Put a Lid on It!

Freeway Lids Can Right the Wrongs of Urban Renewal — If We Keep these Five Principles in Mind

June 16, 2016

Applied Analytics & Data Visualization Strategist, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the New Cities Foundation.

In nearly every major city in the United States, urban renewal-era planning connected downtowns to newly developing suburbs with multi-lane highways, in the process destroying acres of city fabric. In rare instances the highways tunneled under the city; more frequently, they were elevated or placed in depressed channels to segregate the fast-moving traffic from “impediments” (that is, people). As a result, urban neighborhoods were divided and separated from the city center, and large swaths of the city transformed into “no man’s land,” undesirable for pedestrian occupation, housing or commercial development.

Today, from Duluth to Dallas to Denver (and many places in between), channeled urban highways are being “lidded” where they cut through downtowns. A highway lid is just what it sounds like — a concrete shelf constructed over the road and capable of supporting parks, housing, office buildings, even local city streets. They have the potential to reconnect neighborhoods and to offer much-needed open space or development potential right in the heart of the city.

Recently we participated in a community-based design charrette to explore design ideas for lidding portions of I-5 through downtown Seattle. A number of recurring themes surfaced, including five essentials for designing a great highway lid:



Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, Texas, covers a three-block segment of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway. (NBBJ/Sean Airhart)

Bikes and pedestrians want the dedicated infrastructure that cars already have…

Direct, convenient routes designed primarily for cars are ubiquitous, but pedestrians and cyclists desire the same kind of paths designed specifically for them. Highway lids offer an opportunity within the city to provide greenways and viable off-street routes for non-motorized traffic. Like many cities, Seattle has public park gems, such as Volunteer Park and Discovery Park, but it lacks the comprehensive network of linear parks and greenways that are so desirable to cyclists and pedestrians for off-street circulation. A highway lid project such as the one proposed for I-5 could address the need for linear green space in the city.


…but the cars aren’t going away.

In typical urban renewal fashion, highways tend to cut through cities with disregard for neighborhood cohesiveness and local connectivity. Highway lids offer ample opportunity for new parks and pedestrian routes, but they also offer an opportunity to reconnect the street grid and right the wrongs of past planning practices. In the case of Seattle, currently I-5 causes frustrating traffic choke points along its entire length, which could be mediated with a few more cross-highway connections. Design proposals have to balance the needs of street network connectivity with the opportunity for pedestrian-focused circulation.


People want great public spaces with fun programming…

Current planning practices focus on programming for public spaces. Some of the most successful parks and plazas in the U.S. and abroad have non-profit organizations dedicated to managing public events and inventing fun programming for a wide variety of users. Examples include rotating public art installations, movie nights, food trucks and lawn seating, farmers markets and craft fairs, and active uses like tai chi and yoga. Large, uninterrupted areas of open space offer the most flexible environment for dynamic, engaging programming.


…but private development can provide dollars and amenities.

Verdant parks and sparkling fountains garner the most enthusiasm from the public, but dense private development makes those public spaces financially possible. Moreover, a good mix of office, housing and retail amenities will draw people to the site and ensure that public spaces will be vibrant with human activity. Good lid design needs to balance the need for large, flexible public spaces with development opportunities, and smart urban design guidelines should ensure new development is equitable and affordable.



Boston’s “Big Dig” buried part of Interstate 93 and replaced it with the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, shown here with an installation, “As If It Were Already Here,” by artist Janet Echelman. (NBBJ/Sean Airhart)

No more mono-functional planning.

Mono-functional planning — in this case, privileging the car by allowing a highway to cut through the city — was a mistake perpetuated by nearly every city in America. Even though a huge swath of green space in the city seems desirable, dedicating the entire lid as one large public open space is just another type of mono-functional planning that does little to physically reconnect neighborhoods. Conversely, dedicating the entire lid for private development misses the opportunity to design a city that caters to a plurality.

Highway lids offer an opportunity to correct the planning mistakes of the past while also increasing the vibrancy and livability of the city. A list of best practices for lid design has to be more thoughtful, intricate and community-focused than the planning practices that put the highway there in the first place.


Author’s Note: Thanks to Daren Crabill, Wyatt O’Day, Claire Showalter, April Soetarman, Amy Taylor and Keith Walzak for their input and participation in the I-5 charrette.

Banner image courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Follow nbbX