by Christine Colley, ASLA, RLA
Context Sensitive Design (CSS) is having a moment. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has recently released three new publications on Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) and Context Sensitive Design (CSD). The documents are excellent resources for seasoned and novice transportation landscape architects:
- Using Context Sensitive Solutions to Achieve Context Sensitive Design, State of the Practice Assessment (aka, CSS/D State of the Practice Assessment),
- Summary Report: Using Context Sensitive Solutions to Achieve Context Sensitive Design – Technical Assistance and Virtual Peer Exchanges (aka, Technical Assistance and Virtual Peer Exchanges), and
- Context Sensitive Solutions and Design: A Practical Approach to Transportation Decisionmaking (aka, CSS/D Practical Approach, from the Success in Stewardship newsletter).
Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) and Context Sensitive Designs (CSD) are not new. The concept was first introduced in the 1997 FHWA publication A Guide for Achieving Flexibility in Highway Design and further defined during the May 1998 workshop Thinking Beyond the Pavement: A National Workshop on Integrating Highway Development with Communities and the Environment. CSS is a decision-making tool that emphasizes multidisciplinary, collaborative approaches to the planning and design of transportation infrastructure. Ideally, when following a CSS decision-making process, the result is a transportation facility uniquely suited to its setting. CSS is achieved by maintaining and enhancing scenic, aesthetic, historical, community, and environmental resources while simultaneously improving or maintaining safety and mobility.
If CSS is the planning component to a contextual solution, CSD can be considered the design analog. Some publications, including National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Report 480: A Guide to Best Practices for Achieving Context Sensitive Solutions, use CSS and CSD interchangeably; however, the new FHWA report distinguishes between the terms. CSD takes into consideration not only the functional needs of the transportation infrastructure, but also the social, economic, and environmental (SEE) resources of the community surrounding the transportation facility. Contextual design is not new to landscape architects. Landscape architects are familiar with the concept as genius loci, or spirit of place. Genius loci is the principle that all landscapes should reflect the surrounding environment.
The CSS/D State of the Practice Assessment notes that CSS/D has transitioned from a design-focused approach to a process that informs transportation decision-making, taking into consideration user safety, mobility, and accessibility and their combined impact on economic growth. This evolution is evidenced in the four core principles of CSS/D, as described in CSS/D Practical Approach:
- A shared stakeholder vision to provide a basis for decisions;
- A comprehensive understanding of contexts, including the physical, economic, and social setting;
- Continual communication and collaboration to achieve consensus; and
- Design flexibility and creativity to shape effective transportation solutions, while preserving and enhancing community and natural environments.
At its best, the CSS/D process promotes flexibility, creativity, and innovation. Furthermore, the increased customer focus makes state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) more accountable to their stakeholders. When stakeholder input is incorporated early in the design process, there is an increased likelihood that the project will be supported and promptly advanced.
The CSS/D State of the Practice Assessment documents the FHWA’s 2016 CSS/D Targeted Technical Assistance effort. The effort was launched to “improve and accelerate project delivery by expanding the application of CSS/D principles and building capacity in States requesting assistance with CSS/D implementation.” The report includes a timeline of CSS/D milestones along with web research on CSS/D information contained in the FHWA’s websites, other transportation organizations, and all state DOTs. This slim report functions as an invaluable reference document for anyone conducting research on CSS and CSD, including DOTs looking to update their existing guidance documents.
Technical Assistance and Virtual Peer Exchange is a summary report that describes the FHWA’s targeted assistance to six states on CSS/CSD principles as well as the information sharing process between the states, or the virtual peer exchanges. Peer exchange topics included the following:
- Incorporating CSS and Performance Based Practical Design
- Leveraging CSS/Design for Sustainable Transportation
- Delivering Context-Sensitive Projects in Rural Environments
- Incorporating CSS/Design and Multimodal Thoroughfares (Complete Streets)
None of the three documents are very long. However, all are content-dense and chock full of references that can be used to further any practitioners’ investigation into CSS and CSD.
Christine Colley, ASLA, RLA, is Senior Landscape Architect at the New York State Department of Transportation.