California Department of Transportation

Module 3: Visual Quality and Visual Impacts


iNTRODUCTION - Module 3 Part A

Welcome to VIA Module 3A.  This module contains Part A of the Visual Impact Assessment training program 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.  It is now available on-line to anyone interested in how Caltrans conducts visual impact assessments. 

The presentation you are about to view is the beginning of the third module of a three-module on-line training course. VIA Module 1 and VIA Module 2 precede this presentation.  If you have inadvertently started with this module, you may wish to review the previous presentations found in these two folders before beginning Module 3.

Due to size, Module 3 is divided into three parts, Part A, Part B, and Part C.  This is Part A of Module 3 or simply Module 3A.  Later you will be directed to Part B at the completion of this presentation.

In Module 3 we are going to learn about inventorying visual quality and how to assess visual impacts.


Slide 3

Review of Module 1

Let’s begin by recalling what we learned in Module 1. 

In the introduction to the course, we discovered that people evaluate landscape attractiveness in a similar manner, generally agreeing on what they find attractive and what they find unattractive.   It is this consistency that allows us to objectively assess visual impacts.  We also learned that although there are both federal and state laws and requirements for conducting a VIA,  the real reason Caltrans conducts a VIA is that the people of California expect visual issues to be considered when their government is making decisions about  altering the state’s transportation system.

The rationale for VIA training began with NEPA delegation, coupled with the fact that VIA training hasn’t been systematically taught for decades.  To ensure quality documents, it became imperative that Caltrans take a uniform approach to the preparation of these visual issue documents—a required uniform approach that necessitated a uniform training program.

Although the federal legislation, particularly the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) provide the primary regulatory setting for discussing visual issues, there are other federal and state requirements and local requirements that also regulate visual impacts.  In fact understanding local regulations will provide the author of a VIA with insight into who the viewers are and what will be their likely responses to changes in the visual environment.

We looked at an overview of the FHWA VIA process, noting in particular that it is composed of visual resources and viewers and that it is the relationship that viewers have with visual resources that forms the basis for evaluating visual impacts.

The first module concluded with an introduction of the Team Project, a teaching tool that will provide a hands-on example of how to conduct a Visual Impact Assessment using the FHWA VIA process as required by Caltrans.


Slide 5

Review of Module 2

In Module Two we examined the scoping process, noting how important it was in establishing the resources, both human and financial, that will be needed to study visual impacts.  We also described how proper scoping helps anticipate the schedule and the magnitude of, and funding for, mitigation or other project features.

We also dissected the landscape—we pulled it apart—in order to understand its structure.  We called this process Labeling the Landscape.  As part of this process, we explored the concept of Landscape Types.   These are the large scale biogeophysical or ecological units that scientists use to decipher the landscape.  For our purposes, landscape types are composed of Landform and Land Cover

We saw that a Landscape Type had a large, discontinuous range but within that range there were smaller contiguous groupings of a single landscape type that the FHWA called Landscape Units.  We discovered that landscape types have fuzzy boundaries and blended or transitioned into other landscape types unlike individual landscape units which frequently have proper names, allowing us to define their domains more concretely. 

Finally, using the concept of Viewsheds, and applying it to landscape units, we created Visual Assessment Units—these are the units we want to use to evaluate visual impacts.  We concluded this part of the Team Project, by establishing Key Views and noting Scenic Resources for each Visual Assessment Unit.

Then we explored the concept of Visual Character using the ideas of pattern elements and pattern character.  Pattern Elements, we discovered, are the intrinsic artistic qualities—such as line, form, texture, or color—that compose a landscape.  Pattern Character describes the artistic relationships between the elements that compose the landscape such as dominance, scale, diversity, and continuity.

Using these concepts, we evaluated the visual character of the existing scene and the visual character of the proposed alternatives for our team project.  We took notes, comparing and rating on a seven-point scale each alternative’s compatibility with existing scene.

Then we left the visual resource side of the FHWA VIA process and concentrated on identifying and understanding viewers, both neighbors—those people with views of the road—and travelers—those people with views from the road.  We determined the nature of a composite viewer, one that would represent all viewers—not merely an average viewer but one with a range of viewer responses proportionate with the assumed actual viewers.  The level of viewer exposure and viewer sensitivity was established for this typical viewer and used for furthering our team project.   


Slide 7

Review of Module 3

In Module 3, we will examine visual quality and its three attributes as identified by the FHWA: 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 address how to assemble all the proceeding information into a VIA and the subsequent environmental document.


Module 3A, Lesson 11 - Visual Quality