In the 1950s and 60s, Interstate 95 was constructed through Providence, displacing more than 2,000 residents throughout the state. In sheer numbers, this piece of infrastructure, running the length of Providence and cutting downtown in half, may be one of the most destructive in the city’s history. That said, the true scope of the urban devastation wrought by this highway cannot be measured in numbers alone — it divided the city’s neighborhoods, leaving disjointed communities. That is why I-95 must be covered up to restore the city to its pre-highway glory.
An unfortunate case study in the destruction brought by highways can be seen at Cathedral Square, a small neighborhood set around the Diocese of Providence on the west side of downtown. Once a vibrant center of Providence, this vibrant community began to suffer when Providence’s textile industry declined in the area and I-95 plowed through in the 1950s. For years, things looked bleak. But in the late 1960s, Providence took a remarkable step: Rather than accept that this corner of downtown was past its prime, the city brought in world-renowned architect I.M. Pei to design a new plaza in front of the church and reattract those who had fled for the suburbs. Of course, the community did not see the sort of urban resurgence that city leaders had hoped for. The Providence Preservation Society, which has called the site a “loser,” attributes this failure to the lack of activities to draw patrons. But the organization’s assessment leaves out one critical point: Even if there were great destinations set on the plaza, the whole area is cut off from half the city by the enormous eight-lane highway that bounds its west side. Here, I-95 serves effectively as a wall, making walking to the square from the residential neighborhoods to the west unpleasant and tedious, and leaving this once-promising pocket of downtown to rot.
And that same highway is likely choking other areas of downtown Providence, preventing them from becoming lively, walkable areas. Since the highway went up, the desirability of the area has irreparably gone down. The fabric of the community has been completely torn apart, leaving a great gash that no downtown improvement can heal.
At least, that no conventional improvement can heal. This seemingly incurable urban affliction brought about by highways has fomented an increased urgency within the federal government to restore our cities to their former glory. This has culminated in the Department of Transportation’s Reconnecting Communities grant program, an effort that will allocate $1 billion over five years for projects which either remove highways or ameliorate the damage they’ve done to communities. One type of project this grant program could support is “capping,” the process of building a deck over a preexisting highway and putting usable land on top of it, thereby reconnecting communities and restoring their former vibrancy.
Few cities are better suited to pursue this kind of project than Providence. The most destructive section of I-95, the stretch which crosses downtown from the Woonasquatucket to the Providence River, already runs largely in a trench below street level. Highways built in trenches can be easily capped at a lower cost than similar potential projects, which might require costly burials or removals of viaducts. It would still be expensive, but it would come with many benefits.
Highway capping is an effective tool for reconnecting communities torn apart by highways. It not only restores the walkability of the community, but it also restores the community itself by opening land for the housing and retail spaces that form the backbone of any urban neighborhood. This in turn provides great economic benefits for the city, making the land more valuable and bringing in more property taxes. Moreover, the new land does not have to be sold into private hands — these freeway decks can be turned into linear parks, providing additional green space and trails in areas which had previously been concrete jungles.
Perhaps the most famous example of such a highway cap is Freeway Park in Seattle. Far ahead of its time, construction on the cap connecting three neighborhoods was completed in 1976. It quickly became a treasured space in Seattle, constructed with a focus on pedestrian access to ensure it would be heavily used by residents. Today, nearly 50 years later, the benefits of the Freeway Park cap have been readily recognized. In fact, an advocacy group called Lid I-5 has formed with the express purpose of expanding the cap of Freeway Park another 17 acres, which could add 4,500 new homes and a new public park to the area.
Though the age of highway capping is still nascent in the United States, caps are already known to have profoundly positive impacts on surrounding communities. Conventional urban highways are known to raise local rates of asthma, heart disease and other health disorders. But caps on highways limit the exhaust escaping into surrounding neighborhoods and reduce noise pollution, which has been connected to cognitive impairment in children and negative impacts on heart health. Thus, highway caps can have positive effects beyond reconnecting neighborhoods and providing livable urban space.
Since the construction of I-95, Providence has been a city divided. This has done tremendous damage to the urban fabric of the city, leaving neighborhoods on both sides of the highway worse off than before. Fixing this damage requires enormous amounts of money, a challenging sum for Providence to meet, but it is well within the means of the federal government. And Providence must act soon, as the Reconnecting Communities program distributes limited amounts of money only until 2027. If Providence wishes to restore itself to its pre-highway glory, it must waste no time and cover the highway which has done so much harm.
Gabe Sender ’25 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.
Gabe Sender is a Staff Columnist at The Brown Daily Herald with a particular focus on campus issues and development challenges in Providence. He is currently pursuing an independent concentration in urban environmentality.