Landscaped roadway medians: Boom or bust?

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An enhanced visual experience for drivers and passengers; Reduced nighttime headlight glare and distraction from oncoming vehicles; Depending on the type and density of the plant materials, they can provide additional safety by helping to prevent vehicles from crossing the median into oncoming traffic; Absorbing carbon dioxide and adding oxygen to the atmosphere; Reduction of potential soil erosion and stormwater runoff; Trapping of wind-blown debris and dust within the roadway. There are several different types of landscape treatments for roadway medians, including: Lawn (grass) only; Lawn with shade, ornamental or evergreen trees; Groundcover (very low-growing shrubs or perennials) only; Groundcover with shade, ornamental or evergreen trees; Typical shrubs only; Typical shrubs with shade, ornamental or evergreen trees; Other combinations of lawn, groundcover, shrubs and trees. A different type of treatment for medians not listed above, and not considered landscaping in the sense of plantings, is the use of various types of hardscape treatments such as concrete or brick pavers, colored concrete, or asphalt paving with a stamped pattern. Another element sometimes utilized in conjunction with planting or hardscape treatments is fencing, walls or other types of barriers.

These types of treatments can offer some of the benefits of landscaped medians, but not all. As you can tell, there are a great many varieties and combinations of treatments for use in roadway medians, with varying costs for installation and maintenance. All of these schemes can add visual interest to the roadway and have multiple benefits, but they are not always successful in the long term. Most would agree that landscaped medians seem to be the most desirable treatment, both from an aesthetic and environmental standpoint. However, is this really a good idea in all instances? The most important aspect of any artificially created landscape, aside from its initial design and installation, is maintenance. The best design can be ruined in a very short time if it is not maintained properly. In today’s economic climate, all municipalities and government entities face budgetary constraints and, in many cases, deficits. One of the many areas in which budgets can be cut is maintenance, whether it’s for roads, parks, playgrounds, or schools. I believe landscaped medians would be one of the first maintenance tasks to be eliminated or significantly reduced.

Even with proper funding, the individuals responsible for the medians’ upkeep may not know or have the proper training to provide the necessary maintenance for these areas. I’m sure everyone has seen a landscaped median in a state of neglect and sorely in need of maintenance. In some instances, they have been neglected for so long and are so overgrown, proper maintenance is not even an option, and they would need to be completely re-planted. So, what’s the solution? As a landscape architect, I’m certainly in favor of introducing plants to the built environment. However, in the case of roadway medians, this may not be the best approach. I believe these areas may be better served by the use of hardscape treatments, whether it’s simply various pavement options, or in conjunction with low decorative fencing or walls. Porous paving treatments can provide the desired reduction in stormwater runoff, and fencing or decorative walls can provide the reduction of headlight glare and protection from vehicles crossing the median into oncoming traffic. These treatments require almost no maintenance and can be attractive in their own right. While these options may not be as desirable as a well-designed and maintained planted median, they may be the best alternative in today’s world, where ongoing maintenance isn’t always guaranteed. So, the next time you’re driving on one of these roadways, take a look at the median and its condition, and draw your own conclusion. Charlie Beckert, R.L.A., is an Assistant Vice President and Senior Site Planner with H2M. He can be reached at cbeckert@h2m.com.