In the eyes of Swedish architect and urban strategist Mans Tham, the stretch of I-10 known as the Santa Monica Freeway is an achievement to be celebrated, revered and covered in so many solar panels that it looks like a massive snake.
“The freeways themselves are majestic structures, their size is both inspiring and intimidating,” Tham said. We could barely hear him over the sound of Jane Jacobs spinning in her grave.
Instead of condemning a freeway’s effect on a city, Tham embraces new uses for rights-of-way. “I think it is very, very hard to make a 10-lane freeway aboveground disappear,” he said. “Better then to make it engaging and beautiful and to add new positive functions.”
Tham’s proposal, which he calls “Serpents in Paradise,” draws inspiration from both the Bible and the lyrics of Axl Rose.
In Tham’s world, one of Los Angeles’ famed highways can be turned into a monumental force of public good, but only if it’s covered in photovoltaic cells that power the very city the freeway bisects. The panels would shield cars from weather, and algae ponds along the roadside would act as a giant carbon sink.
The whole setup, in Tham’s words, could “bring green-tech jobs for farming, harvesting and processing to the very neighborhoods that today are the most disadvantaged by their proximity to the freeway.”
“I think [the] most amazing infrastructure of a city should be made worth celebrating,” Tham said. “My design does not shy away from the monumental impact these roads have and will have on the cityscape but instead add new functions and narratives that are coherent with today’s needs. By letting infrastructure be a visually powerful part of the city, inside and out, its citizens are allowed to understand and cherish the complexity of their daily urban life.”
Plus, Tham says it’s better to build solar arrays on top of a roadway than to ruin an existing desert. The entire paved surface of the Santa Monica Freeway between downtown L.A. and the coastline offers 10 million square feet of space for solar panels, which Tham estimates could provide 115 MW — enough to power the needs of a city like Venice, California.
“The possibility of producing energy within the city is much better than ruining a desert for a solar farm and then losing energy on expensive transmission lines,” he said.
As for implementation, Tham seems like he would be satisfied if a city used his design as a starting point to have a conversation about infrastructure and energy. “The land is there and I claim it is underused,” he said. “This is not the solution but one of many steps towards smarter cities.”