Aesthetics meet function: making roads safe and beautiful
Planners, engineers and landscape architects do not always speak the same language, although they must work together to design and build functional yet aesthetically pleasing highways across the country. The result of this miscommunication shows in poor design that hampers rather than facilitates everything from traffic flow to the surrounding ecological system. Not only are their own sensibilities at stake, but so is the landscape defining communities and countrysides, controlling how residents do business and determining how much highway maintenance will cost taxpayers in the future.
The controversy forms around a basic concept in the transportation design world — geometry, or the shape of the road. Designers and highway rule makers disagree on many aspects of highway design — whether the road should be straight or curved, and if curved, whether the bends should be spiral or radii; what the widths of medians, shoulders and roadsides and the longitudinal grades of the roadside should be; as well as the types of abutments, bridges and other structures.
The many arenas for contention in highway design have spilled over onto local community agendas, and now even citizens and interest groups are participating in the quibble. Although the debate tends to be more rhetorical in Washington, the decisive arguments more likely will take place in local hearings or meetings between state and local officials.
Dan Marriott, head of the national task force for historic roads project at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, decries much of what he sees in modern highway design. “Geometrics are absolutely destroying the places we live,” he says. “Looking at our roads purely as transportation denies other functions, [such as] gateways or showpieces [for cities]. The geometrics are so sanitized and uniform, we deny our uniqueness and sense of place.” Many designers feel the engineers who have primary responsibility for design do not offer enough opportunity for involvement to related professions such as landscaping and architecutre. “It is a civil engineer environment,” says David Fasser, landscape architecture director for New York’s Department of Transportation. The process, he says, works “by invitation, and we don’t always get invited.”
If landscape architects and engineers disagree often, civil engineer/landscape architect Robert Weygand, who is also lieutenant governor of Rhode Island, surely must understand both sides of the situation.
Weygand, however, seems to favor his landscaping half. Now in his second term in the state’s number two post, Weygand says, “To me, true design by a landscape architect must precede safety design. The roles must be reversed. If we designed for aesthetics and appearance first and then looked at safety, we could have collaboration that truly works.”
A LITTLE HISTORY
If landscape architects seem arrogant, they may have good reason, for much of the history of America’s road design stems directly from the profession. Soon after the advent of the automobile, landscape architects began creating the parkway, and recreational driving was off and running.
While early roads were not so much a function of design as a result of evolution from the pre-auto days, the new byways came complete with design concepts that included the use or creation of naturalistic settings even in urban areas, reliance on local materials such as stone and a sense of context that resulted in roads being sensitively laid out following the curvature of the land.
Even more to historical landscapers’ credit, the roads were often constructed on wasteland of some kind, using restoration techniques that could rival any modern sustainable project on record.
The parkways as a whole were a product of collaboration between landscape architects and engineers, while their aesthetics and location were the territory of landscape architects. The collaborative effort sought to simultaneously treat driver as both tourist and traffic.
In a 1963 training course for engineers in the Bureau of Public Roads, now the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), F.W. Cron, a regional design engineer, explained the peculiar talents of each profession:
“The scenic perception of the most beauty-minded engineer is severely limited. His preoccupation is with … benefits to traffic. The landscape architect views the highway as a part of the landscape … Working together in the initial stages of the location, the landscape architect and engineer can help each other … without sacrificing safety or economy.”
But then came the Interstate System. “The I-system was bare bones: steep slopes were promoted, and cut and fill slopes, all with little relationship to the land,” says Leroy Brady, of the Arizona Department of Transportation Roadside Development Office. “They thought a straight road was the best road. What you ended up with were unattractive, stark facilities.”
Brady, who also heads the Transportation Research Board committee on landscape and environmental design, says involvement of landscape architects has led to some helpful state design products.
“We see roads [here] where, as a result of landscape architects being part of a team, alternatives are selected that relate to the land better, take out fewer plants in the sonoran desert and have more use of native vegetation. Cuts are not as high, fills are not as high and yet design speed is maintained. These things have a tremendous impact on the visual quality that you’re going to end up with.”
Some of the emerging theories in environmental and design communities pin the blame for the imbalance between the two aspects of design and the poor product that sometimes results on the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO) codified design guidelines. The Green Book, as it is known, has design advice for almost any kind of project, but it has been criticized as encouraging overbuilding and de-emphasizing environmentally sensitive design. AASHTO officials, however, are quick to point out that the book is merely intended to offer guidance on everything from one-lane bridges to multi-lane superhighways.
