The Perils Of Participation

tags: racism, Baltimore, urban history, urban renewal, highways


Amanda K. Phillips de Lucas is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. She received her PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Virginia Tech in 2018. She is interested in how social understandings of space shape the production of infrastructure systems. Her research interests include the history of technology, infrastructure studies, and urban environmental history.

US 40, a 1.32 mile, six-lane freeway, cleaves west Baltimore in two. The sunken cavern of cracking asphalt stands as a testament—a monument of sorts—to the awesome human destruction wrought by the interstate project. As the alternative name of the road suggests, the “highway to nowhere” is a highway in form only. Local roads bookend the sunken cavern, doubling the injustice of its construction. Black neighborhoods of decades past mattered little to the engineers and public works officials determined to segregate through freeway modernism. These same officials began construction on the US 40 segment before the approval of the whole route—ultimately resulting in a fragmented road network surrounding Baltimore’s core.  

The incomplete highway confirms what west Baltimore freeway activists from Relocation Action Movement (RAM) knew prior to the condemnations, to the displacement, and the wrecking ball: “We have been asked to make sacrifice after sacrifice in the name of progress, and when that progress has been achieved we find it marked ‘White Only.’”[1]

The steps leading to the “highway to nowhere” carry forward lessons on the promises and perils of community participation and engagement in road projects. In the contemporary moment, civic participation in the planning process is suggested to advance more equitable infrastructure projects.[2] But framing participation as a solution neglects the broader history of these practices.

In the late 1960s Baltimore was the home to an innovative partnership called the Urban Design Concept Team (UCDT). This team of designers, sociologists, architects, and planners worked with communities to provide a venue for citizen participation in highway planning. Yet, UCDT’s adoption and use of technical terminology ultimately alienated some residents. As west Baltimore activists experienced, participation often emerged as a way to silence viewpoints and devalue Black and poor neighborhoods. Given the growing support for removing racist highways, these early instances of participatory methods deserve a new eye as policymakers and planners consider best practices for restoring and repairing neighborhoods harmed by interstates.[3] 

Read entire article at The Metropole