Transportation & The Environment: Landscape Architecture and Outdoor Advertising

The value of landscape architecture isn’t always obvious, especially in a transportation engineering project. After all, barring a scenic byway here and there, what is there to see outside the window of our vehicles as we zip by at anywhere between 65 to 80 miles per hour on a stretch of roadway?

As a firm, we’re proponents of landscape architecture in everything we do. Not only does it add value; it’s a relevant component to the preservation of our environment. Sure, the association might not be the first thing you think of when you consider landscape architecture, but hear us out.

Avoiding Being Placeless & Faceless

Jonathan Perkins, Landscape Architect, has a term he likes to use to describe a project that serves only its practical needs, “placeless and faceless”. He goes on to explain why giving a project personality and acknowledging the ecosystem (and landscape) that surrounds it is important to any well-rounded engineering project, especially in the transportation sector.

“Oftentimes, landscape architecture is determined to be an unnecessary service that doesn’t aid in the development of roadway corridors. In transportation engineering, budgets are nearly always tight and transportation designers are restricted to the shortest, straightest, cheapest paths possible – a ‘shortest distance from point A to point B’ approach.

Sometimes, this approach is most appropriate but sometimes it is simply not adequate depending on user demand – is the road a rural stretch of scenic byway nestled in the mountains or is it a major urban arterial that is intended to take traffic around a city to reduce congestion?  How fast will traffic be allowed to travel and how much traffic must the roadway allow for? These are the kinds of questions that will inform how much landscape architecture comes into play on a project.

However, as a landscape architect, I see the value in having landscape architecture on the design team regardless of the restrictions we face. Even an eight-lane interstate should give the user some sense of place – and to a great extent a better quality of travel.  Users want to see more than concrete and light poles.

These are placeless, faceless things that serve a purpose but do not take into account the location they are found in.  Just because a road needs to cut through an urban center doesn’t mean that it can’t be contextually sensitive.  Urban and transportation designers are finding that strictly utilitarian designs of the past have in some cases cut off communities from each other and created eye-sores.

Good examples of urban projects that took the time to develop a unique solution to a relatively mundane problem are the “Big-Dig” in Boston, MA, and the “High Line” in New York.

A rural example in our own backyard is the award-winning “Paris Pike” Corridor outside of Lexington, KY.  All of these projects included strong collaboration between transportation engineers/designers and landscape architects.  These projects are no longer liabilities to their communities but great assets.”

We think Jonathan understands this concept better than anyone on our team. To put it simply, he’s a proponent of finding beauty everywhere. Yet, not just for the sake of it. Preserving or creating beautiful landscapes, no matter their location does much to bolster the communities they are found in.    

Landscape Architecture Protects Our Sensibilities & Our Environment

We’ve all been on a long, cross-country drive with nothing but our stereo system and a rotating selection of billboards to keep us company. However, while billboards have become inherent to the highways and interstate across the United States, they are closely regulated. Part of landscape design is understanding exactly where it is appropriate to advertise. Poorly planned outdoor advertising isn’t just obstructive to drivers, it’s a drain on the environment.

It’s easy to forget that, in our communities, we are part of the local ecosystem. Our first inclination is to remove ourselves from that system. With that said, it’s important to protect ourselves from the environmental side effects of intrusive advertising. Jonathan explains the rigors of this regulatory process and why it’s important.

“Outdoor advertising is overseen by many levels of state and, in some cases, local government.  Advertisers, ideally, determine where they would like to place their device(s) but it is up to the state or municipality to determine what they deem acceptable.  In Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Outdoor Advertising Control Program requires that all “outdoor advertising devices adjacent to the Interstate System, National Highway System, and Federal-aid Primary Highway System” be permitted by the State.  This permitting process includes location mapping, application, permitting fee before review, and/or approval of a sign.

In some communities, the local government may take extra steps to control what and where devices go as they often tend to be large, and in some people’s minds visually offensive.”

We are very interested in that last part. If we’re part of the local ecosystem, then why shouldn’t we work to preserve the natural system we take for granted. For instance, if a billboard obstructs the view of a local community, then it would be just as harmful as if it threatened the habitat of an endangered animal.

Part of landscape architecture and design is advocating to not lose sight of the basic rights of the residents that these projects affect. If a Biologist has their eye on the local flora and fauna of a project site, then the landscape architect has their eye on the people that project serves.

Using Technology to Protect Our Point of View

Jonathan is eager to explain how we make the determinations we make when deciding where to erect a billboard or any other structure that has the potential to negatively impact the landscape.

“At present at BFW we are using GPS and GIS technology to map locations of outdoor advertising devices and obstructions of those devices – a.k.a. trees blocking billboards or site lines into roadway-adjacent properties.

However, these very same technologies can allow designers to determine “viewsheds”, which is a term that describes what a person can see from a specific location. It is possible to use this technology to study and analyze what the users should be able to see and what they may not be able to see.

This process is called “viewshed analysis”.  For example, if there is a very interesting landmark on the horizon the designer may want to provide an unobstructed, and possibly, framed view of this landmark.  This can help the design create some visual interest for users while trying to counter the monotony of a long road trip.

How often have you driven down the road and remembered seeing a mountain on the horizon or a grouping of interesting trees or in some cases a set of interesting or catchy roadside signs?  You tend to remember these things and arguably, they keep you interested and alert more-so than without.”

Preserve, Respect, & Enhance: The Goal of Landscape Architecture

Landscape architecture is a way of preserving, respecting, and enhancing the land we use. As Jonathan explained, it’s an important component to the continued growth of our communities, the preservation and presentation of our environment, and even the safety of our transportation infrastructure. To put it another way, landscape design has a multitude of unexpected benefits. It’s perhaps not what you think it is. That’s what we love about it.