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LEAF Project Becomes State-Wide Model & Inspires Senate Bill

By Trenda Carter Leavitt, Harvey Design Land Architects

HDLA, a Landscape Architecture firm, is currently designing Liberty University Parkway, inspired by and modeled after LEAF. Each study included a master plan unique to each place along with locations and designs of individual gardens. The master plans and sketches were described in documents and boards which are then used by each community to present the project to potential donors.

LEAF is a most fitting name for a program that inspires leaves, branches and blooms across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Begun in 1991 in the city of Lynchburg, "LEAF" (Lynchburg Expressway Appearance Fund) was founded with the goal of improving the expressway through landscape revitalization. Its phenomenal success through three phases and fundraising topped $1.5 million and has attracted attention across the nation.

Because the viewing speed for the gardens is 55 to 65 mph, the garden designs include significant grading and massing of plant material. These techniques create a dramatic visual effect for motorists. Photo Courtesy of Nathan Brown


The model for LEAF was simple: develop a public-private partnership to sponsor and maintain gardens along 10 miles of the expressway. It began as a citizen initiative to improve the blighted expressway through Lynchburg. Donation levels were set to include design, grading, planting and a sign. All maintenance is performed by the city. For a donation level of $7,500 the donor could improve their community and receive a recognition sign to honor their contribution. Funds were solicited from corporations and private individuals to raise money for the landscaping project along the expressway.

Sponsors jumped at the opportunity; this diverse group includes: multi-national corporations, families, businesses, banks, funeral homes, colleges and hospitals. T. Ashby "Smokie" Watts III led fundraising to an incredible $1.5 million. Watts, a retired banking executive, described the community's motivation to begin LEAF: "The Expressway is like Lynchburg's front yard. If it's unattractive and littered, it tells people to drive by as fast as possible - this isn't a place you want to visit or raise a family."

The initial fundraising included cash, pledges, in-kind contributions and a federal block grant to assist in landscaping a blighted area. As the project has matured, the city has realized many benefits as a direct result of the LEAF project. Some of the benefits include: community and civic pride; economic revitalization; increased real estate values; increased tourism; increased business relocation to the city; reduction in litter.

The Landscape Architect pairs existing conditions with a proposed vision of what the garden might look like. These quick studies are incredible tools for inspiring organizations to sponsor gardens. Photo Courtesy of Trenda Leavitt

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Gaynelle Hart, Lynchburg's director of building and grounds and Kirk Schultz, city horticulturist, oversaw installation and directed all maintenance on the project. The improvements included 125 acres of fine mowed turf, 40 acres of meadows and 10 acres of intense landscaping with 76 garden beds. The city has committed to maintaining all the improvements at a cost of $325,000 annually.

LEAF has won National and International awards, including: Keep America Beautiful; Garden Club of Virginia; Virginia Region 2000 Business Award; International Society of Arboriculture Gold Leaf Award; National Arbor Day Foundation's Lady Bird Johnson Award.

"The Expressway is like Lynchburg's front yard. If it's unattractive and littered, it tells people to drive by as fast as possible - this isn't a place you want to visit or raise a family." --T. Ashby "Smokie" Watts III, retired banking executive


Recognizing that this kind of citizen initiative could save Virginia Department of Transportation a bundle of maintenance money, Virginia Senator Charles Hawkins of Chatham drafted legislation to allow the program to be implemented state-wide. Senate Bill 260 passed the General Assembly with flying colors in 2004. The act, called the Comprehensive Roadside Management Program (?33.1-223.2:9 in the Virginia state code), passed in 2005. After the new legislation was implemented, VDOT led the efforts to write the regulations. The plans and implementation in VDOT Right of Way must comply with VDOT specifications, local ordinances and state and federal laws. Public hearings are required for any proposed local program and the local government must endorse the program with a formal resolution.

Responsibility for maintenance rests with the local government, to be handled in-house or contracted out. Jake Porter, VDOT's roadside operations program manager, stated: "This program should result in a net reduction in costs to us.

It's the truest example of a public-private partnership. The initiatives and funding come from private sources, and local communities are the primary beneficiaries. VDOT certainly becomes a secondary beneficiary as its roadsides are improved and managed by locally led efforts."

All sign designs and garden sketches are completed by the Landscape Architect. Sign specifications conform to Virginia Department of Transportation standards. CAD drawing by Nathan Harbin

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Because the program is privately funded and municipally maintained, the project scale is limited only by fundraising. As seen in LEAF, the program sold itself and successful fundraising enabled an initial concept to expand to become a city-wide, state-wide, and soon-to-be national program. The Federal Highway Administration has approved in concept the program for the entire country. Their regulations will limit the signs to federally approved regulation signs, which are smaller and less aesthetic than those now grandfathered for use in Virginia. The Landscape Architect for this project, Proctor S. Harvey, has been involved with the project since its inception -- he developed the initial master plan for the project including individual garden designs. Harvey, who holds a masters degree in landscape architecture from the University of Virginia, has been a licensed Landscape Architect since 1982.

Harvey served on the committee that promulgated the rules and regulations for the state-wide program. His firm, Harvey Delaney Landscape Architects, is located on the historic James River in downtown Lynchburg. The HDLA team includes Proctor Harvey, Trenda Leavitt, Nathan Harbin, Jane Sorenson, Amanda Powers and Stacey Barr. Special design considerations and challenges for the Landscape Architect included: designing for a 65 mph audience (four to six-second viewing window); determining effective plant massing and repetition of trees; ascertaining which species are resilient when in residence on highways; importance of shaping earthwork for visual impact of the gardens; importance of on-site direction for grading to ensure aesthetically sound earthwork.

