Un-Pave Paradise and Put Up a Lot of Parks

Freeway capping could solve a bunch of problems for Los Angeles.
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Freeway capping could solve a bunch of problems for Los Angeles.
Los Angeles traffic. (PHOTO: RESPRES/FLICKR)

Los Angeles traffic. (PHOTO: RESPRES/FLICKR)

In the heat of five o’clock traffic, most of us hate freeways, those angry, crowded entities that were designed in the vain hope we would never feel angry or crowded. However, a growing trend in urban design may change that. It’s called freeway capping: the practice of transforming the vacant airspace over sunken freeways into new municipal space, making way for community investments like parks.

As of 2007, at least 20 highway parks in the country existed and dozens more are now in the works. Averaging nine acres and covering 1,620 linear feet of highway, freeway caps offer more than an opportunity for a unique public sphere—they can “reconnect neighborhoods that were torn apart by the national highway building binge of the 1950s and 1960s,” as stated by the Chicago Tribune. They also have the potential to generate jobs, attract businesses and investors, and enhance the value of nearby properties. As freeways generally aren’t located near park space, freeway caps also offer the possibility of increasing the value of neighboring homes. According to the University of Nebraska: “Washington, D.C. receives almost $7 million in additional property tax revenue simply because some properties are 5% more valuable because of proximity to a park.”

Only one-third of all children in L.A. live within walking distance of a park, while 91 percent of New York City children do.

Freeway capping is not a new idea. Carl Shurz Park, which tops the FDR Expressway and was built in 1939, is often credited as the first deck, but Los Angeles County, in recent years, has caught the bug, with proposed plans for freeway cap parks in Downtown, Hollywood, Glendale, and two sites in Santa Monica. The trend is also moving up the 101, with Ventura planning their own freeway cap that would create a pedestrian crossing from the city to the beach, an estimated $400 million project that would involve a new transit center.

A COUNTY BOTH INFAMOUS and parodied for its fixed relationship with freeways, Los Angeles is a prime place for freeway caps to take root primarily because of its poor relationship with parks.

According to the Trust for Public Land, only one-third of all children in L.A. live within walking distance of a park, while 91 percent of New York City children do. In California, it’s one of the communities with the least park space per resident, and when compared to Boston, Dallas, San Diego, and Seattle for park availability, L.A. ranked last.

Lack of parks quickly becomes a health issue. According to the County of Los Angeles Public Health, more than one in five L.A. students in the 5th, 7th, and 9th grades are now obese and these “rates of obesity are related to social and economic conditions within communities as well as the availability of neighborhood parks.” The report argues that parks provide health benefits by improving water quality, reducing runoff, lowering air temperatures, and improving air quality through removal of pollutants. Another note: L.A. parents in lower-income households are less likely to report their children having a safe place to play, such as a park or playground.

The L.A. 50 Parks Initiative begins to address this issue, but projects like the Hollywood Central Park would actually change things. Forty-four acres between Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevard, the proposed park (visualized here in a techno-inspired flyby) would add needed greenery to one of the most park-poor neighborhoods in L.A. And non-profit Friends of the Hollywood Central Park says that it will create more than 40,000 direct and indirect jobs over 10 years.

Freeway cap projects are certainly expensive—it's estimated that the Hollywood Central Park will cost between $949 million and $1.15 billion—as well as extravagant and slow moving. But as proposal designer Melanie Smith told the Glendale News Press about the proposed Glendale project, “What do they say about eating an elephant? You do it in many small parts.”