By Matthew Hollon, MD
You might ask why a physician would be proposing a big, bold transportation infrastructure idea for Spokane. As a primary care physician and public health expert, I think every day about how to help patients improve their health and well-being. And what I know is that the fundamental keys to health and well-being have a lot less to do with medications and treating disease and a lot more to do with the livability of our community.
Livability is the sum of factors that determine a community’s quality of life – including the built and natural environments, economic prosperity, social stability and equity, educational opportunity, and cultural, entertainment and recreation possibilities. Public health research clearly shows that the overall health of a city is decidedly influenced by its livability. Contemporary scientific evidence connects the quality of urban design with important health outcomes so urban planning and governance decisions can create or exacerbate health risks or they can foster healthier environments and support lifestyles that reduce the risk of disease.
The bottom line is that citizens benefit from urban investments in infrastructure. Cities that develop health-enabling environments can ensure that the public is not only healthier and happier, but also more economically productive. Urban policies that improve economic and employment opportunity, education status, access to green spaces, and environmental factors including air quality are, in fact, key public health interventions – and importantly, policies that promote health are almost always policies that enhance social cohesion in communities.
As someone who grew up in Spokane and returned in 2008 to raise children, I care deeply about the future of our city and, as a physician, I care deeply about the population’s health. The current antiquated, burdensome Interstate 90 viaduct that divides our city at its heart, creates significant barriers between residential areas and community civic institutions, employers, and educational facilities, and adversely impacts our city’s livability in significant and harmful ways. For these reasons, I suggest that the viaduct be replaced by a tunnel for the interstate entering the eastern slope of Latah Creek Valley on the western edge of the city and emerging before Fancher Road on the eastern edge.
On the surface, I propose the viaduct and interstate be replaced with up to 5 miles (running east to west) of green space with walking and biking trails. Economically, this green space, on its flanks, would accelerate robust, scenic, vital economic development throughout the downtown corridor with extensive opportunity at the interface for mixed commercial and residential initiatives at the city’s core. This plan would also provide an opportunity for developing and investing in affordable housing throughout the East Central neighborhood all the while restoring property values decimated by the unjust decision in the 1950s to run the interstate through this important working-class neighborhood.
Environmentally, the green space would integrate seamlessly at the western end with High Bridge Park, creating a fabulous gateway from the city to Latah Creek Valley and, downstream, to the Spokane River. In the middle it would be integrated with the historic Liberty Park, revitalizing equitable access to the natural environment while substantially expanding the park and its connections with the Ben Burr Trail. At the eastern end, the green space would connect with the Children of the Sun Trail and, in sum, along the length of the green space there would be incredible opportunity for furthering connectivity, quality, and usage of Spokane’s extensive trail system.
At this moment in time when our country is on the cusp of once-in-a-century investments in infrastructure that will bring jobs and prosperity to communities everywhere, the positive impacts of replacing the Interstate 90 viaduct with a tunnel hit on every single aspect of our city’s livability and, as such, will have massive community benefit for all. The transformative opportunities from this plan are endless. From economic prosperity, to reductions in air and noise pollution, to bolstering convenient access to extensive green space to enjoy nature, to enhancing infrastructure for being physically active, to restoring previously fragmented neighborhoods with adequate housing that creates robust sense of community, this plan would be a catalyst for revitalizing and reconnecting our city, spurring better health and economic outcomes for all.
Matthew Hollon, MD MPH FACP, clinical professor || University of Washington School of Medicine – Gonzaga University Regional Health Partnership || Primary Care Internal Medicine || Multicare Rockwood Clinic.
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