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Public Roads - September/October 2005

September/October 2005
Issue No:
Vol. 69 No. 2
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Curb Appeal

by James L. Sipes

Nevada is making aesthetics a central component of highway design.

(Above) The new Landscape and Aesthetics Master Plan for the Nevada State Highway System will guide NDOT in designing roadways that do justice to the scenery along roads such as S.R. 159, seen here entering Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Photo: UNLV.

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.

The Nevada master plan encourages the use of native plant species, such as those shown here, as the revegetative palette, but also adds regionally adapted trees, shrubs, and other materials for diversity.

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."

Corridor Plans

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.

To analyze the environmental features of the I-15 corridor, the design team gathered and analyzed data from a variety of sources. This map summarizes environmental features such as unique plant communities, scenic geological features, lakes, wetlands, riparian ecosystems, playas, elk habitat, bighorn sheep habitat, and national conservation areas.

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.

Nevada's Corridor Plan Inclusions

According to Nevada's "Landscape and Aesthetic Corridor Plans" Web site, the intent of the corridor plans is the following:

"Landscape and highway aesthetics" is the collective visual impression of a highway as interpreted by both motorists and citizens within communities along the State's highways. The individual plans will contain recommendations that include the following:

1. Guidelines for the design of highway facilities, including themes, levels of treatment, cost goals, and priorities for further development, design, and construction
2. Right-of-way design and planning guidelines
3. Recommendations for cooperative planning in association with local governments along each corridor
4. Recommendations for continuing community involvement
5. Recommendations for long-range cost-effective solutions to solve operation and maintenance issues

The Web site also indicates that Nevada's corridor planning process follows a sequence that includes the following milestones:

1. Organize the plan development effort
2. Collect and inventory relevant data
3. Analyze data and draw conclusions about the land and people within the corridors
4. Describe the opportunities and constraints presented within the corridors
5. Describe options that might be considered
6. Summarize ideas and recommendations with illustrations of proposed design themes
7. Document the corridor plans to guide decisionmaking in the long term
8. Include an evaluation of the corridor planning process to assist future planning efforts

For more information about Nevada's corridor plans, visit

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.

Project Design

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.

This matrix illustrates possible combinations of four landscape types and five treatments discussed in Nevada's master plan. Separately or in combination, these treatment levels will be used to establish a "design character" within each corridor.


This illustration of the sequence of travel over approximately 305 meters (1,000 feet) illustrates a possible sound wall design for a Nevada highway corridor. Characteristics include staggered wall planes, landscape planting in front of the wall face, and patterning on the wall face.


In the master plan, NDOT developed typical designs such as this one for hardscape treatments for prototypical interchanges, with overall cost estimates for each level of treatment.
The master plan's design guidelines for bridge structures require that landscape and aesthetics be integrated at the onset of project planning. The top illustration shows a typical bridge structure, and the bottom sketch indicates possibilities for aesthetic improvements.

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.

As this illustration of an aesthetic treatment shows, bridge abutments and barrier rails can be designed so they visually "fit" with other parts of the bridge. The result is a more aesthetically pleasing design.

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.

Aesthetic Highways in Other States

Nevada is certainly not the only State creating highways that are more community friendly. The promotion of context sensitive design and context sensitive solutions by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has raised awareness of designing safe transportation solutions that are in harmony with communities. States such as Arizona, California, Maryland, and New York all integrate aesthetics into their transportation projects and involve landscape architects in designing and planning projects.

As part of the Nevada project, UNLV analyzed 32 State programs, including those in Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and the neighboring States of Arizona and California, and found a wide variety of approaches. Some States take an extremely broad-brush approach, some are developing detailed design standards, and others focus on design solutions at a local level. Examples of the broad-brush approach include the following:

The Florida Legislature directed the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to include aesthetics in the development of all highway projects and suggested that local governments and municipalities require aesthetics in their comprehensive plans. FDOT's mission statement clearly states that it is the agency's intent to incorporate aesthetic design, art, and architecture in roadway and bridge design.

The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) developed a design standards and guidelines policy to integrate aesthetics into major transportation projects. Through this program, ODOT incorporates patterns, colors, texture, and landscape planting to make highways, noise barriers, and bridges more visually pleasing to both motorists and residents. The agency estimates that the cost for improved aesthetics amounts to less than 1 percent of a project's total cost. ODOT's Gateway Landscaping Program was developed to help towns and cities improve the landscape along highways leading into their communities. The $500,000 set aside for the program is supported by Federal Transportation Enhancement Funds.

