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One View from the Road
Where is the leading edge of highway aesthetics to be found? A critical review of a recent road inventory in Michigan.
By Mary E. Myers, ASLA

During the interstate boom in the United States, aesthetics and highway design became mutually exclusive terms. Landscape architects, who had been active designers in earlier parkway design, were sidelined in the road design process as aesthetic concerns took a backseat to speed, safety, and efficiency. This situation seems poised for change. A federal initiative for improved contextual design has triggered some state departments of transportation (DOTs) to reconsider the role of aesthetics in surface transportation projects. The coming decades will show the results of this revised thinking and will demonstrate whether a more inclusive process results in more satisfying design.

The renewed interest in aesthetics stems partly from a strong federal emphasis on context sensitive design (CSD). Beginning with the publication of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Flexibility in Highway Design (1997), which was followed by a series of FHWA-sponsored workshops in 1998, CSD strives to balance aesthetic, community, and environmental needs with traffic safety and function. The approach seeks to be collaborative and interdisciplinary and offers opportunities for input from "stakeholders."

The concern for stakeholders may be a response to a grassroots phenomenon known as the "Asphalt Rebellion," in which communities have revolted against local road-building and road-widening projects. Journalist Alan Ehrenhalt cites Bethel, Vermont, as one of the seats of the rebellion. In the late 1980s, Bethel launched a successful campaign against a bridge-widening project.

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