Visual Resources in the Practice of Landscape Architecture

by Tim Tetherow, ASLA, and John McCarty, ASLA

US 550 at Red Mountain Pass near Ouray, CO, part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway / image: courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation

This article explores the roots and diverse approaches to visual resource management (VRM) and visual impact assessment (VIA). The role of VRM and VIA encompasses federal lands, seascapes, landscapes, park lands, scenic byways and highway corridors, urban environments, and other valued places. Landscape architects play a lead role in sustaining this field of practice.

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) provides a comprehensive public policy on visual resources:

The American Society of Landscape Architects believes the quality of visual character and scenic resources is critical to our landscapes and communities at the local, regional, and national level…To protect and enhance these irreplaceable assets, ASLA supports consideration of visual character and scenic resources for all projects and all users.

Building a Foundation for Visual Resource Stewardship

The roots of this field of practice can be traced back to the response to the nation’s growth and scale of environmental change in the 1950s and 60s. President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a message to Congress on February 8, 1965, calling for a White House Conference on Natural Beauty. In his message, President Johnson declared that:

To deal with these new problems will require a new conservation. We must not only protect the countryside and save it from destruction, we must restore what has been destroyed and salvage the beauty and charm of our cities.…Its concern is not with nature alone, but with the total relation between man and the world around him….The beauty of our land is a natural resource. Its preservation is linked to the inner prosperity of the human spirit.

Proceedings of the White House Conference on Natural Beauty – May 24 and 25, 1965, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 65-65700, U.S. Government Printing Office Washington, D.C.: 1965.

C-470 / Alameda Avenue / image: courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation

The Proceedings and Landscape Action Program from the White House Conference on Natural Beauty, held on May 24 and 25, 1965, provide insight into a turning point with citizen action and state and federal legislation. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 mandated consideration of environmental impacts, including visual resources, for projects with a federal nexus. The 1994 Amendment further defined the purpose of NEPA to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings.” Federal land management agencies responded by establishing systematic VRM guidelines, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) developed VIA guidelines.

I-70 – Glenwood Canyon / image: courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation

Concepts and tools for systematically integrating visual resources in planning, design, and land management were also emerging in the 1960s through landscape architects and planners, through context-sensitive design, spatial sequence concepts, and relationships between “man and the environment.” Among the pioneers in visual resources, Professor R. Burton Litton stands out for his contribution to landscape inventories, beginning with Forest Landscape Description and Inventories―a basis for land planning and design (1968). Litton’s research established the foundation and criteria for VRM processes, including:

  • Factors of Scenic Analysis and Observation: distance/distance zones, observation position, spatial definition, light, sequence
  • Landscape Compositional Types
  • Landscape Inventory mapping techniques, highlighting the works of Donald Appleyard, Lawrence Halprin, Philip Lewis, Jr., Kevin Lynch, John Meyer, and Philip Thiel.

Ian McHarg synthesized environmental planning and design into a groundbreaking systematic process in Design With Nature, published in 1969, and Richard Haag explored the intrinsic interconnections of man in nature throughout his teaching and design practice.

Red Mountain Pass / image: courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation

Visual Resource Management Overview

VRM is a systematic process that guides the context-sensitive siting and design of roads, utilities, forestry practices, and recreation activities by applying visual inventory and landscape design principles. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM)’s Visual Resource Clearinghouse site provides centralized access to federal agency guidelines and research, through coordination with the Argonne National Laboratory. VRM guidelines share a common ground in the core concepts and elements of landscape character, viewers, and scenic/visual quality; however, the specific terminology and criteria for VRM and VIA practices vary among agencies. In each case, methodologies were adapted to fit within each agency’s mission and responsibilities. The most variation among VRM methodologies occurs in the rating of scenic/visual quality, as summarized in the table below.

Overview of Federal Agency Scenic Quality Rating Processes. Click here for a PDF of this table.

The US Forest Service’s Landscape Aesthetics A Handbook for Scenery Management

The Forest Service responded to the impacts of increased logging to ecosystems, landscape character, and forest scenery in the 1950s and 1960s through research and the publication of the Visual Management System in 1974. The Scenery Management guidelines, published in 1995, established a systematic and collaborative process to determine the relative value and importance of scenery in National Forest management.

National Park Service (NPS) Visual Resource Inventory Guidelines

In 1916, the NPS Organic Act identified scenic resource protection as a fundamental purpose of the agency. With the continued demand for renewable energy, large scale energy facilities in proximity to national parks triggered the need to develop a visual resource program and guidelines.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Visual Resource Manual and Handbooks

The BLM’s VRM system provides comprehensive guidance for inventory, resource management, impact assessment, and mitigation strategies to address the scale and diversity of activities on public lands. The BLM has published extensive visual mitigation, Best Management Practices, and color application guidelines.

