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Mention State Highway design and you immediately visualize ribbons of paving, roaside rests, wildflowers, and glades of trees . . . .

When the design work involves the widening of an existing road through developed areas, though, the picture is quite different. Many older state highways are no more than local streets traversing neighborhoods, historic zones, roadside commercial strips, and small town centers. Widening these roads may involve displacing hedges, gardens, fences and walls, parking spaces and fuel pumps, or entire buildings and city blocks. Abutters are not impressed with arguments that the road is unsafe when they stand to lose acreage, ancient trees, comfortable setbacks, or parking spaces.

Community acceptance of a transportation project is strongly influenced by the visual effects of the completed project. To achieve public acceptance, however, the road must be equal to or better than that which previously existed--both functionally and aesthetically.

Rhode Island, like many other states, requires that a Landscape Architect assist in the preparation of design and construction documents for all highway work, whether new or rehabilitation, in order to mitigate damage to the existing landscape. Our firm, Weinmayr Associates of Somerville, Massachusetts, has been working with R.A. Cataldo Engineers of Pawtuckett, Rhode Island, to assist in the widening of a seven-mile stretch of Route 136, from Mount Hope Bridge to the Massachusetts state line. Tasks to be accomplished include:

• Replacement of plantings which have been removed for highway construction

• Screening of unsightly adjacent land uses

• Augmentation of already attractive or historically significant landscapes

To accomplish these tasks, we have created an overlay program dubbed "The Big Picture," the purpose of which is to develop a palette of plant materials and construction details to reinforce the special identity of different highway zones, such as the following:

State Doorway:

A zone which represents an opportunity to welcome visitors to the STate, to give a good intial impression, and to say "thanks for your company" on the way out.

Town Doorway:

A similar opportunity to greet visitors as the highway traverses town lines.

Rural:

A somewhat softer landscape, where efforts are focused on augmenting views, wetland mitigation, and reinforcing the rural aspects of adjacent farmlands and bordering hedgerows.

Light Industry:

A zone characterized by low buildings set far back from the street, often with manicured grounds. Street planting in this zone should be regular and tidy and landscape elements should be contemporary.

Neighborhood:

The residential streetscape is likely to feature street strees, hedges and front yard fences. Wherever possible we will attempt to reinforce the community feeling of each neighborhood by identifying its bounds and perhaps giving each a characteristic tree type.

Urban:

Heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic places intense pressures on street trees, which may require protective bollards, tree guards, tree pit paving, and selections tolerant of urban conditions.

Strip Commercial:

This is an area of few trees, large competing signs, and many parking lots. Where possible, we attempt to screen the parking and soften the landscape with street trees.

Institutional:

Institutions may warrant special treatment at the street edge. Occasionally there is an opportunity to pass on maintenance of plant materials to the institution.

Historic:

This zone may be limited to a single building, a section of town, or a rural area. All streetscape elements must reflect the historic nature of the specific zone.

While working to differentiate the zones, we also keep in mind the need for continuity. Route 136 has been designated a scenic highway and signage may remind drivers of that fact at regular intervals.

While establising the broad concepts is relatively easy, implementation can be quite difficult due to restrictions on where and what can be specified. (The Landscape Architect may feel lucky to incorporate any plantings at all.)

• The sidewalk is often located directly adjacent to the curb, with the state highway line at the back of the sidewalk.

• The state is not permitted to plant on private property except to replace specimen material.

• Mitigation work is primarily limited to relocation of walls and fences. • Commercial interests often object to plantings that might reduce the visibility of their business and plentiful parking.

• Lighting and signage is often dictated by the local town.

State guidelines suggest that street trees be

• Non-invasive

• Thorn free

• Regionally available

• Deep-rooted to prevent lifting of sidewalks

Additionally, barrier free requirements mandate the use of trees with a first branch height of 80" to permit free access by the visually impaired, while the highway department requests that low branched trees be planted under power lines.

In spite of these obstacles, the concepts work: Reflecting on the larger picture enhances the decision making process.

Beautification of highways goes a long way in improving the quality of life for the residents. Working closely with Landscape Architects, Engineers, and the Green Industry, states such as Rhode Island endeavor to set an example for responsive State Highway design.


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June 18, 2019, 9:04 pm PDT

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