Interchanges as Civic Sculpture?

norabeck's picture

Did Phil Patton get off on the wrong ramp and miss the discussion over the past 20 or so years? Check out his article in the New York Times, "Graceful Interchanges, Now Doubling as Civic Sculpture", November 5, 2009.

He asserts that "Today’s highway intersections are not just landmarks but the modern equivalents of crossroads and town squares, meeting places that become geographical centers of reference." Meeting places? That would mean that people would actually meet there, right? I think that is called a traffic accident.

But Patton correctly observes that a lot of the stimulus funds are going to highway projects, many of which wouldn't have been funded otherwise. Hopefully the TIGER grants will select projects that add more to their communities. Trenton New Jersey applied to remove their limited-access highway, Route 29, from their waterfront and replace it with a surface boulevard. Hopefully we can find more examples like that among the mix.

As the demand for walkable neighborhoods grows, we have seen more and more examples of places investing in their local streets and transit. Just last week at the CNU Transportation Summit in Portland Oregon, we saw numerous examples of infrastructure investments -- whether in light rail and street cars, bike lanes and networks, or green streets -- where the money does actually create a meaningful place. We also discussed how the current transportation funding strategy continues to emphasize the very roads Patton highlights -- not because it is what we need but because of a historical bias. Read more about that discussion in Matthew Roth's piece for Streetsblog San Francisco, "At CNU, Former Rep of Texas Legislature says “No Road Pays for Itself”"

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Truly, an "AFLAC Duck meets Yogi Berra" moment

"Today's highway intersections are not just landmarks but the modern equivalents of crossroads and town squares, meeting places that become geographical centers of reference."

This is apparently what happens to a human mind exposed to too much exhaust fumes.

To be fair, highway interchanges are "geographical centers of reference." This is because they A) tower over everything nearby like Sauron's Dark Tower; and B) are cited in hourly traffic reports. Maybe we're not as avant garde in our regard for highway interchanges, but nobody here in Chicago treats them as town squares where one might, say, rendez-vous with a date. "Hey, let's meet at the Spaghetti Bowl (the Kennedy-Eisenhower-Dan Ryan interchange on the Loop's southwest edge) and take a nice traffic-tinged walk to dinner and a movie!" isn't a conversation you're going to have or overhear. You're much more likely to meet in actual public spaces like Millennium Park, or plazas in the Loop itself and enjoy an actual streetscape.

Even the so-called New Urbanism understands this. Why doesn't Mr. Patton?

X-way interchange as meeting place for human beings

"Modern equivalents of crossroads and town squares"? The only conversation I ever had on a freeway interchange was with a county sheriff about a speeding ticket. Maybe Patton meant the social activity that occurs under interchanges. Human activities that some have observed under the interchange include parking, drug dealing, gang fights and stolen vehicle disassembly.

Imagine the many cities that must suffer without "modern crossroads and town squares". Paris, Prague, Vancouver, B.C. and Oslo all lack such central interchanges. Stockholm is tearing down the Slussen interchange which blights the historic Gamle Stan district. The Slussen is one that Patton mentioned with admiration. Even ultra modernist groupie Nicoli Ouroussoff must have laughed at this ridiculous story.

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