Barbara A. Petrarca, ASLA, TRB Emeritus
Retired Supervising Landscape Architect
Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT)
Interview by Robin
Lee Gyorgyfalvy, FASLA
|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
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
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