Transportation Professional Practice Network Annual Meeting Recap

by Christine Colley, ASLA, RLA, and the Transportation PPN Leadership Team

The view toward the Philadelphia Museum of Art down Benjamin Franklin Parkway / image: EPNAC
The view toward the Philadelphia Museum of Art down Benjamin Franklin Parkway / image: EPNAC

The Transportation Professional Practice Network (PPN) meeting at the 2018 ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Philadelphia last month was well attended and chock-full of content. Incoming PPN Co-Chair Jean Senechal Biggs, ASLA, opened the session by introducing the PPN leadership team (read more about the team here). She described the PPN’s mission and referenced associated practice networks and ASLA initiatives, including the New Mobility and Emerging Technologies Subcommittee (previously Autonomous Vehicles) of ASLA’s Professional Practice Committee. The PPN’s Online Learning sessions, newsletter, and website were also discussed.

In keeping with the Transportation PPN’s annual tradition, ASLA’s Director of Federal Government Affairs, Roxanne Blackwell, Esq., Hon. ASLA, provided a legislation update. Roxanne was pleased to report no threats to funding for major federal programs relevant to landscape architects at this time. She noted that the very popular TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program had been renamed. The new BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) Transportation Discretionary Grants program maintains the TIGER program’s singular focus on surface transportation infrastructure investments by offering competitive grants that favor projects with significant local or regional impacts. The funding level for the BUILD grants has been set at $1.5 billion dollars.

Another promising legislative action is H.R. 5158. This bill was unanimously approved by the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in September. The bi-partisan bill directs the Secretary of Transportation to reopen the nomination process for National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads. Roxanne reminded those in attendance that live social media alerts on H.R. 5158 had been sent out to members. She urged everyone to contact their Representative(s) to express support for the bill. The goal is to get as many co-sponsors in this Congress as possible—a show of bipartisan support—before Congress transitions in 2019. ASLA members continue to report using funds from the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) Scenic Byway program. ASLA would consider it an incredible coup if program funding was re-established.

Roxanne requested feedback and suggestions on how current transportation policy could be changed to favor projects for landscape architects. She encouraged everyone attending to inform her of obstacles encountered when working on transportation projects.

Logan Circle’s Swann Memorial Fountain and Philadelphia's City Hall in the distance / image: EPNAC
Logan Circle’s Swann Memorial Fountain and Philadelphia’s City Hall in the distance / image: EPNAC

Roxanne closed with a brief discussion on the conference’s transportation-focused education sessions. She highlighted a particularly good session on October 19, Accelerating Multimodal Projects Through Collaborative Design: Insights into Working with Transportation Agencies. The session included discussions from FHWA’s Shari Schaftlein; Jennifer Toole, ASLA, from Toole Design Group; Pennsylvania DOT’s Leslie Richards; and Gary Jensen, also from the FHWA. Shari attended the Transportation PPN meeting and provided a synopsis of new design tools and guides offered by the FHWA, including the Human Environment Design Newsletter. This newsletter is a bi-weekly email digest that provides updates for all transportation disciplines, with topics such as the Every Day Counts initiative, community connections, resources for transportation block communities, pedestrian and bicycle issues, the Zero Deaths Vision, walkable communities, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Section 4(f) requirements, and shared mobility.

The highlight of the Transportation PPN meeting was the panel discussion on landscape architecture practice in the transportation sector. The PPN hoped the panel questions and responses would elicit audience participation and generate further dialogue. Questions focused on how landscape architects contribute to, and the direction the profession is taking in, the transportation sector. The panel’s focus was partly inspired by the PPN’s What Exactly is a Transportation Landscape Architect? Field post, by Jeff Lormand, ASLA, from earlier this year.

The discussion was moderated by Sean Batty, ASLA. Sean is the Director of Stations and Guideways at TriMet, the transit agency for the Portland, Oregon metropolitan region. The panel included three landscape architects—all Transportation PPN Officers—engaged in practicing transportation landscape architecture in different parts of the country. Allysha Lorber, ASLA, is a Senior Associate at Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson in Baltimore, Maryland. Ellen Alster, ASLA, is a Senior Landscape Architect with the Pima County Department of Transportation. Both Ellen and Allysha are past Co-Chairs of the PPN. Yadan Luo, ASLA, is a Landscape Designer at OLIN and a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania (2014).

