SF Map

The freeway has been defining American cities for many years now, carvings that have left little more than vast scares on a sensitive urban skin; that has constantly been dissected and stitched over the years. These large intrusive man made structures slice through various districts and create awkward disjunction and fragmentations of space within the city. Its construction destroys historic sites, displaces people from their homes and divides inner-city neighbourhoods, usually resulting in class division as a consequence. Their presence invites traffic to funnel into areas are that are meant to remain calm in an already polluted sector that occupies the city’s backyard. As Robinson suggests that ‘Buildings are made to fit man; freeways are made to fit vehicles many times the size of man’ this allows the urban freeway to dictate how a city is experienced and allows it to physically effect a city in an inherently large scale; becoming as important to defining and detailing a city as is a feature such as a railroad or a river.

In San Francisco (SF), the determination by the state that highways needed to connect not only north to south or east to west, but also a crisscross path of freeways, started to take the city by surprise with the nineteen forty-eight Comprehensive Trafficway Plan. However, what had started in low value industrial land of South of Market was now segregating tightly knit residential neighbourhoods slowly banning a wide right-of-way through houses along Division and Octavia. The late landscape architect, Lawerence Halprin, states in his book freeways that ‘freeways have done terrible things to cities in the past decade…irrevocably destroy[ing] large sections of the cities they were meant to serve.’ This is due to the fact that the only aspects and costs taken into consideration when the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) is planning freeways is usually that of only demolishing houses and pouring concrete. This motion container is created with one focal point in mind, utilitarianism, channelling Louis Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’ to the max; per contra it does not take into account the byproduct it generates, such as how the cluster of freeways forces the creation of the overpass, which houses many of the undesirable activities of the city. Halprin then moves on from the physical aspects of the freeway and realises that on a ‘social level they have often devastated more completely than any bombing, vast acreage of houses that provided low cost housing.’ Although in SF’s Market-Octavia area is expanding as a housing district, it continues to ignore the traces of where houses once were, refusing to exploit architecture’s dexterity to amalgamate the functional, the projective and the spiritual presence of the district’s past.

After the nineteen eighty-nine Loma Prieta earthquake, the northern portion of the central freeway was damaged so badly that studies showed it could not be rebuilt, the double-deck concrete structure that once was the controversial freeway was removed by Caltrans in nineteen ninety-two and has now been replaced with Octavia Boulevard, which was where the freeway once overshadowed and fenced-off Octavia Street beneath the overpass. The boulevard covers a mere four blocks that extends from Market to Fell Street, having replaced the freeway it still maintains links to major SF traffic arterials that the old elevated freeway used to connect to directly, meaning that the amount of traffic flowing in never decreased, creating a false utopian feel for pedestrians who have come to realize that Octavia has one of the highest risk of crossing, with the highest number of accidents involving pedestrians in SF. Proving that the physical overpass may have been removed without the essential problem being solved. History repeats itself with Octavia with the only method being used by the FHA is one of replacing what exists with an entirely new experimental phase, while SF continues the loop of experimentation other cities such as Seattle and Zilina have already started to evolve their elevated freeways, finding potential in the liminality that these freeways create. This starts to tackle the issue of illegal or undesirable utilization of dead spaces and starts to convert them as usable parts of the public realm; this also starts to blur any segregation they may have been created and allows neighborhoods to have an easier form of circulation in between them.

With the interstate system now complete, the era of fresh urban freeway planning has come to a halt. The thought of uprooting existing architecture for infrastructure has proven no longer politically tenable. With the freeway now becoming permanently meshed into American cities’ urban fabric, avoiding future disasters such as the Central Freeway has to become an essential concern for all those involved in future planning of any city. Halprins advice is inevitable; “freeways must be designed by people with sensitivity not only to
structure but also the environment; to the effect of freeways on the
form of the city; and to the choreography of motion.”