be introduced when residents want them. But when residents also ask for rent regulations and eviction protections, those requests should be honored equally.

To the Biden administration’s credit, Reconnecting Communities does come with anti-gentrification funds to mitigate the negative consequences of infrastructure, but it’s up to cities and states to implement it, and some jurisdictions have worse track records than others. In Dallas, for example, the Klyde Warren Deck Park was built in 2012 over the Woodall Rogers Freeway; its planning was funded by real estate agglomerations and oil magnates. The park is heavily-trafficked, but its presence drove up nearby rents by as much as 46 percent in the first three years after it was built. It inspired the construction of a similar deck park to connect the historic Oak Cliff neighborhood along the I-35E highway that neighbors fear could lead to more displacement. Yet another deck park may be built over the I-10 in El Paso, using federal infrastructure funds and also modeled after Klyde Warren Park. As in Austin, the TxDOT wants to widen the highway at the same time.

According to Ben Crowther, who works on highway reconnection policy at the Congress For a New Urbanism, city infrastructure projects often measure success as “increasing property values to support a city tax base” with inevitable results.

People, no matter how devalued their neighborhood, are engaged in their own creative place-making.

These types of projects also persist because planners and city leaders view community engagement as an afterthought—at best, a strategy to get buy-in for a predetermined outcome. Sometimes, gestures toward community feedback produce meager surface-level changes, but in low-income neighborhoods, rarely do big projects alter meaningfully in response to feedback. “As a field, what we call engagement is not actually engagement, it is often municipal government, whether it’s the planner, the mayor, the engineer, expressing their vision,” Ross says. She explains that this is typified by the power dynamic inherent in public hearings and town halls, which are often the only vectors of communication between residents and civic leaders. ​“You come to me on this day that I have appointed so I can tell you about the thing that’s going to happen to your community. That’s kind of ridiculous,” she says. “We need to think about, what are the opportunities to literally meet people where they are?”

“Moving the physical infrastructure, while important, that alone will not redress the harm. You need to hold space for healing in all of this,” Ross says, noting that many elders who lived through the highway construction still live in neighborhoods that were divided then.

“Maybe you didn’t instigate it but someone who sat in a seat like yours did,” Ross says of planners and city leaders. Carving space for reflection and restitution will look different in every city, “because what happened in every place looks different.”

The sins of city planning during Moses’s era and today rely on an asymmetry of power. People with less power are more likely to get unwanted infrastructure run through their neighborhoods because land is cheaper there. When they receive “good” infrastructure, it is usually approved without thoughtful consultation, and the project is hoisted up as an unequivocal benefit, justified by the same devaluation. Tilting this balance of power is the expertise of planners. “You can get away with a highway because you’re leveraging your expertise to say of all the ways to do this, it’s this way,” Ross says, “but we are but one form of expertise in a place.”

The pernicious idea, alive in the days of urban renewal and today, is that communities without visible amenities do not have value, that the lack of modern plazas fitting the mold envisioned by new urbanists marks a lack of cultural capital. “Every community, whatever condition it’s in, does in fact have assets—the people are assets, the culture is an asset, the history is an asset,” Ross says.

What Moses didn’t acknowledge, and what many planners today don’t acknowledge, is that people, no matter how devalued their neighborhood, are engaged in their own creative place-making. This is a type of planning that, according to poet Fred Moten, manifests as “a common experiment launched from any kitchen, any back porch, any basement, any hall, any park bench, any improvised party, any night.” Insofar as the state has a role, it’s to provide resources and to collaborate genuinely and with care when invited. Doing so requires us not to imagine Moses as a phantasm or a cautionary tale but to see that his views on neighborhoods without power are very much alive and well.