“We are at the end of an era, a 60-year long nightmare in which we destroyed our cities. And highways played a large part in that process,” said Norman Garrick at a forum held at the Hartford Public Library Tuesday night to discuss the future of I-84 in Hartford.
Garrick is an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Connecticut and director of UCONN’s new Center for Smart Transportation. He is also a Board Member of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). He made his remarks in introducing John O. Norquist, President of CNU and a former mayor of Milwaukee. While Mayor, Norquist oversaw the removal of a one mile stretch of elevated freeway through the heart of Downtown Milwaukee.
The talk was organized by Hub of Hartford (HOH), which was created to examine ways in which I-84 can be modified for the good of Hartford. The State Department of Trans¬portation recently agreed to work with HOH on future plans for the highway, especially the “Aetna Viaduct,” the raised portion of the highway that runs through Hartford from Parkville to the Connecticut River.
Norquist began his talk by showing an image of Hartford’s old East Side neighborhood and then displaying an image of why it was demolished:Constitution Plaza. But this was the most Hartford-specific portion of his presentation. Norquist went on to present a brief outline of how urban design in the mid and late 20th century changed downtown areas in numerous cities across the country from livable, walkable spaces into sterile office parks dominated by highways and high rise office buildings. In addition to highways, he said separate-use zoning laws have helped to cut cities into little chunks whereas, previously, residential, commercial and industrial uses had all co-existed in close proximity.
Norquist then illustrated how his own city of Milwaukee and several other cities have been able to replace downtown highways with regular roads and the benefits this process produced.
Can it work in Hartford? Will it ever be given a chance? Norquist agreed that it will be an uphill struggle. HOH members have said they are looking at several alternatives, such as lowering the highway and building over it or diverting traffic around Hartford and turning I-84 into a boulevard-style thoroughfare.
In addition to the discussion about I-84, Norquist also spoke about the future of America’s cities in general. With concerns about greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution on the rise, he said bringing cities back to life is the “convenient solution to the inconvenient truth” about global warming. While cities are usually seen as sources of pollution, he said that actually, urban centers produce less pollution per capita than the suburbs do. It does stand to reason that the energy needs of 50 people living in one apartment building can be served more efficiently than the same number of people living in 25 separate houses in the suburbs. The concentrated nature of cities also makes them more suitable for mass transit systems.
Norquist said cities should go back to the way they were laid out in the late 19th and early 20th century with narrower streets and mixed-use zoning that would allow buildings with businesses on the ground floor and residences above.
As a successful example of this “new urbanism,” he cited the Wicker Park neighborhood in Chicago. Once “as tough a neighborhood as any in Hartford,” he said, Wicker Park is now thriving with a wide range of housing ranging from upscale to affordable. He pointed out that most of the neighborhood’s streets have only one lane of traffic in each direction and on-street parking is allowed even at rush hour. “Residents, shoppers and employees don’t have to clear the way for people rushing out of town,” he said.