California Department of Transportation

What is Landscape Architecture?

The American Society of Landscape Architects appropriately describes landscape architecture as "the art and science of analysis, planning, design, management, preservation and rehabilitation of the land." The Landscape Architecture staff shares a commitment of achieving a balance between preservation, use and management of resources and within Caltrans, carries through this commitment with environmental stewardship, innovative ideas, use of new technology, and the integration and balance of community values with transportation goals. An overview of what landscape architects do at Caltrans is described below and also at our Introduction to Caltrans Landscape Architecture website.

What is a Landscape Architect's Role at Caltrans?

Our roles are diverse and complex. As a valuable member of multi-disciplinary teams, Landscape Architecture staff can provide a bridge that facilitates communication between Caltrans engineering and our community partners. Throughout Caltrans, the Landscape Architecture program specializes in planning, design, erosion control, water management, agreements with local agencies, safety roadside rest areas, vista points, biology, construction and maintenance.

Planting and Irrigation Design

Landscape Architects prepare planting and irrigation plans for highway projects. Our knowledge includes plant types, size and horticultural requirements, planting techniques, soil types, irrigation components such as sprinklers, valves, pipe, and controllers.


We strive to integrate the highway project into the adjacent community or natural surroundings. We buffer objectionable views, enhance good views, use contour grading, preserve existing plants and features, and recommend treatments for walls and other structures. We view aesthetic treatment as part of the complete project, not an extra cost added onto the project.

Water Conservation

We encourage water conservation by using drought-tolerant and California native plants to the maximum extent feasible. We try to select plants that have the greatest chance of survival if irrigation water is discontinued. Hardscape, such as rock cobble, and mulches are being used more. Nonpotable water, such as recycled or untreated water, is used for irrigation when it's available at a reasonable cost and safe. Where possible, we install computerized irrigation controllers which are able to adjust water flow from a single computer.

Erosion Control

We provide guidance on placing vegetation or hydroseeding (grasses, wildflowers, seed mixes, and other materials like straw, fiber, stabilizing emulsion, and protective blankets) to stabilize areas disturbed by grading operations, to reduce loss of soil due to action of water or wind and to prevent water pollution.

Visual Impact Assessment

As part of the environmental process, Caltrans landscape architects assess visual impacts of projects and recommend mitigation measures. We identify scenic resources such as large trees, rock outcroppings, buildings with visual interest or scenic vistas. On large projects, we select key view to and from the project and prepare graphic simulations of the proposed projects.

Storm Water Pollution Control

We provide assistance in developing guidelines and best management practices for storm water quality management and erosion control. Best management practices are various activities and techniques such as fiber rolls, silt fences, sand bags, hydroseeding, project scheduling, stabilizing the construction entrance, or many others that can be used to reduce stormwater impacts. We work with other Department units and other agencies to provide compliance with all state and federal water quality regulations and laws.

Context Sensitive Solutions

We assist the Department in development of design flexibility guidance; identify good examples of CSS application; implement training on the application of CSS; and revise manuals, policy, procedures, and standards to facilitate the application of CSS. See the following sites on issues related to context sensitive solutions:

Pedestrian/Bicycle Facilities

Our role is to design for human scale and comfort and to ensure that project delivery procedures and design guidance include accommodation of bicycle and pedestrian users as a regular part of managing the transportation system, and provide training to staff to consider the needs of bike and pedestrian users on the highway system. See the following sites on issues relating to pedestrians and bicycles:

Landscaped Freeway Designation

We classify sections of freeway as "Landscaped Freeway" when they meet the landscaping criteria in the Outdoor Advertising Regulations. A billboard cannot be constructed adjacent to a section of freeway classified as "Landscaped Freeway".

Main Streets/Livable Communities

We assist the Department in providing guidance to emphasize Caltrans' commitment to making state highways that happen to be main streets more walkable and livable. The guide: Main Streets: Flexibility in Design and Operations can be found on this web site.

Roadside Vegetation Management

In cooperation with the Division of Maintenance the Office of Roadside Management and Landscape Architecture Standards develops roadside management strategies, tests and implements new vegetation control treatments and coordinates roadside design efforts to assist the Department in meeting its worker safety, herbicide reduction and sustainable roadside goals.

Research and Innovation

We assist the Department in researching new products, technology and innovative solutions for roadside design. Research has led to new guidelines for such features as: aesthetic treatments to concrete barriers, native plants, use of rubber and/or glass mulch, use of computerized irrigation technology, and new treatments to reduce the application of herbicides to control weeds.

Vista Point Planning and Design

Vista points are informal pullouts where motorists can safely view scenery or park and relax. They do not include rest rooms. We provide guidance for the design of vista points and their facilities including walkways, interpretive displays, railings, benches, interpretive information, trash receptacles, monuments and other pedestrian facilities that are accessible to all persons.

Caltrans New Product Review Process

Caltrans New Product Evaluation Guidelines outline the new products approval process, including the estimated time necessary to complete the process, and provide direction to Departmental units involved in review, assessment and evaluation of new products. The new products review process and the approved Pre-Qualified Products List can be found at the New Products Review webpage.

Please note that we do not have an approved Pre-Qualified Products List for landscape or erosion control products. Product vendors are encouraged to first determine if their product meets Caltrans specifications. If a product meets our specifications, there is no need to submit for a new product evaluation. Vendors are free to market their products that meet Caltrans specifications to contractors who bid on Caltrans projects.

History of Landscape Architecture at Caltrans

California Roadsides 1961

Click here to read California Roadsides - a reprint of a series of articles on landscaping and other roadside problems on the California State Highway System which appeared in the JanuaryFebruary, March~April, May-June and July-August, 1961, issues of California Highways and Public Works magazine. This series was prepared by John Robinson of the Public Information Section with the assistance of various staff members concerned with planning, planting and maintenance of roadsides.

Landmark Milestones and Projects from the Past, Present, and Future

In 1936 the first landscape architect was appointed pursuant to federal direction to oversee the transportation system’s roadside development activities which included planting, erosion control, and wayside facilities.

Following successful planting and aesthetic work in 1940 on the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the Landscape Architecture staff grew commensurate with the post-war freeway construction program. Landscape Architecture offices were opened beginning in the 1950’s in San Francisco and Los Angeles. And with the passage of the Highway Beautification Act in 1965 under Lyndon Johnson, the landscape architecture program was significantly enlarged to develop the new Scenic Highway and Safety Rest Area Programs and oversee aesthetic review of all highway construction projects. In 1965, Landscape Architecture established an architectural and aesthetics unit, which was later transferred to Structures.

In 1973 the Principal Landscape Architect was tapped to develop the new Office of Environmental Planning. Since the advent of the inter-disciplinary teams, landscape architects have been integrated into many of the Department’s functional areas—and all 12 districts. Through the years, landscape architects have helped integrate new concepts—erosion control, aesthetics, environmental planning, visual impact assessment, stormwater, billboard control, excellence awards, and context sensitivity—into the Department’s culture.

Our role is to continue—through teamwork and context sensitivity—to help define the future of good design.