California Department of Transportation

Module 1: Policy and Process
Lesson 1: Introduction

Slide 05

Introduction - MODULE 1

Let’s begin by presenting how we’ve organized the lecture to help you understand how we’re going to break this information down.

Each module is divided into a series of lessons.  There are a total of three modules and sixteen lessons.  Each lesson begins with a title slide such as this one for Lesson 1. 

The first lesson in the first module is entitled Introduction.  It provides an overview of the on-line presentation; its structure; and teaching methods; emphasizing, through a series of exercises, how the perception of visual quality is surprisingly consistent.

Each lesson is divided into several main topics, each with its own heading.  Main topics will always be identified with a large orange square bullet on an introductory slide that follows the title slide at the beginning of each lesson.

To help the participants remember what lesson and main topic they are currently examining on each slide after this introductory slide, the title of the lesson and the main topic are displayed on each slide in the blue bar at the bottom of the slide.  The title of the lesson is printed in all upper case letters, followed by a dash.  After the dash, the name of the main topic (one of the items identified with the large orange square on the introductory slide) follow in upper and lower title case. The number of the slide is shown on the right of the lower blue bar.  The numbers start over at 1 for each of the three modules.

For Lesson 1 there will be four main topics, as listed on the slide. Each main topic will be presented as its own series of slides.


Slide 07

Course Introduction

The first main topic covered in Lesson 1 is the Course Introduction.  Notice that the large orange square bullet is repeated at the top of this slide, indicating that this is a new main topic.  Notice also that in the blue bar at the bottom of the page, the title of the lesson, INTRODUCTION, is repeated as a reminder that we are in the lesson called Introduction.  The main topic name follows, Course Introduction.

Under the main topic, COURSE INTRODUCTION at the top of the page, are three arrow bullets.  An arrow bullet indicates that the main topic will be divided into subtopics, each on its own set of slides.  For example, there are three subtopics under main topic, Course Introduction:

    •  Pre-Test/Post Test
    •  Class Overview
    •  Schedule of Lessons

The arrow bullets indicate that information about each subtopic will be presented separately on at least one subsequent slide.

Slide 08


Pre-Test/Post-Test is the first subtopic under the main topic Course Introduction.  Headings for subtopics are only displayed at the top of the slide and are not repeated in the blue bar at the bottom of the page.

If you have not taken this training previously, we recommended taking the pre-training test (pre-test) to measure your comprehension of the key concepts of the VIA process before you begin taking the course. This may allow you to proceed more rapidly through those sections you already understand.

Please click on Test and an Answer Sheet to view and print these documents.


Slide 09


Fill in your answers in the Pre-Test column on the answer sheet. You will be placing your answers for both the Pre-Test and the Post-Test on the same answer sheet for easy comparison.


Slide 10


Take the test now before you start the on-line course.  Save the answer sheet for your Post-Test. 


Slide 11

Class Overview

The next subtopic under COURSE INTRODUCTION is Class Overview. It provides introductions to the materials and methods used to teach the class.

The presentation you are currently viewing provided a framework for conducting this training in a classroom setting. The presentation coupled with the narrative text you are reading provide a similar framework for on-line students.  By reading the notes attached to each slide, the on-line student is provided a substitute for the in-class lecture.  Although this presentation set up sequentially and is designed for someone who is just being introduced to visual impact assessments, more advanced students may find these presentations useful, too, by studying only those lessons and concepts they would like to have clarified. (The next three slides provide you with a list of lessons covered in the course.)

As previously mentioned, a set of supplemental materials—reference materials and a series of worksheets—complete the materials that will be used in this course. 

This course was devised to be highly interactive between the instructors and the students and between the students themselves.  Doing this by yourself on-line makes it difficult to duplicate this approach. 

Nonetheless, to the extent possible, we will attempt through a series of exercises related to what was originally a team project, re-create the experience of working with the instructors and students.  We will use the narrative text to convey ideas and comments of the over 300 people who have already taken this course, trying to place you in the center of these classroom discussions.  We recognize that this is not the same as being in a classroom setting, therefore we encourage you to also explore any questions you may have with others who may have taken the class already (either in the classroom or on-line) or one of the sixteen Caltrans employees that helped develop this course (see the previously shown slide, Slide 2, for names). 

The course includes a Team Project to explore how to conduct a visual impact assessment under different conditions.   The team project employs a fictitious Caltrans project with a set of four alternatives with escalating visual impacts.  The original classes were divided into four groups with each group analyzing only one alternative.  For individual on-line training, in the absence of any other participants, it is recommended that the student select one alternative that most closely approximates the type of VIA they will be conducting in the future.  Doing all four alternatives would, of course, be a closer approximation of doing an actual VIA with a wide-range of alternatives.


