Architect Eliel Saarinen said, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” From that starting point, today’s designers are taking Saarinen’s philosophy even further.
Settings have, or at least they should have, their own innate integrity. A palm tree in Antarctica? An igloo in Death Valley? A Wal-Mart on the east lawn of the White House? Such images clash for a reason. Whether it’s instinctual or learned, the aesthetic reality of human behavior is that people want certain elements grouped together; they expect these elements to be grouped together. When those expectations are not met, people tend to notice it—usually with displeasure. To sidestep such incongruities, architects and engineers are turning to a discipline known as context-sensitive design (CSD).
As defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation, CSD is “a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders to develop a transportation facility that fits its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources, while maintaining safety and mobility. CSD is an approach that considers the total context within which a transportation improvement project will exist.” Although as old as design itself, CSD was not always the chosen delivery method.
Careful what you do
To counterbalance the traditional approach—one in which transportation-project ends were almost always chosen over means—a coalition of environmental concerns formed the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP). Greatly influencing the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), STPP laid the groundwork for incorporating CSD by emphasizing “environmentally sensitive highway design and increased public involvement and collaboration with local communities.” The approach was formally codified in 1995 by the National Highway System Act, and subsequent advances have further integrated CSD into the culture of transportation projects. On a smaller, more local scale, though, several notable projects chose CSD for a host of political, environmental and aesthetic reasons. A standard bearer, in that respect, is Glenwood Canyon.
Approximately 150 miles west of Denver and 90 miles east of Grand Junction, the 16-mile-long Glenwood Canyon overlooks the Colorado River as it flows between Glenwood Springs and Gypsum. Rugged, dramatic and beautiful, the canyon also is host to one of the last stretches of the interstate highway system that was ever built, I-70. This roadway was a considerable engineering challenge to begin with, and the level of difficulty was exacerbated by Colorado law, which requires that transportation, environmental, recreational and economic considerations all had to be taken into account in the course of designing and constructing the project. Opened in 1992, the 12.5-mile, four-lane segment of I-70 that snakes through Glenwood Canyon serves as a model of effective CSD. In fact, it has actually added to the canyon’s allure as a tourist destination. Driven by successes like Glenwood Canyon, the practice of using CSD to augment a natural attraction has found a foothold in the West.
For another example, just look to Sedona, Ariz., recently designated by USA Weekend as the “Most Beautiful Place in America.” And that is not an isolated opinion; in survey after survey, Sedona is ranked among the most beautiful natural tourist destinations in the world. Consequently, Sedona attracts more than 4 million visitors per year, only slightly less than the Grand Canyon. And almost all of those visitors arrive by road, and one road in particular: State Route 179 (SR 179).
Designated a “State Scenic Byway,” two-lane SR 179 is embraced by Arizona’s signature red-rock landscape as it winds its way from I-17 to Sedona. Snaking through the Coconino national forest, residential enclaves, a national forest and some of the most dramatic landscapes in the U.S., SR 179 offers up stunning beauty, but there is a price. From 1995 to 2000, 461 traffic accidents were reported on SR 179, almost half of them being rear-end collisions. Those accidents produced 141 injuries and three fatalities. In addition, because of gawking tourists, a stalled vehicle or just a turning car, traffic regularly backs up in both directions, reducing mobility and creating significant safety hazards. These problems will only worsen in the face of expected population growth (both permanent residents and tourists). In simpler times, the answer would have been to just widen the road, creating a four-lane state highway. But that facile solution would destroy much of the austere beauty that attracts tourists and residents to the region in the first place. So SR 179 presented a perfect case for CSD.
“There are two main reasons for this project: to improve safety and to increase mobility. But we feel it’s vitally important to do so in an environmentally sensitive way, using community input to the maximum extent possible,” explained Jennifer Livingston, project manager for the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). “SR 179 follows the contours of an exquisitely beautiful, distinctly Arizonan landscape, a path that includes four miles of the protected Coconino National Forest. Because of the picturesque setting, tourists regularly stop in the middle of the road to take photographs, or they mosey along at 10 miles per hour so they don’t miss anything. However understandable those reactions may be, they can and do cause collisions. So we used context-sensitive design to orchestrate a balance between the wants of the community, the protection of the environment and the safety and integrity of the road. For SR 179, CSD was the best answer.”
A solution for Sedona
From the start, it was clear that any design solution would need to improve the safety and mobility of the road while only minimally expanding the road’s footprint or affecting the environment. Determining an appropriate CSD solution, though, was no walk through the forest. Stakeholders on the project included the city of Sedona, ADOT, the Federal Highway Administration, the Coconino National Forest, the Big Park Regional Coordinating Council, Yavapai County and Coconino County. In addition to addressing the requirements imposed by these official bodies, the project needed to incorporate input from the host communities. “Every organization had its own priorities. So communication between all the agencies and residents of the area was critical to finding the best solution for Sedona,” explained Livingston. “In fact, working together on those issues served as a lesson in cooperation for us all. The relationship that grew between ADOT and our users could not have turned out better. While ADOT gets credit for completing the project planning and design, a lot of the ideas actually came from the community.”
