Last year I learned how to create design standards that are flexible; incorporate elements suggested by residents, other public agencies, and neighboring communities; and, most importantly, engage these stakeholders in providing solutions to project challenges from the earliest stages of the process.

I'm able to do all this by applying context-sensitive solutions.

Also called context-sensitive design, this approach involves all stakeholders so infrastructure projects can balance economic, social, and environmental objectives while meeting the needs of end users. It accommodates projects by using more flexible design standards than conventional standards that may, for example, preclude the use of “unusual” strategies such as traffic calming devices.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Illinois DOT have crafted tools and built a strategic project development process around the approach. Infrastructure managers can learn much from them.

Embrace Public Involvement

In the public works sector, we typically seek feedback when a design is nearly complete. That's when we have tangible attributes to show the public: We can explain that the road will be this wide, etc.

The context-sensitive process brings the public into our realm before decisions are made. This is daunting if you believe public opinion has no place in design decisions. But if you've ever had a project stalled or stopped because of public sentiment, you understand the primary reason to use the technique. Involving the public enhances community understanding of the trade-offs required to reach a suitable design.

Because a context-sensitive approach consumes valuable staff time, first determine if a project is suitable for it. Complex projects involving major changes to existing facilities or public areas are ideal candidates. Examples are available in When Main Street is a State Highway–Blending Function, Beauty and Identity, available through Maryland DOT.

Context Sensitive Solutions in Designing Major Urban Thoroughfares for Walkable Communities, published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, explains how to frame design options—along with the consequences of each decision—for public review.

Tools for getting organized input from stakeholders include community impact assessments, which reveal how a project will affect various elements of a given community; and context audits, which help define the project setting and attributes that stakeholders find important.

Additional information is available through state DOTs, the Center for Transportation and the Environment at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and FHWA publications such as Community Impact Assessment: A Quick Reference for Transportation and Community Impact Mitigation: Case Studies.

Here To Stay

DOT influence is strongly engrained into public works administration: Towns often adopt DOT policies and procedures into their guidelines. Therefore, a context-sensitive approach may become public expectation as more DOT projects incorporate it.

While the above references are for transportation projects, many other types of projects qualify for this technique—such as those that cross several neighborhoods or communities. Who better to tell you the most important aspect of the potential impact than the people living or working there?

So start building your knowledge of the context-sensitive philosophy. Think about how your department can incorporate these ideals into projects. Review the FHWA process and learn how to perform context audits, conduct community assessments, and design within the location's context in mind.

You'll develop infrastructure that easily adapts to future changes. And because they played a role in planning and design, your customers will be much more supportive of the project—and your department. — Robert Lewis, PE, is project principal with the Chicago branch of Stanley Consultants.

Context-sensitive solutions:
  • Balance safety, community, and environmental goals
  • Involve the public and affected agencies early and continuously
  • Use an interdisciplinary team
  • Capitalize on the flexibility inherent in design standards
  • Make aesthetics integral to the design.
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