Slide 13

Schedule of Lessons - Module 1

The third subtopic under COURSE INTRODUCTION is the Schedule of Lessons.  The schedule is divided into three modules reflecting that originally the class was taught over three days.  The first module includes six of the sixteen lessons that will be covered during the course.  The six lessons listed on this slide are primarily related to establishing the administrative context in which Caltrans performs visual impact assessments. 

Those of you taking the course on-line have the advantage of being able to skip to the lesson you want to learn.  Nonetheless, the lessons are structured to be taught consecutively.  Many of the concepts taught in one lesson are dependent upon ideas and processes examined in a previous lesson.  It is therefore recommended that before jumping to a particular lesson, on-line students may want to review the whole course or at least a lesson or two prior to the lesson they desire to learn.   


Slide 14

Schedule of Lessons - Module 2

During the second module four lessons will be taught as listed on this slide.  Each lesson is very detailed—we purposefully dissect each main topic into several subtopics in order to thoroughly understand the concepts being taught.  It should be remembered, however, that not all visual impact assessments require the level of detail we will be exploring, especially those projects requiring only a minor or moderate level of assessment.  It is important to recognize that tailoring the process to the appropriate level of detail for the project is essential to producing a VIA in an efficient and cost-effective manner.


Slide 15

Schedule of Lessons

Module 3 will present the final six lessons as listed on this slide.


Slide 16

Personal Introductions

For the on-line student, this is a self-assessment to help orient you to what you want or need to learn from this on-line course.

What type of VIA experience have you had?  What do you want to learn?  How do you hope to use what you’ve learned?

 As a way to reveal your understanding and pre-conceptions of aesthetic issues, identify what highway corridor you consider as being especially aesthetically pleasing.  Ask yourself why you consider it so remarkable.  List those attributes that you consider as contributing to its visual character and visual quality on a sheet of paper as a reminder to yourself.

In a classroom setting, most people reveal that they are attracted to highways that traverse unique or representative natural landscapes.  A few suggest interesting urban or small town settings.  Rarely (although typically there is at least one person in each class), someone identifies a rather average street or even large-scale freeway as a corridor that they find attractive.  When asked why, it is because it has a personal meaning for them—the trip home from work or to a grandmother’s house or it is a route to a favorite vacation spot.   All of the answers reflect what you may have already intuitively recognized—that issues related to aesthetics have to do with the relationship people have with their visual environment.


Slide 17

Group Exercises

In order to explore the ideas of landscape aesthetics further, please participate in the following four exercises, even if you do not have a partner or are not part of a team or class.  These exercises can be completed by individuals.  Nonetheless, even if you are taking the course by yourself on-line, you may want to recruit family or friends to participate in these series of exercises.  They are fun and insightful especially when done as a group.  It takes about a half-hour to complete all four exercises. 


Slide 18

Exercise 1A

Please click Exercise 1A - Individual Exercise and print out this worksheet


Slide 19

Exercise 1A

While showing yourself the images on the next eight slides, write down in the appropriate box on the worksheet what you find attractive and unattractive about each image as a series of bullet points.  Display each image for 90 seconds.  If working with a partner or in a group, do not make any comments or share your thoughts with each other yet!


Slide 20

Image A

Fill in the first row on the worksheet with what you find attractive and what you find unattractive about Image A.


Slide 21

Image B

Fill in the second row on the worksheet with what you find attractive and what you find unattractive about Image B.


Slide 22

Image C

Fill in the third row on the worksheet with what you find attractive and what you find unattractive about Image C.


Slide 23

Image D

Fill in the fourth row on the worksheet with what you find attractive and what you find unattractive about Image D.


Slide 24

Image E

Fill in the fifth row on the worksheet with what you find attractive and what you find unattractive about Image E.


Slide 25

Image F

Fill in the sixth row on the worksheet with what you find attractive and what you find unattractive about Image F.


Slide 26

Image G

Fill in the seventh row on the worksheet with what you find attractive and what you find unattractive about Image G.


Slide 27

Image H

Fill in the eighth row on the worksheet with what you find attractive and what you find unattractive about Image H.


Slide 28

Exercise 1B

If you have a partner, click Exercise 1B - Partner Exercise in the narrative text file and print out this worksheet.  If you don’t have a partner, skip to slide 31.


Slide 29

Exercise 1B: Partner Exercise

If you have a partner, follow the instructions on the slide: “Compare your assessment of the first four images with the assessment of your partner.  Together, list as bullets on your worksheet what makes each image attractive and unattractive.”  Simply compile the list by adding the two lists together.  If you disagree on some aspect of the image you can explain your position and perhaps reach a consensus but it is not necessary.  There is no right or wrong answer for which you need to come to an agreement. 


Slide 30

Exercise 1B: Partner Exercise

If you have a partner, continue the exercise with the last four images.


Slide 31

Exercise 1C

Please click Exercise 1C - Team Exercise and print out this worksheet even if you are not part of a team.