In Maryland, the State Highway Administration's Office of Environmental Design focuses on incorporating environmental design as part of highway planning. The Maryland approach addresses wetland mitigation, stream restoration, sound barriers, streetscapes, highway landscape planting, rest areas and welcome centers, greenways, scenic byways, trees and forest conservation, and highway aesthetics. The Office of Environmental Design includes three divisions that address the following areas: (1) wetland mitigation, stream restoration, and applicable environmental regulations; (2) reforestation and tree preservation, turf management, roadside maintenance, and wildflower programs; and (3) development of concepts and designs for landscape architectural projects. These divisions work closely with Project Planning, Design, and Construction units to achieve more context sensitive projects.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has been a leader for years in incorporating aesthetics and sensitive environmental planning into highway projects. Caltrans has implemented programs that seek to create more context sensitive highway designs, use native plant materials, incorporate transportation art and aesthetics into highway structures, and help ensure that community values are considered on an equal basis with safety, economics, and mobility. Caltrans' Landscape Architecture Program provides direction and coordination for context sensitive solutions; training development; erosion control and highway planting policies, standards, and guidelines; landscaped freeway designations; roadside management; and research and new technology.

U.S. 93 is an 89-kilometer (55-mile) road that traverses the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. In another example of aesthetics as a component of highway design, Federal, State, and tribal governments worked together to create a road that respects the area's natural resources-on display in this aerial photo of the highway and its mountain setting.

The Michigan Department of Transportation's (MDOT) Aesthetic Project Opportunities Inventory lists approximately 2,000 opportunities for improving the visual quality of the environment along highways within the State. The inventory identifies eight types of aesthetic projects: landscape treatment opportunities, streetscaping opportunities, site or corridor management plans, scenic easement acquisitions, scenic turnout sites, structure removals or improvements, vegetation management opportunities, and landform improvements. In addition to MDOT staff, communities, agencies, and stakeholders interested in improving the visual quality of the environment use the inventory. One limitation of the program is that MDOT does not guarantee financial support for implementing aesthetic improvements.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) addresses the visual characteristics of highways in its Landscape and Aesthetics Design Manual. The manual discusses the types of aesthetic approaches for highway design and provides general guidance as to how and when they should be applied. A supplemental document, Develop Cost-Effective Plans to Add Aesthetically Pleasing Features to Transportation Projects, provides TxDOT designers and consultants with guidance in the development and construction of aesthetic treatments.

A number of other DOTs consider aesthetics in roadway design at the local level. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) spent $70 million to design and construct the 19-kilometer (12-mile)-long Paris Pike so it fits comfortably into the surrounding horse country. The project was initially proposed in 1966, but many stakeholders felt it would destroy the area's rural beauty and historical significance. Construction finally began in the mid-1990s after KYTC adopted a more sensitive design approach. Experts in highway design and landscape architecture alike hail Paris Pike as a model in highway design and historical preservation.

In Washington State, the city of Seattle is developing plans to replace the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct, which is a 3.5-kilometer (2.2-mile)-long highway along the western side of the city that parallels the Puget Sound shoreline. The preferred alternative in the environmental document proposed routing the new highway through a tunnel. The areas above the proposed highway would include public spaces and development that would help connect Seattle to its waterfront.

The proposed Seattle viaduct replacement is not the only recessed highway project. Much of the Central Expressway in Dallas, TX, was built below grade to reduce the impact of the highway on the surrounding communities. In Boston, MA, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (the "Big Dig"), which is in the final stages of construction, is a 12.5-kilometer (7.8-mile) recessed highway that replaces the old elevated Central Artery that ran through downtown. The project is intended to meet transportation needs while helping unify the downtown area and urban neighborhoods that had been severed by the construction of the elevated expressway.

In addition to Nevada, Kentucky is one of a number of States that is integrating aesthetic considerations into highway design, as shown here in this photo of Paris Pike, a model of fitting the roadway to the surrounding horse country.
In addition to Nevada, Kentucky is one of a number of States that is integrating aesthetic considerations into highway design, as shown here in this photo of Paris Pike, a model of fitting the roadway to the surrounding horse country.


National Environmental Policy Act

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) made sweeping changes to the way federally funded highway projects are developed. NEPA requires Federal agencies to consider the effects of their proposed actions on the human environment. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1970 requires that final decisions for any proposed project on the Federal-aid system consider "destruction or disruption of man-made and natural resources, aesthetic values, community cohesion, and the availability of public facilities and services (23 USC 109(h)(2))."

This aerial shot shows the I-15 and U.S. 95 Spaghetti Bowl interchange, the first aesthetic project scheduled under the Nevada master plan.

"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."

Landscape design segments define areas with similar characteristics, such as the Highway of the West segment pictured on this map. The highway goes through a rural area affected by geologic forces and characterized by both historical and cultural features.

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 for the full document.)

This illustration conceptualizes a regionally adapted landscape planting at the embankment of a highway bridge along a segment of I-80 in northwestern Nevada, called the 'Highway of the West' in the State's master plan. The State has made an unprecedented financial commitment to aesthetic improvements. This illustration conceptualizes a regionally adapted landscape planting at the embankment of a highway bridge along a segment of I-80 in northwestern Nevada, called the "Highway of the West" in the State's master plan. The State has made an unprecedented financial commitment to aesthetic improvements.

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.

The Truckee River corridor and adjacent vegetation patterns provide scenic interest for motorists traveling along I-80 in northwestern Nevada.

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, and for the corridor plans, visit or contact James L. Sipes at