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Guidelines

The scale and complexity of BOEM’s responsibilities for overseeing offshore renewable energy development in the federal waters on the Outer Continental Shelf of the United States are vast in scope. The BOEM guidelines for seascape, landscape, and visual impact assessment (SLVIA) has two parts: seascape and landscape impact assessment (SLIA) and visual impact assessment (VIA).

The SLIA process encompasses impacts on both the physical elements and features of a landscape or a seascape, and the perceptual aspects or “sense of place.” Study areas are established based on viewshed analyses to identify the spatial extent of both offshore wind turbines and onshore energy-related facilities.

The VIA process analyzes proposed energy development from selected viewpoints. The methodology for the BOEM process is modeled on the SLVIA methodology used for offshore wind developments in the United Kingdom, as described in the Landscape Institute and Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment’s Guidelines for Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment, third edition (GLVIA3) (LI and IEMA, 2013).

Federal Highway Administration VIA Guidelines

Highway corridors are dominant elements of the national landscape, and views from roadways play a prominent role for travelers in everyday life. FHWA’s VIA process includes context-sensitive inventory, impact and mitigation criteria, and design guidelines for achieving visual compatibility for proposed highway projects across the diversity of landscapes and urban environments in all 50 states.

Viewshed analyses from the road and from key viewpoints define the limits of project visibility for impact assessments, as described in Liia Koiv-Haus’s recent post on Viewshed Analysis for Visual Impact Assessment. FHWA initially published Visual Impact Assessment for Highway Projects in 1981 to provide consistent guidelines and training for state departments of transportation (DOTs), with updated guidelines in 1988. To further improve VIA practices, the Transportation Research Board conducted a survey of all 50 states through a review of case studies documented in NCHRP Report 741: Evaluation of Methodologies for Visual Impact Assessment. Findings from this research led to the development of FHWA’s Guidelines for the Visual Impact Assessment of Highway Projects (FHWA, 2015).

With the refinements to FHWA’s VIA guidelines from the 1980s to 2015, rating visual quality evolved from a numeric scoring process to a viewer-oriented transactional perception concept. This concept is based on the premise that visual preferences occur as a result of an interaction between viewers and their surroundings, rather than intrinsic qualities of the landscape.

Red Mountain Pass / image: courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation

Visual Impact and Mitigation Approaches

Achieving compatibility with VRM standards and minimizing visual impacts through siting, design, and SMART mitigation measures are key to this field of practice. Recent research into visual impact methodologies by James Palmer, FASLA, is published in A Diversity of Approaches to Visual Impact Assessment (Land 2022, 11, 1006).

Networking Opportunities

The Visual Resource Stewardship Group has been key to sustaining a dialog and exchange of research and accomplishments through a website and bi-annual conferences sponsored through Argonne National Laboratory and SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry.

See Viewshed Analysis for Visual Impact Assessment, by Liia Koiv-Haus, ASLA, AICP, for the Landscape—Land Use Planning Professional Practice Network (PPN)’s first post in this series on visual impacts and resources. If you have expertise in this area, please consider contributing to this series; all ASLA members are welcome to write for The Field.

Tim Tetherow, ASLA, is a landscape architect with Felsburg Holt and Ullevig, where most recently he has been working with Colorado Department of Transportation on visual impact assessments, VIA Guidelines, and environmental clearances for a broad range of transportation projects. Throughout his career since 1973, he has conducted visual resource assessments for transportation, energy, and recreation projects in Western and Midwestern states, and Alaska on projects under the jurisdiction of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), US Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the National Park Service (NPS). He has a BA in Landscape Architecture, Art, and Natural Sciences from the University of Washington, 1970, and an MLA from the University of Pennsylvania, 1975.

John H. McCarty, ASLA, is a landscape architect with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)’s Office of Renewable Energy Programs (OREP). He is OREP’s senior authority on visual resources and impact assessment. John is responsible for developing visual resource policies and procedures that integrate advanced technology, modern research methods, and novel principles for visual simulations, resource characterization, and impact analyses. He coordinates with other BOEM resource subject matter experts and advises BOEM leadership on proposed statutory, regulatory, and other policy provisions relating to the offshore renewable energy program and the effects to the visual environment, scenic landscapes and seascapes, cultural resources and historic properties, recreation and tourism, socioeconomics, and environmental justice.

John joined BOEM in 2020 after 13 years with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), serving as the BLM’s Chief Landscape Architect and National Visual Resource Management Program Lead. Years prior to the BLM, John was a practicing landscape architect in the private sector, and state and local government.

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