ST. LOUIS • John Norquist wants you to stop driving highways home. Better yet, he’d like some of them to just go away. Highways, he said, have ruined central cities.
Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and the current president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, will speak at Washington University on Thursday evening.
St. Louis, he said, used to move traffic not through major thoroughfares, but via a “complex fabric” of city streets.
Neighborhoods here had commercial centers and industrial jobs nearby. The city’s 900,000 residents used city streets to get to and from their jobs. When one road bottlenecked, drivers turned down another, and the situation naturally resolved itself.
Congestion, he said, is essentially good. “Any place where the economy is going really well, you're going to have congestion,” he said. “It's one of the symptoms of success.”
Then came World War II, urban sprawl, and the highway. The twin goals of clearing land and moving traffic quickly became dominant, he said.
St. Louis’s Mississippi waterfront was, at one time, similar to the French Quarter in New Orleans, but twice as big, Norquist said. Now, Interstate 70 divides downtown St. Louis from its riverfront. “In St. Louis, traffic specialists had their way,” he said.
Shopping centers, highway apartments and housing communities popped up. “It erased St Louis's identity,” Norquist said.
“But the good news is you can build it back,” he continued.
Norquist points to redeveloped districts like Portland’s Pearl – an urbanist favorite – and tech companies like Cisco Systems, Inc., in California, which has lined business park parking lots with condos, and put streets down the middle.
St. Louis, Norquist said, can start by looking at its streets as more than places to move vehicles, he said. Streets should incorporate parking spaces, walkability and natural speed barriers – narrower driving lanes, for instance.
Tear up the asphalt, he said, and restore the brick cobbles underneath. That alone would increase property values.
Better yet, consider removing downtown highways. Paris has. As has San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Seoul.
St. Louis, he said, was once a city of boulevards.
“A city grid can absorb a lot of traffic,” he said. “Think of Wrigley Field.”
There’s no freeway anywhere near Wrigley. And no traffic jam at the end of Cub's games.
Norquist speaks on St. Louis regional transportation projects at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Steinberg Hall Auditorium at Washington University.
Admission is free.