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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 69 · No. 2 > Curb Appeal|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-05-007
by James L. Sipes
Nevada is making aesthetics a central component of highway design.
The United States has become a society built around automobiles, and highways are the driving force shaping the landscape of many U.S. communities. The growth of the highway network definitely has had and will continue to have a visual impact on the environment.
Historically, many of the Nation's roads were designed using a utilitarian approach emphasizing safety and operations, interconnecting States, and accommodating growing traffic volumes. Aesthetic considerations often were limited to those directly related to a highway structure such as an overpass. Some of the results of this approach included freestanding walls that blocked views of surrounding mountains and bridges that lacked any visual appeal. Until recently, some States still followed that philosophy.
Nevada, the fastest growing State in the Nation according to the 2000 census, had traditionally followed the utilitarian philosophy. "In an effort to keep up with the changes, the philosophy of the Nevada Department of Transportation [NDOT] has been to build as much road as possible while doing it safely and cost effectively," says Ron Blakemore, supervising landscape architect with NDOT.
In recent years, NDOT has learned that aesthetic values are among the most important concerns to the communities with new highway projects. That is, to borrow a real estate term, the public wants highways and highway infrastructure to have "curb appeal," or exterior attractiveness, whether it means plantings, color treatments, facades, or other aesthetic elements.
A Master Plan
One NDOT project provided the impetus for Nevada to change its way of doing business. The Carson City Bypass was originally designed to follow a rather utilitarian approach, like other projects. According to Mark Hoversten, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), when the designs for the bypass were 60 percent complete, however, several organizations and citizens in Carson City banded together to oppose the project. Part of their concern was for improved landscaping, color schemes, and aesthetic treatments for the sound walls on the project. In addition, there were other community-related issues not directly related to aesthetics, such as inclusion of a bike path required in the transportation plan and traffic calming to alleviate impacts on local neighborhoods. Therefore, NDOT abandoned the original plans and went back to square one.
Nevada Governor Kenny C. Guinn directed NDOT to develop a strategy to help avoid similar problems in future transportation projects. NDOT conducted a study that helped with development of a final plan, Pattern and Palette of Place: A Landscape and Aesthetics Master Plan for the Nevada State Highway System. The master plan outlines a policy of integrating aesthetics into the design of all major highway projects in Nevada. NDOT adopted the master plan in 2002, and the State Transportation Board then adopted it as policy.
To help develop the master plan, former Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, at the time a member of the State Transportation Board, contacted the landscape architecture program at UNLV because of its experience working on community-oriented design activities and projects. The master plan is designed to guide decisions and policies that will affect the aesthetic quality of all Nevada highways by setting a new standard for all transportation projects within the State, and it establishes a vision, policies, procedures, and guidelines. This master plan also defines a planning process for future projects.
"We have an incredible opportunity in this State, and everything we are doing today will have an effect on how highways are developed for the next 50 years," says Blakemore. "This plan is enabling [Nevada] to develop better projects and highways that not only look good but are safer and have a better fit with the environment."
Once the State Transportation Board had adopted the master plan, NDOT brought in a team of landscape architects and engineers to implement the concepts in the plan. The master plan will be followed by three other phases: corridor planning; project design; and construction, operations, and maintenance.
The landscape and aesthetic corridor plans build on the master plan to provide design guidance and priorities for making day-to-day decisions on specific projects. Out of 11 corridors, NDOT designated three as high priority and is currently developing plans for them: the Interstate 15 corridor, Interstate 80 urban corridor, and Interstate 80 rural corridor.
Each corridor plan includes final recommendations and a detailed vision for the landscape and aesthetic features. The vision synthesizes historic, current, and future conditions into a comprehensive guide to improve the corridor's visual appearance and contextual fit with the landscape. The corridor plans also identify the major design themes and materials to be used in the landscape and aesthetic treatments for transportation projects.
The initial planning phase for each corridor plan focused on producing an inventory of existing data, including history, settlement patterns, anticipated urban changes, travel and tourism, natural resources, wildlife habitats, "viewsheds" and landscape character, and existing NDOT standards and practices. In addition to collecting this information, the design team realized that recommendations regarding landscape and aesthetics needed to be based on valid engineering practices.
"You can't change something without understanding it first, and you can't ignore 150 years of highway knowledge," says Richard Shaw, a principal with Design Workshop, Inc., one of the firms involved in the corridor planning.
The corridor plans define landscape types and a hierarchy of treatment levels that NDOT can apply to landscape segments with common characteristics. The treatments range from standard to landmark approaches for the most striking and memorable landscape segments. Each level consists of various combinations of treatments for "softscape" features, such as trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, and other ground treatments, and "hardscape" features, which include bridges, retaining walls, acoustic walls, pedestrian crossings, railings, barrier railings, lighting, and transportation art.
