When Did Scenic Quality Stop Mattering?

Figure 1: Broadway Boulevard and Wilmot Road in a busy commercial area of central Tucson, AZ. View to Rincon Mountains. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 1: Broadway Boulevard and Wilmot Road in a busy commercial area of Tucson, AZ. View to Rincon Mountains.
image: Ellen Alster

The Sonoran Desert area in and surrounding Tucson, Arizona has stunningly unique scenery: vivid bright blue skies, mountains that continually change hue depending on the light, and forests of saguaros that punctuate the horizon. Four mountain ranges surround the city: the Santa Catalinas to the north, the Tucson Mountains to the west, the Santa Ritas to the South, and the Rincon Mountains to the east. Even on Tucson’s most mundane streets, the mountains embrace the city, framing it on all sides. The spectacular native landscape should elicit the highest aspirations for the built environment. Yet it seems as if both leadership and citizenry have become numb to the beauty enveloping them, feeling powerless to take action against the changes occurring.

Southern Arizona’s signature skyline of saguaro cacti silhouettes is rapidly being usurped by the dark rusted steel poles newly dominating the horizon. They loom over urban, suburban, and rural landscapes as the electrical grid is replaced and upgraded (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Ina Road, just east of the Interstate 10 exit. Twin poles on the right are replacing the older lattice structures. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 2: Ina Road, just east of the Interstate 10 exit. Twin poles on the right are replacing the older lattice structures.
image: Ellen Alster

Aesthetics are given a passing nod, at best, in facility design. As recently as ten to fifteen years ago, undergrounding utilities was discussed, especially when roads were added or expanded. Currently, this is labeled as too expensive and rarely discussed as an option.

Figure 3: The Grant and Oracle Intersection. The first phase in the City of Tucson Grant Road Improvement Project, a 5-mile project advertised in the Design Concept Report as a “state of the art, multi-modal transportation corridor,” using a context sensitive approach. Utility poles are not shown in the cross sections in the Design Concept Report. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 3: The Grant and Oracle intersection, the first phase in the City of Tucson Grant Road Improvement Project, a 5-mile project advertised in the Design Concept Report as a “state of the art, multi-modal transportation corridor,” using a context sensitive approach. Utility poles are not shown in the cross sections in the Design Concept Report.
image: Ellen Alster
Figure 4: Twin poles are replacing the older lattice structures (in background) across southern Arizona. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 4: Twin poles are replacing the older lattice structures (in background) across southern Arizona.
image: Ellen Alster

In the past, painted finishes were routinely used so that poles were visually compatible with their surroundings; the “Mohave sage” hue was widely considered successful (see figures 5-7). But in the past several years, rust-colored steel became the new standard. Rust may be appropriate in some geographic regions, but when inserted into the wide vistas and blue skies of the southwest, the poles become the most prominent landscape feature (see figure 4). Nondescript wood poles are being replaced with massive rusted steel ones (see figures 1 through 6). Many of these are in designated Scenic or Gateway Corridors with specific City or County code requirements, but typically justification is found for why the requirements don’t apply (see pages 5 and 7 of a 2013 Open House discussion as an example).

Figure 5: “Mohave sage” finishes on power poles on Sunrise Drive in the Catalina Foothills, a suburban area north of the City of Tucson. Painted finishes are no longer used. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 5: “Mohave sage” finishes on power poles on Sunrise Drive in the Catalina Foothills, a suburban area north of the City of Tucson. Painted finishes are no longer used.
image: Ellen Alster
Figure 6: “Mohave sage” finishes on power poles on Sunrise Drive in the Catalina Foothills, a suburban area north of the City of Tucson. Painted finishes are no longer used. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 6: “Mohave sage” finishes on power poles on Sunrise Drive in the Catalina Foothills, a suburban area north of the City of Tucson. Painted finishes are no longer used.
image: Ellen Alster
Figure 7: Environmentally compatible painted finish on pole (at left) on Craycroft Road in Tucson. Painted finishes are no longer used. Sage green concrete vertical saguaro – like structure at right – is a “stealth” communication tower. View to the Santa Catalina mountain range. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 7: Environmentally compatible painted finish on pole (at left) on Craycroft Road in Tucson. Painted finishes are no longer used. Sage green concrete vertical saguaro – like structure at right – is a “stealth” communication tower. View to the Santa Catalina mountain range.
image: Ellen Alster
Figure 8: Light colored transmission poles, despite fading, contrast minimally with sky. Poles shown here are in the Rillito River along the Rillito River Park in Tucson, AZ. Installation date unknown. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 8: Light colored transmission poles, despite fading, contrast minimally with sky. Poles shown here are in the Rillito River along the Rillito River Park in Tucson, AZ. Installation date unknown.
image: Ellen Alster