The following is a summary of the panel discussion:

Sean Batty – Let’s start with the ultimate open-ended question. What great things are possible as a transportation landscape architect?

Allysha Lorber – Practicing landscape architecture in the transportation sector is my dream job. I have always worked in transportation and the greatest thing I get to do is to save lives. Practicing in the transportation sector provides me with the opportunity to positively impact communities and the environment. This is accomplished through the variety of Health, Safety and Welfare (HSW) tasks landscape architects offer coupled with the profession’s strong environmental stewardship ethic. HSW and environmental stewardship are at the heart of landscape architecture practice. I also have the privilege of being the voice for the underrepresented. This includes people who may have perished on the roadways as well as the flora and fauna that exist in our rights-of-way. We have been given the opportunity to make transportation infrastructure better and safer.

Ellen Alster – I have been a landscape architect for 35 years. Unlike Allysha, I did not choose to practice in the transportation sector. Since my favorite subject back in school was art, I chose landscape architecture as a more marketable design career where I’d get to draw trees for a living. I worked for a variety of consulting firms on just about every sort of project that a landscape architect would tackle. That changed in 2010. When all the private work dried up, I landed a job at the Pima County Department of Transportation (DOT). I loved it so much that I didn’t want to go back to private design work. When faced with the option to work in a small firm or a large firm that has widespread impact, my preference is to serve the greatest number of people. I feel that in my current position, I am a green ambassador. My work involves the Green Streets movement, invasive species management, and humanizing the transportation environment.

Yadan Luo – I have been out of school only four years. The most intriguing thing I find about practicing in the transportation landscape architecture sector is that the projects always have strict boundaries. If I can break these boundaries, even a little bit, and do something interesting, then I feel very happy! In Buffalo, NY I was involved in a public waterfront park project. The goal is to create a new public waterfront park, while keeping existing private slips and boats all along the water’s edge—there is a very strict boundary between public and private. One of the design solution we gave is to rent two boat slips from a private owner, park a play boat or beer garden boat beside it, and create public access—allowing people to really touch the water and be out on the water. It is not a typical design solution, but it does break the strict boundary a little bit, creating some potential for the site without sacrificing anybody’s interest.

Sean Batty – The next question involves a premise that can be debated. If you say ‘public land’ to a typical person, most think about the National Park system. Some may even think about the national forests and other park systems that are in state or local government ownership. However, when we talk about the largest quantity of land held in public ownership, we may really be talking about transportation infrastructure—streets, roads, highways, rail, shared-use paths, etc. For example, in the City of Portland, 48% of the land mass is in public ownership. This land mass—this public resource—includes streets, roads, and highways which are by far the largest proportion of that 48%.

ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Portland Mall Revitalization, Portland, OR. ZGF Architects LLP. / image: ZGF Architects LLP
ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Portland Mall Revitalization, Portland, OR. ZGF Architects LLP. / image: ZGF Architects LLP

Transportation infrastructure constitutes real physical assets. Not just the land underlying the pavement, but also the land adjacent to the roadway. The programming and investment of that land will dictate how people use it. That includes mode choice. As designers of these public lands, what opportunities do your see for landscape architects engaged in transportation-related work?

Allysha Lorber – Because landscape architects are environmental stewards, we have a great opportunity to prevent and remedy environmental harm. In the Mid-Atlantic region, we face flooding and climate change. People are literally dying due to the impacts of climate change. The roadways are a public resource and a critical part of the community fabric, and we have a responsibility to make them as safe and resilient as possible. Flooded roadways are occurring more and more frequently, and this is a problem that can no longer be ignored. We need to start thinking about how to address this problem. We can allow flooding to keep happening and plan for safer detours during floods. We can upgrade the infrastructure to reduce or eliminate the flood risk. Or we can relocate and abandon the flood-prone roadways and let nature reclaim these areas of the public right-of-way.

ASLA 2007 Professional General Design Honor Award. NE Siskiyou Green Street, Portland, OR. Kevin Robert Perry, ASLA. / image: Kevin Robert Perry
ASLA 2007 Professional General Design Honor Award. NE Siskiyou Green Street, Portland, OR. Kevin Robert Perry, ASLA. / image: Kevin Robert Perry

Another potential solution is the transition to more Complete Streets. This idea has been in landscape architect’s lexicon for years and promoting active transportation is a great way to counteract climate change. However, this concept has focused on incorporate transportation modes that have been around for hundreds of years. New technology —including autonomous vehicles—will also change how we get around. It is critical that landscape architects stay on the leading edge of these innovations and participate in rethinking mobility to be environmentally sustainable and to promote mobility choices for everyone no matter what their social status may be.

