We Are Building What Others Are Tearing Down

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Before & after the Embarcadero Freeway, San Francisco. Courtesy of Max Chanowitz

Our friends over at This Big City brought to our attention a fascinating Quora discussion regarding elevated freeway/highway construction. Nairobi is currently undergoing the process of implementing this very same type of construction which one of our chief editors Eric Kigada discussed in an open letter to the Government of Kenya. In the letter, Kigada expressed his disapproval for this highway project (NUTRIP) and elaborates more on his reasons and possible solutions in this article.

This post will focus on two cases delineating the costly dangers of snaking elevated highways through the middle of an urban setting and in this case, cutting off sight lines to Nairobi’s Uhuru Park.


California State Route 480 (Embarcadero Freeway)

Embarcadero (Spanish for ‘wharf’) Freeway was built in 1958 as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s plan to modernize automobile transportation and create an interstate highway system. Eisenhower believed that such corridors — high-speed, unobstructed and well-connected— were essential to national defense during an emergency.

The Embarcadero Freeway was gloomy and separated the city from its own waterfront which is similar to what the new elevated Uhuru highway would do to the views of Uhuru Park. The battle to demolish the Embarcadero had been struggling until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. After the earthquake damaged it beyond repair, the city experienced initial traffic congestion but it did not lead to permanent traffic disruptions. Evolving cost projections, which climbed from $15 million for strengthening to $69.5 million for freeway reconstruction, changed the debate in favor of a boulevard–with a final cost of less than $50 million.


Embarcadero Freeway and Ferry Building, circa 1960. Source: Telstar Logisitics.


The Embarcadero from street level, circa 1980. Source: Telstar Logistics.

Designed by ROMA Design Group as a dynamic multi-use boulevard, it contains two banks of traffic, 3 lanes going in each direction and a streetcar line running down the center. This allows for the accommodation of significant traffic, but also gives residents options other than private vehicles. More than 100 acres of land along the waterfront that had once been dominated by the elevated freeway gave way to a new public plaza and waterfront promenade.


After the 1989 San Francisco earthquake felled the Embarcadero Freeway, the area was made into a vibrant public space. A busy road still runs through it, but a tree-lined plaza and park have helped to entice people back. photo credit – Boris Dramov

Building a major freeway through a dense urban area often destroys the character of the neighborhood it cuts through. It has been shown time and time again that it is a sure route to land use failure because it reduces usable building lots, reduces land values, and generally makes neighbourhoods less livable and enjoyable. See the image below posted by architect Max Chanowitz which compares (to scale) land use practices in Venice, Italy and Atlanta, Georgia.

Left_renaissance-era Florence, Italy. Right_a single freeway interchange in Atlanta, GA. Same scale.

Left: renaissance-era Florence, Italy. Right: a single freeway interchange in Atlanta, GA. They are both the same scale. via Quora




Minhocão, known as the Big Worm, is an elevated highway in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Photo credit: Daniel Mitsuo/Flickr


The developed world is demolishing structures like this. We have to follow their lead. – Pedro Taddei Neto, an architect and urban planning expert from the University of São Paulo.

In a race to modernise the city fast, São Paulo paved over parks and built highways now considered poorly conceived. São Paulo’s population is the largest of any city in Brazil. There are more people living in São Paulo than in New York City, Mexico City, or Lagos.

Officially called Via Elevada Presidente Artur da Costa E Silva, after Artur da Costa e Silva, Brazil’s second president, the Minhocão or “Big Worm,” (in Portugese) – after a giant mythical creature that was said to inhabit the jungle and swallow up whatever it came across – has been part of São Paulo in Brazil for over 40 years. It was built in 1971 under Paulo Salim Maluf‘s tenure as Mayor of São Paulo, as a solution to São Paulo’s growth which caused the population of about two million in 1950, to swell to over eleven million today.

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Sao Paulo’s iconic Minhocão or Elevado – photo courtesy of Milton Jung/Flickr

The 2.2 mile expressway snakes alongside office and bedroom windows as it makes its way through the heart of the city. With 80,000 cars passing through daily, the noise and pollution of Minhocão are often cited as the reason real estate values in surrounding neighborhoods have plummeted. São Paulo experienced rapid growth without a comprehensive urban plan. The result is a sprawling, incoherent maze of transportation infrastructure that is now seen as an roadblock to the metropolis’s bright future.

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The Worm, closed to traffic on a Sunday. Many of those who live nearby are struggling pensioners. At night, prostitutes, crack dealers and the homeless gather under it.
Juan Forero / The Washington Post

Urban planners now want to raze the Worm as part of a revamp of the city’s outdated infrastructure. Urban planners say that the 40-year-old concrete monster has no place in Brazil’s economic heart São Paulo, and that flattening it should be on the city’s to-do list if this sprawling metropolis is to modernize. Planners would like to bury the expressway in a tunnel underground and turn it  into a place similar to what existed previously.

The idea of turning the Worm into a tunnel seems similar to Boston’s “Big Dig” a project now famous for its high cost and delay. However, the Big Dig converted an area of Boston that was once only accessible for cars into a place for people. Other cities, such as Paris and San Francisco, have also converted expressways into places again. Sustainable Cities Collective posit,

What did the expressways (raised or otherwise) within cities in the United States do for people anyhow? They got drivers downtown quickly, but also cut cities up and destroyed neighborhoods. They made sprawl cheap and allowed classism (and racism) space to grow.

Since 1976, the Minhocão has been closed to traffic on Sundays and holidays, when pedestrians rule the street. It is a relaxed two-hour stroll from the city center to the end of the elevated highway. In the film, called “Elevado 3.5,” a reference to the expressway’s length in kilometers, the filmmakers use vintage footage to show what had once been a vibrant residential neighborhood. Those clips are juxtaposed with today’s reality, a gritty stretch of secondhand shops and dingy diners.

In a report by NPR, Anne Marie Sumner, an architect and urban planner who has proposed ambitious projects to São Paulo officials, said elevated expressways are a thing of the past. “You can’t face-lift the Worm. There are certain things there is no face-lifting to it,” Sumner said. “You have to pull it down.” However, many of the Worm’s neighbors have mixed feelings about the omnipresent expressway.

To learn more about Minhocão and other urban highways, see CNU’s Highways to Boulevards Intitiative here.

Full story: São Paulo’s ‘Big Worm,’ an Elevated Highway, Must Go, Urban Planners Say

Published on October 14, 2011 by Juan Forero