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How to remove a freeway in your city.

Getting started and what to expect.

Jordan van der Hagen  • May 27th, 2021

Today marks one year since the Duluth Waterfront Collective officially launched its campaign to remove I-35 in downtown Duluth. While our project, Highway 61 Revisited, was stirring beneath the surface for some time before that, it was hard to know what would happen when we decided to broadcast our ideas to the world. We were just hoping to start a conversation in our community, something which has been largely successful.

Full disclosure - we haven't removed any freeways at this point, but we know there are others around the country who might be thinking about trying to start a freeway removal campaign in their city. The process for getting a freeway removed isn't obvious and isn't easy. We're not going to dive into why you should do it, as there's plenty of information out there already (see the Congress for The New Urbanism's Highways to Boulevards program). Instead, now that we've been out here "winging it" for a year, we're taking a look at where we've found success in the hopes that anyone else looking to engage in similar work can better prepare themselves for the wild ride that will follow.

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Understand the road.

Before you can remove a freeway, you need to understand why it's there in the first place. Freeway building projects were often massive undertakings, and their creation generated large amounts of literature in the form of official documents, news releases, and public opinion pieces and letters. This process can begin with a cursory Google search, but once you've exhausted online resources, hit the library. In Duluth, our city library was able to provide a cart full of newspaper clippings, planning documents, studies, and illustrations. Look to local online history groups, and reach out to any preservation organizations in your city (they were likely some of the first freeway fighters in your community).

One of the most helpful documents will be the project's environmental impact statement. While this wasn't required for pre-Environmental Protection Act projects (anything before 1969), the document should contain different routes that were being considered, a wealth of information on the surrounding area as it existed before the freeway, and an idea of what your state's DOT expected in terms of outcomes. Compare those expectations to what actually happened in your city, and you'll likely notice some discrepancies that are worth sharing.

If the freeway was constructed more recently, as is the case in Duluth, there may still be people around who were involved in the project. Talk to them. Talk to your city's planning department and see if they feel the same. Figure out who your Metropolitan Planning Organization is, talk to them. Talk to your state's DOT. Ask questions - don't expect any of them to be enthusiastic about your idea - if they are, that's a bonus.

Understanding the backstory and knowing the key players is crucial. Highlight what the neighborhood lost, who was harmed, and how the freeway changed your city. Check out this page to get an idea of how to do that.

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Show people an alternative vision.

The number one tool freeway fighters should learn is Photoshop (or one of its free alternatives). It's one thing to say "let's remove a freeway," but where we've seen success is in our ability to show people what the alternatives could look like. Learn how to use Google Earth (also free), grab a scene of your freeway, find an example of a streetscape you want to replicate, and use a little photoshop magic to stitch together an easy alternative you can point to when people ask "What are our options?" If you have access to rendering programs, 3D modeling tools, and other visualization software, use those to get more site-specific, but at the minimum, a crude photoshop rendering will be enough to shock people out of accepting the status quo and get them intrigued by what's possible.

It's also helpful to brush up on your graphic design skills. Freeway removal is a complicated issue that intersects with many others. Learn how to visually show demographics, statistics, and other geospatial data in as digestible of a manner as you can. While some of your most vocal supporters will likely come from the planning/design world, most people don't communicate in planner-speak, so try to cut back on the jargon. Do as much of your talking graphically as possible.

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Establish an online presence.

When we were planning our campaign launch, we initially wanted to anonymously put up a bunch of posters around the freeway corridor with provocative language overlaid on the renderings we created. The pandemic threw a wrench in those plans, so we opted to build a website instead. There are a number of easy-to-learn options available at varying price points. Our website is one of our only expenses, but it's an absolutely necessary investment. Creating a website that displays your concept is a great way to reach a lot of people, especially if they can reach out through a contact form. The majority of the members in our group joined through this portal, so it's definitely a must. 

On top of setting up a website, get on social media. We currently exist on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, with each bringing a slightly different audience into play. If you gain enough notoriety, people will start telling you what they think. Make sure your work those comments into your campaign to reflect the desires of your community as much as you can.

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Ask others to help get the word out.

Once we had a website put together, we coordinated with a well-visited local blog to promote our concept the day it went live. They allowed us to remain anonymous as a group, but our anonymity was blown as soon as we received calls from the Star Tribune and Duluth News Tribune shortly after the blog post was published, both requiring named sources (another note - designate a spokesperson). This media recognition immediately created a large group of people who, as it turns out, felt the same way about the freeway.

Find places online where locals congregate and share your message there. You'll find a lot of new supporters here, but also plenty of critics. Be prepared for that, which leads to the next tip.

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Take care of yourself.

This is not easy work to begin with, but as with any campaign taking place in the public domain, it will be open to public comment. In the time since launching this concept, I've been accused of wanting to kill people, compared to a Nazi architect, and told to leave town. The criticism won't only come at your concept (which I always welcome), but it will also come at you personally. Chances are if you're crazy enough to try removing a freeway, you've got thick enough skin to handle the insults, but it will get to you, so make sure you have a plan for taking care of yourself.

The fortunate thing is that, while trying to remove a freeway will draw in a fair amount of detractors, it will also introduce you to many like-minded people who will support you and your work. You'll meet many incredible people in your community, and doors will open that you never could have opened otherwise. People are sick of the status-quo and are ready for a new vision, provide it for them.

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Build a movement.

You won't be able to do this alone - that's for certain. Put together a group of people before you start your campaign who are equally committed to removing the freeway. In our time as an organization (and we use that term loosely), our group has grown from a small crowd of local design professionals into an alliance of individuals whose members come from across partisan lines, neighborhoods, and age groups.

People will reach out to you asking "How can I help?" Answering this question is one of the hardest things you will do in the beginning. Even asking them to do simple things like sharing your website will make a difference when you're trying to get your ideas out. Some people might be willing to go further than that, but in our experience it has been rare. Find the easiest ways possible to get people involved at first, then ask for more later.

Talk to everyone about your efforts. Make time to meet with anyone who reaches out, whether in support or in opposition. Often times when I offer to speak with somebody disgruntled by our efforts, we tend to find more about our city that we see eye-to-eye on than not. Some of these people have even become members of our group. You never know when you'll find your next ally, and every person opens up a new set of doors.

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Celebrate the smaller wins.

When your ultimate goal is to get rid of a freeway, it can seem like the only win is when you get a demolition crew out there to tear it up, but that's not true. There are small wins throughout the process, whether its a supportive opinion piece written by your local paper, getting a shoutout from your mayor, or accomplishing milestones that you set yourself. This is a process which takes time, energy, and effort. Going back to the point about taking care of yourself, you absolutely need to celebrate the good things that will happen as a result of the work you are doing.

It's an exciting time to be a freeway fighter. It truly appears we are in the midst of the second wave of freeway revolts, and there's a network of incredibly dedicated people who are working in parallel to you who can offer advice and help you along the way (us included, reach out if interested!). Creating a coalition of people who want to come together to reimagine a better future for your city is a win unto itself, so don't forget to celebrate.