Those ideas were solicited and compiled as part of a needs-based implementation plan (NBIP). Drawing input from the community through a series of public workshops and design charrettes, the NBIP proved invaluable in determining what mattered most to the host communities. The NBIP engaged and involved the community in a variety of manners to set the parameters for any design solution. According to John McNamara, project planning manager for DMJM Harris (a design firm specializing in CSD), the NBIP was the keystone for a workable CSD solution.
“The monthly educational seminars conducted early in the NBIP introduced the public to roadway design concepts, accident analysis, sight-distance minimums and clear zones, as well as other roadway issues that we had to wrestle with. Once they were equipped with a basic knowledge of these engineering principles, all of the interested parties in the project could work more effectively with the design team. We didn’t just sit there and tell them they had to incorporate one improvement or another. We explained what the options were, made them aware of what was possible, then we worked together to develop solutions that were acceptable to everyone. Although that may sound difficult, it actually came together rather easily. Through the NBIP, the project team reassured the community that our asking them for input was not just lip service. ADOT and the project team were adamant about respecting the community’s wishes.”
The commitment didn’t end there. The project team established a toll-free telephone number and regularly answered correspondence that came to an e-mail address specifically created for the project. In addition, the project office provided complete access to accident data, traffic information, current proposed plans and aerial images. Jennifer Bixby, DMJM Harris’s project design manager, noted that “People regularly dropped by each morning just to say ‘Hi’ and to check in and see what was new. Project team members enjoyed meeting and even learning from their newfound ‘partners’ in the design process.”
After 18 months of collecting and compiling input, the project team jointly with the community began to evaluate the recommendations presented to them and designed the most workable and effective CSD solution. Eight-foot shoulders would be added to serve as breakdown locations and to provide emergency lanes for maneuvering around accidents. The shoulders also would accommodate on-road bicyclists, providing cyclists an exclusive right-of-way to reach world-renowned biking trailheads. In addition, the design features a significant number of left-turn lanes and pullouts for the region’s bus system. Bus bays also were included in the design. Some of them will be used when the project is finished and others have been set aside for future expansion.
To increase traffic flow the design solution will add 12 roundabouts, a design feature especially prized by the community for its aesthetic value. In addition, multiple vista points with marked approaches and pullouts will provide safe places where tourists and residents can stop and take photographs. Project personnel were meticulously sensitive to the aesthetic value of the landscape; they chose these vista points not only for their scenic value, but also because they highlighted views that could not be readily seen from other vantage points. In human terms, these design solutions ultimately satisfied all of the agenda items voiced by the many diverse stakeholders. But the context here went beyond strictly human concerns.
With a wilderness area east of the highway and a creek to the west, SR 179 is regularly used as a wildlife crossing point by animals in search of water. The project team worked closely with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to identify the most frequently used wildlife crossing points. The team then added oversized underpasses and drainage culverts to provide safe passageways for wildlife. Taking this design sensitivity yet a step further, the project team was careful to use natural materials (such as gravel and sand, rather than concrete) to line the passageways, because research had shown that animals such as elk and deer steer clear of man-made tunnels. Yet these passageways will serve more than wildlife.
Designed for multiple uses, the underpasses also provide drainage for major storm events, as well as passage for mountain bikers and hikers. Because the team chose natural materials, the underpasses are aesthetically consistent with the landscape. Of course, attention to detail and use was not limited to humans and wildlife. Plant life also received its due.
While taking great care to displace as little plant life as possible, the project team will carefully analyze the intensity of the in situ plant materials to ensure that individual areas are not overplanted when displaced specimens are returned to their habitat. Removed plants will be kept in on-site nurseries and replanted when work in each area is completed. This is not just an exercise in aesthetic or environmental sensitivity; the shrubs and cacti that line SR 179 evolved into their present configuration because of the amount of water supplied by the surrounding land. Any change in that balance could result in a marked change of flora and fauna. Therefore there is a compelling need to replace any plant life that must be removed for construction, meticulously restoring plant types, locations and quantities.
A big impact on the people
With all parties working together to arrive at a sensitive yet effective design solution, how was the CSD process ultimately received by the end users? The response from Sedona resident and former transportation planner Helen Knoll is illustrative. Skeptical at first, Knoll soon became an advocate of the process and the CSD solution. “Through the monthly educational sessions I learned that the two-lane road would have a significantly smaller impact on the environment and that the roundabouts would further increase the capacity. This was a good solution for everyone concerned.”
Settings have their own fundamental integrity. And residents are understandably protective of that integrity. Context-sensitive design is a comprehensive strategy that facilitates necessary improvements without environmental or aesthetic sacrifice; it allows for improvements while preserving a site’s integrity. A palm tree in Antarctica? An igloo in Death Valley? A Wal-Mart on the east lawn of the White House? CSD protects against such anomalies. As Eliel Saarinen said, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” CSD is how that’s done.