Slide 32

Exercise 1C

Review the bullet points you made in Exercises 1A (or Exercise 1B if you had a partner), then rank the eight images from the most attractive to the most unattractive.  For this ranking exercise you should reach a consensus if you have a partner or are on a team.  Put your answers on the sheet entitled Exercise 1C: Team Exercise.  If you lack a team or even a partner, complete the exercise as an individual.


Slide 33

Exercise 1D

Since you are taking this class on-line, we are going to use this worksheet in a slightly different manner than we did when we used it in class. For on-line students, please complete this series of exercises by printing out and filling in the first column from the file labeled Exercise 1D - Class Ranking.


Slide 34

Exercise 1D - Class Exercise

In order to simulate the results of doing this in a classroom setting, compare your answers to the completed forms from two previous Caltrans classes by opening the on-line file called Exercise 1D - Actual Class Rankings.  Are your answers similar to those of previous classes?

To simulate the discussion that occurred in a classroom setting, write down on a sheet of paper what you think these results mean in terms of human perception and the conducting of visual impact assessments.

Note that the most attractive image is always considered to be Image B.  The least attractive is always considered Image G.  This was not only true of these two classes but was how every team in every class—over 300 people—consistently ranked these two images.  Notice also that there is general agreement about what is above average and what is below average.  In these two examples, images A and H were always ranked by all eight groups as one of the top four images.  Image F was always ranked in the bottom 4.  Image E, except for its ranking by one group, was always in the bottom 4 also.   The middle is hazier but even there, trends are noticeable—images tend toward the upper middle or lower middle on a spectrum of attractiveness.


Slide 35

Aesthetic Conclusions

The exercise just completed is not strictly scientific—it is meant only as an eye-opener.  It is frequently asked how scientific are visual impact assessments—how consistent are their results, after all isn’t “beauty in the eye of the beholder?”

What is interesting about the scientific research in the field of visual aesthetics is how consistently human beings rank scenes.  Various theories abound as to why this is but it appears that human beings regardless of class, race, culture, or even geography, are surprisingly consistent in what they find attractive and unattractive.  The research suggests that human beings are looking for an environment that is fertile and nurturing—essentially a savannah-type environment with scattered trees and shrubs, rolling topography, and water (or as some researchers have suggested, a golf course). Add flowers and animals and it goes off the charts! This constancy of human perception is why using the same visual impact assessment process will consistently generate the same results regardless of who is doing the evaluation. 

Students who are interested in exploring the science behind the idea of the constancy of human perception may find it interesting to examine the Selected Books on Aesthetics and Visual Impact Assessments section that can be found in the Resources for CEQA and Caltrans VIA Process file. This information is also available on the VIA Training Link List webpage.


Slide 36

Consistency of Human Perception

Read the three bullet points listed on the slide.  These three concepts are key to understanding the scientific basis of the FHWA VIA process.

 The constancy of the human perception of beauty is not in “the eye of the beholder” as commonly (and mistakenly) accepted.  Beauty cannot be isolated in the viewer, nor can it be isolated in the scene being viewed.  Indeed the very act of seeing cannot be isolated in the object being seen nor in the viewer doing the looking.  Perception is not objective, nor is it subjective.  It is rather the result of a relationship between what is viewed and what can be seen. 

To illustrate this concept that perception is the result of a relationship between object being viewed and subject doing the viewing, think about what happens when you perceive a ripe-red apple.   Your eyes can see a particular, albeit narrow, range of electromagnetic waves; an object radiates also a particular range of electromagnetic waves that usually is a much wider range than the eye can detect.  A red apple is red only because of the range of electromagnetic waves the apple reflects, only the wave we label as red can be seen by our eyes, reflecting off the apple.  There are other waves the apple radiates; there are other waves our eyes can see; but given the relationship between the object and the subject, we see a red apple.

Since visual perception, even our perception of beauty, is about a relationship between an object and a viewer, how we value that relationship is extremely important to human beings.   A visual impact assessment inherently is a study of the relationship people have with the existing environment, what they value in it and therefore how concerned they will be about visual changes to that environment.   This is why discussing visual issues with the public can be fraught with emotions—we are talking about relationships and values.  Fortunately, the FHWA VIA process gives us a proven method to untangle emotions from impacts, allowing us to assess visual impacts in a consistent manner.   This is only possible because statistically people value similar landscapes regardless of class, race, culture or geography.


Slide 38

Consistent Visual Impact Assessments

Read the two bullet points.  These two concepts are the key to understanding how using FHWA VIA process leads to consistent visual impact assessments.

The FHWA VIA process is not a simple procedure.  In order to understand what people perceive and what they value of that perception, the FHWA VIA process divides and subdivides and divides again the environment and the people viewing it.  It “deconstructs” the environment and viewers and it does so rather thoroughly.  We will take considerable time deconstructing the environment and viewers in an effort to understand the complexities of each.  Then, finally, we will reassemble them to understand their relationships and the type of impacts that each alternative will have on those relationships.


Module 1, Lesson 2 - Rationale for Assessing Visual Impacts