During the project design phase of the master plan, NDOT selects individual projects for site-specific planning. These projects will change the visual quality of neighborhoods and result in the addition of bicycle trails, parks, other green space, trees, public art, and enjoyable driving experiences. The projects also will help promote tourism by protecting natural resources and connecting visitors with local people, places, events, and stories associated with communities across the State.
The central Las Vegas "Spaghetti Bowl" interchange is one of the first site-specific aesthetics projects. NDOT completed the $92 million, 3-year reconstruction of the I-15, I-515, and U.S. 95 Spaghetti Bowl interchange 6 months ahead of schedule in 2000. The original construction did not include any aesthetics or landscape plantings, so the result was not visually appealing. The new aesthetic and landscape improvements at the Spaghetti Bowl were slated to be completed in August 2005.
Construction, Operations, And Maintenance
For their recommended projects to be successful, the members of the design team knew they would need to account for construction and maintenance concerns in the master plan. Project implementation involves understanding the life-cycle costs of each project. The team prepared detailed cost estimates for each combination of softscapes and hardscapes that would be used for prototype designs in each landscape segment. The team members developed the estimates using data collected by UNLV, NDOT, local engineering and landscape architecture firms, contractors, and product manufacturers. A separate report examines long-term maintenance costs, such as graffiti removal, pruning, and irrigation. The team also is developing a technical support document that analyzes the day-to-day program work needed to manage the project.
With the landscape and aesthetics master plan, Nevada made an unprecedented financial commitment. The plan requires that up to 3 percent of the State's entire construction budget for new projects and capacity improvement projects be used to implement landscape and aesthetic recommendations. Funding for the retrofit of landscape and aesthetic improvements to existing highways is based on matching funds contributed by local communities.
Public Involvement In Nevada
Implementation of Nevada's landscape and aesthetics master plan is still in its infancy, but the plan is expected to have a dramatic impact. During the corridor planning process, a public participation plan provided for outreach meetings, community workshops, newsletters, and establishment of a Web site. NDOT held the meetings to solicit information, local knowledge, and ideas from the public. Technical review committees consisting of key stakeholders and representatives of public agencies and organizations also conducted meetings on a regular basis. The committees served as a conduit for local communities to become involved with the planning process.
"We are getting endorsements from communities so that there are no surprises when we are ready to design," notes UNLV's Hoversten. "State and local tourism departments are excited about the potential for increasing tourism within the State, and local communities see an opportunity to expand their economic base."
One of the advantages of the program for tourists is that it enables them to learn more about Nevada. NDOT's Blakemore says, "We want visitors to realize this is not just a desert. It is a place where immigrants took a wagon train across a 40-mile [64-kilometer] desert; it is where Indians lived and where pioneers started mines and built farms."
Improving Project Development
Through the master plan, the State will have gained not only a new, comprehensive approach to highway design, but also a greater awareness and understanding of how highways should be designed. "Our expectation is that we will have a management tool that we can use to develop projects as they come along," says Jim Souba, chief of maintenance for NDOT. "We want to get ahead of the game and know where we are going and what it is going to cost short term and long term."
The master plan and corridor plans also will assist NDOT in meeting the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and 23 USC 109. The plans identify important visual resources, help minimize adverse impacts on those resources, and identify ways to enhance the visual quality of an area. As noted in the FHWA Guidance Material for Preparation of Visual Impact Assessments, enhancement of the visual quality of an area as a result of a project could contribute to the general acceptance of the project by the public. (See http://environment.fhwa.dot.gov/guidebook/vol2/doc1a.pdf for the full document.)
Embracing landscape planting and aesthetics is a complete change in NDOT's culture, and the evolutionary process is going to take some time. "NDOT staff members seem supportive of the project," says Shaw, "in part because the design team made a concentrated effort to obtain buy-in from all staff." This is important because the idea of addressing landscape and aesthetics in highway design is not new in Nevada. NDOT actually introduced an Aesthetics Manual in 1968, but "unfortunately it had little impact," says NDOT's Blakemore.
Nevada's Pattern and Palette of Place: A Landscape and Aesthetics Master Plan for the Nevada State Highway System has been successful to date because of a dynamic partnership between NDOT and other State agencies, UNLV, and policymakers who are committed to building improved highways. The master plan will be the primary management tool that guides funding allocations, aesthetic design, and incorporation of highway elements that uniquely express Nevada's landscape, communities, and cities.
The master plan and corridor plans are in place. Now it is just a matter of making the master plan a reality.
James L. Sipes is an award-winning landscape architect with more than 25 years of experience, encompassing a wide range of design, planning, research, and communication projects. His design philosophy follows the spirit of Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold, and his design solutions evolve out of an understanding of the processes that sustain life across temporal and spatial scales.
For more information about Nevada's Landscape and Aesthetics Master Plan, visit www.ndothighways.org/MasterPlan-July3.pdf, and for the corridor plans, visit www.ndothighways.org or contact James L. Sipes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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