News & Media

Across the Great Divide / A Safe Passage

by Lisa Rochon (The Globe and Mail)
January 28, 2011

Designers usually design for humans. Designing for the sake of animals – whether ferrets, elk or deer – and allowing them safe and poetic access to their habitats may sound unusual, but it is an urgent, lifesaving enterprise.

The challenge of keeping wildlife away from deadly collisions with cars inspired the ARC (for Animal Road Crossing) international design competition, which last year invited dozens of landscape architects from around the world to imagine animal-friendly, and eye-catching, bridges to cross over busy highways.

The competition’s winner was announced in Washington earlier this week: A New York City partnership of designers MVVA, led by acclaimed landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, and architectural builders HNTB has envisioned a crossing that merges seamlessly with the surrounding landscape, offering safe passage over the heavily travelled Interstate 70 at a high elevation near Vail, Colo. Shrouded in heavy landscape, the ultrawide crossing appears to be more natural land than man-made infrastructure. Besides being visually alluring, estimates suggest it can be built for roughly half the current cost of the wildlife overpasses that dominate in Banff National Park.

It’s a pleasure to notice wildlife in our rear-view mirror when we travel past city limits and into the country. There’s something picturesque and romantic about watching deer graze or elk lift their massive heads as we speed past. But when animals wander blindly onto highways, the results can be devastating. There’s the sad, ugly loss of life, of course (mostly of wild animals, but occasionally of humans as well). But there’s also a more literal price tag. In the United States, the cost is estimated at $8-billion (U.S.) a year in insurance claims and car repairs. In Canada, damages are pegged at about $250-million annually, according to the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University.

Wildlife crossings first appeared in Europe in the 1950s. Since the late seventies, Banff National Park has been at the vanguard of shepherding animals safely across vast territories. Scientist Tony Clevenger, one of the ARC competition jurors, has reported that the purpose-built crossings common in Banff have, over the past 25 years, allowed safe passage to some 240,000 large mammals, including elk, black and grizzly bears, deer, mountain lion, moose and coyote. Entire families of wild animals travel along the protective fencing and over the man-made structures; young animals learn how to reset their migratory patterns accordingly within three years of birth.

The problem in Banff – both in terms of cost and aesthetics – is that the crossings are overengineered and overbuilt. “They’re strong enough to carry the load of five super dumpsters, not three elk and a moose,” says Toronto ecologist and planner Nina-Marie Lister, the ARC competition’s professional adviser and an associate professor at Ryerson University. Elsewhere at Banff, there are rudimentary metal culverts or prefabricated concrete boxes inserted underneath roads. They are narrow and dark; elegance and lightness of design never played a role.

The ARC finalists, short-listed from 36 submissions from nine countries, are invitations for animals to weave their way over a landscape located 150 kilometres west of Denver and next to massive ski chalets and high-profile resorts. Why similarly inventive bridges haven’t been built in Canada “is a mystery” says Lister. “We know that they work, we know that there’s a need for them. We also know that the cost of not having them is incredibly high, and it’s compounded year after year.”

One of the most compelling of the finalists was a bright red bridge made of sustainable, lightweight, wood-core fibreglass, proposed by Toronto-based Janet Rosenberg + Associates with Blackwell Bowick Partnership. Through site research, the Rosenberg team discovered that animals typically stopped in thickets located back from the highway. The team’s interview with Temple Grandin, an animal scientist at Colorado State University (and the subject of a recent high-profile biopic starring Claire Danes), helped them understand that an animal’s world is highly sensory – defined by vision, sound, touch and smell, and that they prefer to move in curves. The roar of traffic often stops animals in their tracks; bright lights and shrill sounds cause fear.

To encourage animals across the road, Rosenberg’s team extended three meandering landscaped ramps, like fingers, into the forest. The choice of bright red was intended to instantly communicate “wildlife crossing” to drivers, while offering an iconic piece of design on busy roadways. And the colour doesn’t bother animals: They perceive red as an unstartling grey.

The scheme by Balmori Associates of New York proposed a wide, continuous beam without any joints, the monolith constructed of laminated wood from trees killed by beetles. Philadelphia-based firm The Olin Studio designed the most exuberant scheme, fusing mesh, plastic and concrete to allow for sections of its curved, diagrid bridge to apparently lift a section of the landscape off the ground. Zwarts & Jansma, of Amsterdam, slipped lanes for cars and bikes underneath a bridge that appears to curve its superthin structure effortlessly down to the ground.

HNTB + MVVA’s winning design, which nabbed a $40,000 prize, looks more like an underpass than a bridge. Reflective paint, rather than obtrusive artificial lighting, provides illumination for cars travelling underneath. It’s also about four times as wide as crossings at Banff. Herds of animals will be easily accommodated.

The ARC competition was sponsored by a partnership of universities, private foundations and organizations, including the Federal Highway Administration and the Western Transportation Institute. The U.S. Department of Transportation has signed a memorandum of understanding to build the winning design at Vail. Other funding may come from President Barack Obama’s multibillion planned infrastructure program to rebuild aging roads, railways and runways.

There’s plenty of potential to render any of the short-listed designs into reality across the border. Parks Canada has expressed interest in meeting with all five finalists to help in the design of new wildlife crossings over key sections of the Trans-Canada Highway through the Rockies.

That kind of investment in design and wildlife is worth serious consideration; the government of Newfoundland and Labrador has recently been served with a class-action suit by drivers involved in moose-vehicle collisions. The ARC competition pushes us to think about the power of architecture to offset the invasion of roads into epic landscapes – infrastructure gently aligned with nature, something that benefits humans and their fellow animals.