California Department of Transportation

Module 2: Visual Character

Slide 1

iNTRODUCTION - Module 2 Part A

Welcome to Module 2 of the Visual Impact Assessment course produced by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) with support from the University of California at Davis (UC Davis) for the training of selected employees of Caltrans.  This is the second module of a three-module on-line training course.  If you have inadvertently started with this module, you may wish to review VIA Module 1 before beginning this presentation. 

As a reminder, reference materials and worksheets are easily accessed by simply clicking on the Underlined Text for the corresponding slide.

Let’s review what we learned in Module 1 and what we will learn in Modules 2 and 3.


Slide 3

Review of Module 1

Module 1 covered six of the sixteen lessons covered in this course.  The titles of the six lessons are listed on this slide.  Let’s review each lesson before proceeding with Module 2.

The first lesson provided an overview of the class, its structure, content, and method of instruction.  It also contained a pre-test which when taken again at the conclusion of the course, will allow students to judge how well they have learned the concepts covered in this course. But most importantly, the first lesson offered an exercise that showed how people tend to agree what landscapes are aesthetically pleasing and which are not.  This concept—the consistency with which human beings perceive aesthetics—is the very foundation of this course.  Without this consistency, the objective evaluation of visual impacts would be impossible.

From information gained in the second lesson, you should now understand that Caltrans conducts visual impact assessments not only because they are legally required but also because the public demands that government projects not harm their visual environment. No one wants the government to make their environment less aesthetically pleasing.  Indeed, NEPA demands that federal and state levels of government provide an aesthetically pleasing environment for all Americans.  But even this requirement is merely the legalization of a national sentiment.  The most important reason for assessing visual impacts is that the public desires an aesthetically pleasing environment and will not accept a state agency making their visual environment ugly.  Lawsuits over visual quality are evidence of this sentiment.

The primary rationale for this training, as detailed in the third lesson, is to improve the fidelity and consistency with which the FHWA VIA process is applied throughout Caltrans—both geographically and from year to year.  Courts have repeatedly stated that a consistent and understandable VIA process is required for a state agency to legally prevail.

The fourth lesson illustrates how regulatory setting is critical in conducting visual impact assessments.   All levels of government—federal, state, and even local—have practices that require government projects to visually complement the existing visual environment.  The need to assess visual impacts is derived mostly from federal law—the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—and from state law—the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  Although projects sponsored by federal and state agencies are not required to meet local ordinances, most of these projects should consider those ordinances pertaining to visual issues.  In particular, CEQA requires a consideration of local plans which at a minimum provide insight into the visual resources valued by the local community and a better understanding what of the sensitivity and exposure local viewers have to change in their visual environment.

The fifth lesson provided a preliminary understanding—or overview—of the FHWA VIA process. It was noted that the process has two major components–visual resources and viewers—corresponding to the concepts from physiology’ and psychology about stimulus and response. Visual impacts, according to these fields of study, are simply the changes to visual resources that stimulate a particular response by the viewer.

The last lesson in the first module was to introduce a fictitious highway improvement scenario that will be used throughout the remainder of the training as a way to learn and comprehend the FHWA VIA process.  If the on-line student has yet to examine the Team Project Map, the Team Project Narrative, or the Team Project Photolog of this fictitious project, it is recommended that they should do so now before proceeding with the next lesson.


Slide 6

Overview of Module 2

There are four lessons that we are going to examine in this module as the bullet points indicate on this slide.  In Part A of this module, we will cover the first two of the lessons; in Part B, we will cover the remaining two lessons. 

In the first lesson of this module, we are going to examine the Caltrans scoping process, particularly how it relates to the development of a VIA.  It is critical to correctly scope the visual issues related to a project so that the appropriate financial and technical resources are mustered for the task.  Early, appropriate scoping avoids unnecessary conflicts later in the project development process.

Next we will divide the landscape into manageable units for further study.  This act of dividing is very detailed.  We call it Labeling the Landscape.  Although the concepts are important, for many landscape architects it is a review of concepts that are familiar.  The most important idea to take away from this lesson is the idea of Visual Assessment Units.  Many professionals familiar with the terms and concepts presented in this lesson will be able to establish Visual Assessment Units without following the procedures outlined in this presentation step by step.  Nonetheless, understanding the procedure that the FHWA uses to establish Visual Assessment Units is important to comprehend so it is presented in a deliberative manner.

Once the Visual Assessment Units are established, the FHWA process evaluates visual character.  Caltrans uses visual character to determine the compatibility of the proposed project with the existing landscape.  We will present the process for determining visual character of the existing landscape and how well the visual character of the proposed project fits into the visual character of the existing landscape.

So far we have been analyzing the landscape—the blue boxes on the FHWA VIA Process Flow Diagram. In the last lesson in Module 2 we will jump over to the yellow boxes—viewers and their responses to change.  We will subdivide viewers just like we have subdivided the landscape—and for the same reason—to better understand how to assess visual impacts.  We will divide viewers into either travelers with views from the road or neighbors with views to the road.  We will be sub-dividing them even further into distinct viewer groups to understand their exposure and sensitivity.  Then we will re-aggregate them into a composite viewer group with all of the attributes of the constituent viewer groups so we can complete our analysis fairly.

These four lessons will complete the second module of VIA training.  


Slide 8

Upcoming in Module 3

In Module 3 we will examine visual quality and its three components: vividness, intactness, and unity.  We will also examine how changes to visual resources and viewer response to those changes generates visual impacts.  We will describe how to assess those impacts and how to determine appropriate mitigation measures, including a look at various simulation techniques. 

We will also address how to assemble all the proceeding information into a VIA and subsequent environmental document.  Specifically, we will examine how to tailor a VIA to the complexity of the project and the level of environmental documentation.  We will also examine, briefly, the art and science of simulating changes to the visual environment.

We will then conclude the training with a summary of what we have learned.  You will be given an opportunity to take the post-test and to score it and the pre-test. 


Module 2A, Lesson 7 - VIA Scoping Process