North American Cities: Our Racialized, Polluting, and Very Useful Roads

By: Sam Watt

Edited by: Yang Ran Cheng

Roads. We all love ‘em. They take us to, from, and through the places we want and need to travel. Something they also do though: create austere racial lines through cities that mid-century planners used to increase segregation and class divides throughout urban centres in North America.

If you live in an urban North American area, you are familiar with the makeup of our cities. Often, when heading towards a city, you drive on a highway through a suburban area with trimmed hedges, manicured lawns, and single-family homes before you enter city limits. As you do so, the residential areas become denser, noise pollution and air quality worsen, and community spaces become increasingly limited. This is largely the product of 80-year-old urban planning, which has had significant and widespread impacts on minority communities. This phenomenon was critically termed “white roads through black bedrooms”, and saw many discriminatory officials trying to formalize Jim Crow-era segregation under the guise of ‘economic and transportation development.’ The construction of the Interstate Highway system took a particularly cruel toll on minority communities. In Miami, highway construction razed 40 square blocks of city space, demolishing 10,000 homes and a prominently black business community, and in West Oakland–an area long characterized by pollution and crime–a ring of concrete was poured around the neighbourhood’s perimeter to lay the foundation for what is now known as the I-580, I-880, and I-980

In addition to the physical partition of land, the costs and benefits of these roads became gravely uneven. The list of costs borne by communities that highways were built through is long, including but not limited to: neighborhood segregation; increased air and noise pollution; property devaluation; and car dependency thrust upon those who are unable to afford cars. Meanwhile, suburban areas saw economic benefits and increased bilateral access to city centres. The result of this inequitable relationship is one where families unable to afford a car are statistically more likely to live near large roadways, without ever benefitting from them.

One negative impact that has recently been subject to particular scrutiny is the lasting health effects of living near a highway. Despite the proven positive association between residential proximity to highways and chronic disease risk (diseases which notably impact early childhood development, a clinical indicator for health outcomes later in life) nearly one-third of all elementary and pre-kindergarten students attend schools within 150 meters of major motorways. In the United States, this risk is compounded by the lack of a universal healthcare system. Indeed, geographical location here becomes a social determinant of health such that individuals most likely to encounter health issues due to air pollution are also the individuals most likely to be unable to afford care.

Next month, this series will look at the positive changes coming to our cities. Humanitarian and environmental efforts being made to improve living standards in cities are significant, and with populist sentiment shifting in the direction of sustainable ideologies, we can expect to see change soon. For now, though, it is important to recognize the limitations of the system within which we currently operate. Those displaced by road construction have a difficult time finding safe and sanitary housing, 42% of sidewalks do not meet accessibility requirements, and in nearly every city, if you see a major highway you do not have to look far to find a bisected, polluted community of colour.

It is crucial to recognize that while many discriminatory individuals made this happen, these negative impacts are as much a result of negligence as they are bigotry. Racial lines, lack of support, and lack of care have segregationist bases, but the negative impacts endured by communities near highways are sometimes just chance; chance and governmental failings.


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