State officials’ reliance on selective parts of the Green Book and their tendency to look to the biggest solution to a given problem rather than the most cost-effective and resident-friendly — often over the objections of local officials — is also a problem.
In fact, the Green Book does offer more flexibility than critics believe. “I think too often it is thought of as being rigid. If people would use it according to its intent and purpose as a guide, then, in fact, allowances are made,” Brady says.
To resolve these problems, the FHWA is working on a guide for aesthetics in design that state and local officials will be encouraged to apply in addition to the Green Book suggestions.
Frederick Skaer, FHWA environmental programs branch chief, says highway designers and landscapers need “something that lays out the possibilities, that expands the thinking in terms of the range of opportunities in problem solving.”
The Green Book also serves as a powerful tool for local government attorneys seeking liability protection. If their projects meet Green Book guidelines, local governments feel they may escape the many charges of negligence filed each year. In order to make sure local officials and their attorneys have better protection, Marriott is heading an historic roads project that will create a new set of parameters for historic road improvements focused on safety and liability.
WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD
Whether a road helps or hurts a community, simply moves traffic or becomes an amenity may depend more than anything else on the enlightenment of the client — the local government.
Weygand has seen wide variation in the projects eventually constructed or ‘improved’ in various New England towns. If there is “someone in the department extremely well versed in good quality highway design, you’ll see intersections enhanced,” he says. “Elsewhere, there’s sterile, hard pavement. At the local level it’s even more important to have people who know what good design really means.”
Brady gives the city of Tempe, Ariz., high marks for maintaining a staff that demands and recognizes good design. “When we’re dealing with the city of Tempe, the result is a higher level of design in relation to the city and its neighborhood, commercial and industrial areas,” he says.
“They have some landscape architects who understand what these things are going to look like and are sensitive to that appearance … What’s interesting is that Tempe has a really active design review board, and it’s really effective.” Many other cities, even ones with review boards, have not applied the concept of design review boards to public works.
“There’s a realization in Tempe that whatever you put on the ground is going to be there from now on,” he points out. “Most cities think, we’ll solve aesthetics later, and later never happens.”
Now bureaucracy has further complicated the process of highway design, according to Venker. Accepting that the freeways are here to stay, city officials decided to “talk about mitigation and location at the very beginning [of the process], and try to include as much citizen and staff input as early as possible.
Then there were ongoing discussions, meetings, questions and answers throughout the process.”
One example of this collaboration between highway design engineers, landscapers and public works officials is on Tempe’s new Rio Salado project, which will turn the Salt River into a lake via an innovative inflatable dam system. The project is coordinated with the state’s Red Mountain Freeway project to ensure cohesiveness.
Other cities also are working to combine the two aspects of highway design to benefit their residents and visitors. In Orange County, N.C., officials charged with road building are trying to avoid disturbing the land as well as preserve existing aesthetics.
While much of what the county government staff reviews is not thoroughfares, says Emily Cameron, planner and landscape architect for the county, there is much room for sensitive design.
To make sure they do it right, Cameron says local highway design experts are compiling a range of studies to guide land use and design, all of which will have an impact on their roadway design. They are studying rural character and archaeology, inventorying natural areas, mapping wildlife corridors and developing a rural design guidebook.
“We’re looking at things locally — private roads and standards, where you can allow gravel, where it doesn’t have to be cleared from edge to edge of the right-of-way, things appropriate for the types of development we’re having where we want to maintain the character that’s attracting people,” Cameron says. The county planning and inspections department has financed the studies and standards work through state grants and funds from local land trusts and other sources.
As with parkways, transportation resources have an opportunity to serve dual needs — traffic and the environment — and roadside geometrics are key in both. David Fasser says landscape architects play an important role in “satisfying environmental constraints. We play a strong role in addressing the visual aspects of highway design, stormwater runoff and erosion control issues and wetland impacts and replacements,” he says. Just as the Bronx River Parkway reclaimed river-edge lands in Westchester County, N.Y., so, too, can today’s road design address important environmental issues.
Designing roads and improvements that are self-maintained as much as possible is just as important as serving community sustainability. According to Brady, there is a “need to emphasize [self-maintenance] in these days of downsizing. It’s no good to design and construct a project if it cannot be maintained or naturalized with minimal maintenance.
“Almost everything is going to take some maintenance at some point, but using sustainable concepts is crucial.” City planners should be aware that state designs are, in many cases, passed on to the local governments to maintain and finance for the long term.