The purpose of this study is to document and define the ecological performance and design potential of plant species and other biotic and abiotic factors commonly found in road rights-of-way in the Mobile Bay Drainage Area (MBDA). The common perception of a road right-of-way is a homogenous swath of turf and weedy vegetation; this study seeks to identify the unique performative and spatial latencies in the blurred view from 70 mph.
The ecology of road rights-of-way is characterized by vegetation that persists in conditions prohibitive to the growth of many native plant species. Typically perceived as pests, these hardy plants may provide ecological benefits including wildlife and pollinator habitat, erosion control, stormwater infiltration, and particulate and ambient temperature reduction (Del Tredici, 2014). Designing and managing to maximize this ecological potential, across the immense network of continuous open space that rights-of-way provide, could result in environmental improvements at the regional scale while bolstering the social perception of infrastructural landscapes and the plant species that colonize them.
With a land area of 44,560 square miles, the MBDA delineates a topographically defined region of study that encompasses the majority of Alabama. The MBDA contains approximately 27,200 miles of interstate, highway, arterial, and connector roads with an estimated 620 square miles of adjacent land held in rights-of-way.
An initial review of spatial and policy data suggests that additional documentation of existing roadside vegetation will benefit the region. In-depth documentation of the potential of existing conditions could lead to revised maintenance and management plans that bolster ecological productivity in the MBDA’s land area currently held in rights-of-way. With increased development on the horizon, landscape architecture professionals should take a proactive and optimistic approach to roadway design that encompasses the ecological and social benefits provided by thoughtfully designed contiguous open spaces.
Recent federal proposals to enhance the ecological viability of rights-of-way are leading to more recognition of these overlooked landscapes. Landscape architects have a role to play in amplifying the potential of these areas that are marginalized, yet abundant.
The study will begin with the collection of relevant GIS data to create detailed maps of the MBDA’s roadways, soil types, watersheds, and land uses. Data for water quality (state 303(d) status), air particulates, and ambient temperature will be mapped as potential indicators of ecological health. In addition to the collection of spatial data, federal, state, and county rights-of-way maintenance and management policies will be reviewed.
Once initial data has been reviewed and mapped, the authors will identify a driving route between the Auburn-Opelika area and Mobile Bay that traverses various eco-regions and land use types while navigating Alabama’s political landscape of county lines, management policies, and maintenance regimes. The route will be driven across four seasons while field studies, video footage, and photography will be employed to identify and document vegetation, growing conditions, and the unique design potential at specified mile markers and landmarks.