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Policy Shaper: Barbara A. Petrarca, ASLA

Barbara A. Petrarca, ASLA, TRB Emeritus
Retired Supervising Landscape Architect
Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT)

Interview by Robin Lee Gyorgyfalvy, FASLA

Barbara Petrarca 
Barbara A. Petrarca, ASLA, TRB Emeritus

As someone who has recently retired from a stellar career spent entirely as a landscape architect in transportation, would you please describe your wide range of work?

My field of landscape architecture deals with highway, bridge, and traffic design; environmental protection; historic preservation; scenic roadways; and enhancements. A transportation landscape architect interacts with engineers, planners, policy makers, maintenance managers, landscape industry contractors, educational institutions, and the public to create, design, build, and maintain a context-sensitive sustainable transportation system.

What are some examples of the groundbreaking policies that you initiated, and how has your work influenced the profession and communities or promoted new programs?

In the mid-1980s I developed an innovative landscape architecture policy for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) that would ensure landscape architects would be integral members of every design team. This policy was so critical because it continues even today to ensure that landscape architects are involved in every design phase of every project. This policy resulted in more collaborative designs for all transportation projects including bikeways, rail, highways, bridges, airports, and parks.

In early 2000, I was responsible for developing and implementing RIDOT’s Context Sensitive Solutions policy. This policy ensures that all RIDOT projects recognize the importance of full collaboration among all design disciplines and the communities. As a result, RIDOT’s credibility has improved statewide.

In 1985 I was involved in establishing the Rhode Island Scenic Roadways Program, which became law. This program establishes, preserves, and recognizes roadways that have outstanding intrinsic qualities (archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic). Rhode Island currently has eight designated Scenic Roadways. This program ensures a permanent scenic management dialogue between RIDOT and the public. After I retired from RIDOT, the governor appointed me to the Scenic Roadways Board.

Why did you decide to become a landscape architect?

I have lived in Rhode Island all my life and have always enjoyed the great diversity of nature that this state has to offer. From a young age I have always enjoyed learning about all aspects of plants. I decided to major in horticulture when I went to college at the University of Rhode Island. In my college curriculum, I also took landscape design courses. The mix of the horticulture and design classes was so fascinating to me that I decided to pursue a career as a designer.

How did you decide to work in the public sector?

At the time I was graduating from college, RIDOT was seeking a landscape architect to replace the one who had left. For me, working as a landscape architect in the public sector was a natural progression from my college education in horticulture/landscape design in order to seize an opportunity at RIDOT. When I started working at RIDOT after graduating in 1972, once again I was breaking new ground as one of the first woman professionals in road design. The engineers I worked with were very supportive and had previous experience working with landscape architects.

I was promoted to supervising landscape architect in 1982 and continued my entire career in this position until I decided to retire in September 2008. Although I had officially retired, I continued to provide pro bono assistance on projects and helped train and transition my replacement, also a woman landscape architect.

Would you please describe the special projects that you feel really improved transportation and enhanced the urban fabric in Rhode Island?

The Theodore Francis Green Airport Project was constructed in the mid-1990s and was a major expansion and makeover for Rhode Island’s regional airport. Because the project included elements such as elevated roadways, three parking garages, extensive surface parking lots, intermodal circulation routes, signage, and noise mitigation, the landscape architectural components were a major part of the design. I worked closely with the project team on all site components to achieve a new airport that met and even surpassed the public’s expectations.

The Capital Center Project in Providence was a major urban design project for Rhode Island’s capital city with construction beginning in the mid-1980s. It took more than 10 years to be constructed under several contracts. Two rivers were relocated and a section of Amtrak rail was moved underground to allow for the creation of pedestrian bridges, river walks, a tidal basin with an amphitheater, and a new park across from the state capitol. I worked closely with the architect/landscape architect and engineering consultants to achieve a sustainable, high-quality urban design.

The Route 138 Jamestown Cross-Island Connector Project involved more than 10 years of collaboration with the town of Jamestown. RIDOT constructed a new cross-island roadway that connected the mainland Jamestown Bridge to the Newport Bridge. The project was designed with many parkway features. The new roadway also had to cross a major wetland and included retaining walls in lieu of slopes and a substantial critter tunnel. A major component of the project was the use of mostly native plants suitable for seaside conditions. The project was constructed in the late 1980s to early 1990s. I worked closely with the consultant team to create a project that earned public acceptance after years of opposition.

The I-95 Gateway Project was built in the early 2000s after two previous designs had become outdated. The project site consisted of steep slopes along an interstate, and while previous contracts concentrated on erosion control, it was not a welcoming sight leading to the capital of Rhode Island. The governor at the time directed that this area be reconstructed to convey a more attractive roadway for visitors and citizens. The introduction of tiered serpentine retaining walls and intense landscaping all added to heightening the experience of the traveling public. As project manager, I ensured that the project met Federal Highway Administration guidelines and was buildable on an active interstate.

How have you provided leadership for landscape architects throughout your career?

My involvement with the Transportation Research Board began in 1985. I became a member of the Landscape and Environmental Design Committee in 1989 and was the committee chair for six years. Landscape architect members of this TRB Committee accept a great responsibility to integrate landscape architecture principles into the diverse and competing research needs of the transportation environment. By demonstrating professional presence, seriousness, and the benefits of landscape architecture to many other disciplines, my colleagues and I have strengthened the influence of landscape architects in the public realm.

In 2010, I was given a most prestigious honor by being awarded TRB’s Emeritus status. This was the most important honor for me because this TRB Committee was full of very caring, supportive, and fun landscape architects in transportation that became a big part of my life.

I was the past president of the Rhode Island Chapter of ASLA and am now a current board member. I was past president of the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association and still serve as a current board member. I also helped establish the Rhode Island Scenic Roadways Program in 1985 and am currently serving as chair of its board.

What words of wisdom do you have for landscape architects who want to bring positive change, as you have done so well, in the public realm?

Be prepared to invest expertise, time, energy, and heart to achieve positive results over the time span of a career. Be prepared to confront frustrations in the pursuit of a more livable transportation environment—urban, rural, and everywhere else to benefit all of society and the planet.

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