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Downtown need a makeover? More cities are razing urban highways

Removal of aging highways is a strategy some cities are using to try to boost their downtown districts.

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Construction equipment lines the old Interstate 195 in Providence, R.I. The city has closed this highway, which once ran through the downtown core.

Chuck Aube/RIDOT

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In New Haven, Conn., a mistake of the past – one that displaced hundreds, razed a neighborhood, and physically divided a city – is finally set to be rectified: A highway is going to be demolished.

Some people in New Haven have been waiting to see this for 40 years, ever since it became clear that a modern roadway slicing through the heart of downtown would not bring the hoped-for suburban shoppers and revitalization. That waiting list is long, it turns out, as cities across the United States look to erase some of the damage from urban highway construction of the 1950s and '60s – tearing up or replacing the roadways and attempting to restitch bulldozed neighborhoods.

"For people who live and work around [urban highways], they always had huge negative side effects: They broke up the urban fabric, were noisy, and divided cities," says Ted Shelton, a professor of architecture at the University of Tennessee who has studied urban highway removal. Removing roadways presents an opportunity for wiser, gentler redevelopment that can – if all goes well – add vibrancy and livability to areas around city centers.

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