Ellen Alster – I live in the desert and believe it or not, each year people here die too from flash floods. In regard to Complete Streets, there is much disagreement among engineers in my department as to what that means. Some think a paved shoulder or a 4’ sidewalk on one side of a 4 to 6 lane, 45 mph arterial road is providing a Complete Street. Level of service, or LOS, is still used as a primary factor in determining the design of streets, roads, and highways. This method focuses exclusively on vehicular travel. Transportation planning within my agency is still focused in determining how to move cars faster and better…still prioritizing vehicles. We need to shift from the number of vehicles moved to the number of people moved.

Making the shift from prioritizing one mode of travel to prioritizing them equally is exciting and makes me excited for future generations. If we can get away from single person vehicular travel, think about the amount of land that can be converted from on-street parking spaces and parking lots. How do we repurpose roads and these associated spaces? A car is typically used about 2 – 3 hours per day and then sits for the remainder of time. All the non-pervious paved areas currently devoted to storing cars (there are 8 parking spaces for every vehicle in the U.S.) can be converted to other uses. This will happen as more people share cars (autonomous vehicles), use better, faster, and cheaper mass transit, or opt to bicycle and walk. This provides some very exciting opportunities for landscape architects.

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to redefine the future streetscape, as described in Yadan Luo, ASLA's 2018 SPOTLIGHT presentation, Adaptation Strategies: Infrastructure Flexibility for Resilient Communities and Autonomous Vehicles / image: Yadan Luo
Autonomous vehicles have the potential to redefine the future streetscape, as described in Yadan Luo, ASLA’s 2018 SPOTLIGHT presentation, Adaptation Strategies: Infrastructure Flexibility for Resilient Communities and Autonomous Vehicles / image: Yadan Luo

Yadan Luo – With the potential for autonomous vehicles, it appears that streets will be designed for pedestrians, rather than for drivers, in the future. Since all the vehicles on the road will be controlled by algorithm, the car itself will become a part of the transportation infrastructure, like road and traffic lights. I agree that this will change the current focus of transportation landscape design significantly.

Sean Batty – We are seeing that more and more now. Transportation planning is in a place where multimodal is now the norm, simply because this makes the most sense. Now, we must be talking about what is the best use of the square footage we have to work with. Our final question involves transportation planning and the development, evolution, and ultimate use of transportation planning documents. For example, there was a compatibility study done as part of the state transportation master plan called dynamic segmentation. The plan studied bicycle and pedestrian compatibility in roadways. But it is unclear where the plan now stands and what happened to the plan.

Allysha Lorber – Transportation plans are always at risk of not being complete, sitting on a shelf and/or not being fully realized. What is important is to work in partnerships during the planning process. The primary author of a transportation plan is often not the one responsible to get everything done. These are policies and investments with many stakeholders and in the public sector it’s important to work with these stakeholders to build a strong foundation and continue to collaborate after the plans are complete to make sure things get done. This also helps to build credibility for the plan and the agency it represents. Landscape architects need to be advocates for multi-modal planning studies and include the perspective of underserved communities that might not be able voice their opinion during the public participation process.

Ellen Alster – In my experience, I have found that it’s also critical to have someone in a position of authority outside the profession of landscape architecture to buy into the plan. Tucson is a big bicycling community. In 1983, a massive flood destroyed 1,300 homes, killed 13, and injured hundreds. The Flood Control District, with help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, made major flood control improvements to the “river” banks. These are dry washes that only fill with water when it rains. Multi-use recreational paths were gradually added along the banks. Then, a decade ago, the County Administrator got a bike and started riding these paths. Soon he was on board as a bicycling advocate! Now Pima County has more than 120 miles of paths that are part of the transportation infrastructure system, completely separate from motorized traffic.

Christine Colley, ASLA, RLA, is Senior Landscape Architect at the New York State Department of Transportation and a Transportation Professional Practice Network (PPN) Officer.

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