The scale of the gardens is only limited by space and budget. As this garden indicates, large trees may be used where space and utilities allow. Plant materials seen in this garden include: cryptomerias, crimson pygmy barberries, dwarf Burford hollies, maiden grass, daylilies, liriope and crape myrtles. Photo Courtesy of Nathan Brown

Similar Projects

HDLA is currently designing Rocky Mount Beautiful, Liberty University Parkway and the Farmville Corridor Enhancement; these projects were all inspired by and modeled after LEAF. Leavitt, who holds a masters in landscape architecture from Virginia Tech, is the project manager for Rocky Mount and Liberty University's initiatives. Each study included a master plan unique to each place along with locations and designs of individual gardens. The master plans and sketches were described in documents and boards which are then used by each community to present the project to potential donors.

Photographs of existing conditions are paired with a vision sketch for what the space might look like as a garden. The concept for the studies was to knit a community together visually through an individualized plant palette, and where feasible, restore remnants of a given ecosystem through substantial swaths of native grass, shrub and tree plantings. HDLA sought advice from the Virginia Department of Forestry on select projects to ensure appropriate tree selection, diversity of species and proper planting techniques.

When a private organization steps forward to initiate and manage a roadside program, a written maintenance agreement is established with the local government. Liberty University set a state-wide precedent by stepping forward to invest private funding in a public vehicular corridor. Their investment will dramatically improve the community's driving and arrival experience in the city of Lynchburg. The private university is located on two sides of Route 460, a four-lane highway; the Liberty University Parkway will visually and perceptually knit the two sides of campus together while formalizing the campus as seen from the heavily traveled federal highway.

Even within a simple on-ramp triangular space, use of plant massing and a coordinated color schemes dramatically improves the visual quality of the corridor experience. Photos Courtesy of Proctor Harvey

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Impact on Profession

The impact this project has had on raising the public's understanding of the profession of landscape architecture, horticulture and landscape contracting has been significant. Lynchburg receives frequent calls from citizens and travelers inquiring about the highway gardens. In the course of describing the evolution of the project, the role of the landscape architect as a central player was unquestionable. Harvey stated: "The evolution of this project has done more for Lynchburg's image than anything in the past 50 years! It is the most rewarding win-win project I have ever worked on."


Opportunities for landscape architects, horticulturists, contractors and suppliers are abundant. Several landscape contractors and stone suppliers are installing gardens in Rocky Mount; it gives the contractors a chance to showcase their work while improving their hometown. If the donated materials and in-kind products exceed the $7,500 minimum, the company or individual can have a sign. Examples of contributions and partnerships include: English Construction donated grading during their off-season for LEAF; Seven Oaks Landscape Contractors donated materials and labor for two Rocky Mount gardens; Ridgeway Farms Nursery donated many trees for LEAF.

Linear Corridors

The aesthetic and ecological improvements for a given community and state are limitless. As our society becomes increasingly mobile and fast-paced, calming highway gardens are more essential than ever. Designers often impart a beneficial influence through residential and corporate projects for a select number of people. Because LEAF and similar projects impact a large scale public space, their effect on entire communities has been extensive. Over 30,000 cars per day travel by the LEAF gardens. Given its large-scale, city-wide impact, LEAF benefits all users of the highway, independent of socio-economic status. Our culture's interaction with nature continues to be minimized; linear vehicular parkway and pedestrian greenway projects are an ideal opportunity for designers to facilitate interaction with the natural world.

Harvey Delaney Landscape Architects retained valuable existing trees, suggested removal of exotic invasives and specified resilient plant species for the gardens. Native and ornamental plants were used in a coordinated planting plan. Sketch /Photo Courtesy of Trenda Leavitt

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Legal Issues

The project far exceeded initial fundraising expectations. Phase I of LEAF sold out so rapidly, Harvey had to select additional locations to accommodate demand for those who wanted a garden. Donors aggressively competed for sponsorship of the gardens. VDOT Administration began to get requests to begin similar projects in the state. VDOT decided to disband the program out of fears FHWA would pull up to 15 percent of their highway funding because the signs might be perceived as advertising, which is illegal in their right of way. This brought the project to its knees for two years when FHWA stopped allowing use of donor signs -- donations evaporated when signs were halted.

VDOT was charged with writing the regulations for this new program. Because Harvey had been involved so extensively in LEAF, he was asked to serve on the committee which wrote the regulations. This kind of proactive involvement by a Landscape Architect at the legislative level continued such a worthwhile program. Writing state-wide regulations has increased understanding of the crucial role of landscape architects in the commonwealth. Landscape architects are at the forefront in preserving, enhancing and increasing the state's natural and aesthetic resources. The new regulations are modeled almost entirely on the successful LEAF program - right down to the signs Harvey designed and wrote the specifications for.

Maintenance Issues

LEAF's theme included a select palette of trees, shrubs, groundcovers and perennials to establish a unified theme throughout the expressway.

Lynchburg's Public Works Department established a bulb program for the gardens. Bulbs were purchased, planted and removed in autumn. They were then sold by the city to generate continued funding. This initiative maintained a cyclical connection to the larger community.

The Comprehensive Roadside Management Program allowed flexibility - some communities wanted to contract their maintenance to an outside company; others preferred to handle maintenance in-house; others may opt for some services contracted and others kept in-house. Typical Roadside Maintenance/Management Operations: two-week mow cycle on turf areas; pruning, weeding, watering, fertilization; replacement of plants as needed; vehicular damage also has a large impact on plant damage/replacement.

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March 22, 2019, 6:22 am PDT

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