As the landscape architect for the Pima County Department of Transportation in Tucson, I am responsible for reviewing roadway landscape plans for capital improvement projects and for encroachments into the right-of-way. I also review and provide comments for communication facilities, such as cell towers, in the right-of-way. My work dealing with right-of-ways and their use has made me passionate about this issue.

Figure 9: Weathered steel transmission pole at Interstate 10 and Valencia, Tucson, AZ. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 9: Weathered steel transmission pole at Interstate 10 and Valencia, Tucson, AZ.
image: Ellen Alster

Local regulations written a decade ago have not kept pace with how massive the structures and facilities have become—they keep getting taller and more massive, while the ground support facilities have also swelled in size. Modest wood power poles are swapped for more massive ones in order to support communication antenna; codes allow poles to increase 15’ in height, but don’t mention pole circumference. Right-of-way space for trees is inadequate, but we are directed to accommodate the 40-foot-long, 10-foot-wide, and 10-foot-tall enclosures for communication ground support cabinets. Meanwhile, it’s a struggle to get communication providers to comply with the minimum of code requirements: siting for less visual impact, selecting environmentally compatible colors, replacing vegetation that will be impacted.

Figure 10: Examples of “zombie” poles in central Tucson. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 10: Examples of “zombie” poles in central Tucson.
image: Ellen Alster

When utility poles are replaced due to age, there is a lack of follow through in making sure the pole’s tenants, typically communication providers, move to the new poles. The old wood poles are topped off at the height of the remaining tenants, magnifying the number of poles in the right-of-way (see figure 10). I’ve since discovered that redundant or “zombie” utility poles are an issue in many other parts of the U.S. and Canada, including New York, Washington, DC, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Toronto.

Figure 11: Galvanized poles with a matte finish that contrasts minimally with the sky. La Canada Drive in northwest Tucson area. View to the Santa Rita mountain range. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 11: Galvanized poles with a matte finish that contrasts minimally with the sky. La Canada Drive in northwest Tucson area. View to the Santa Rita mountain range.
image: Ellen Alster

I’d like to ask fellow professionals concerned with visual quality issues:

  1. Are newer, larger power poles in your area being designed with visual compatibility issues in mind? Or are they becoming a dominant skyline feature?
  2. What have you done to get everyone on board with thinking about all the features in the right-of-way?
  3. How well are communication facilities being designed to fit into the environment in your area?
  4. Does your area have “zombie” or redundant poles that remain after older poles are replaced?
  5. Any other thoughts about these issues that you’d like to share?

Please join the discussion and email me your thoughts and comments. I look forward to hearing from you!

Plus, join the broader conversation on visual quality at the ASLA Annual Meeting & EXPO education session on Monday, October 24 from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. titled “Keeping America Beautiful: The Visual Environment at Risk.”

Figure 12: Alvernon Way and Valencia Road intersection, Tucson, AZ. View to Catalina Mountains. image: Ellen Alster
Figure 12: Alvernon Way and Valencia Road intersection, Tucson, AZ. View to Catalina Mountains.
image: Ellen Alster

by Ellen Barth Alster, RLA, LEED AP, ISA Certified Arborist, Senior Landscape Architect, Pima County Department of Transportation and Transportation PPN Co-Chair

2 thoughts on “When Did Scenic Quality Stop Mattering?

  1. Davie Biagi September 13, 2016 / 11:38 am

    The photos demonstrate that scenic quality matters very much! We see zombie poles more often in smaller communities in our area.

  2. Allysha Lorber September 19, 2016 / 3:30 pm

    Utility poles are ugly even when you paint them with some subdued color. The forested landscapes of the east coast offers a completely different aesthetic along our roadsides, but we must avoid putting trees near utility poles to avoid the potential damage if the tree falls down. It becomes a significant hindrance to landscaping along roadsides. I’d rather see utilities all underground, too. And wide open skies with just trees, sky, and mountains.

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