Washington & Old Dominion Trail. Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Emw.

Washington & Old Dominion Trail. Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Emw.

Though not very attractive, transmission lines offer many opportunities for creating linear outdoor spaces for recreation and mobility. In 2014, Houston city officials declared the importance of utilizing transmission lines as recreational spaces for the community. The ROWs have been used to provide walking and biking trails to nearby residents.

All over the nation, linear parks have become favorite destinations for hikers, bikers, and families seeking outdoor space. Here are only some of the most famous “transmission lines” trails in the U.S. (for a more comprehensive list visit here and here):

  • The Arizona Cross Cut Canal in Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Centennial Trail, Lake Stevens, Washington
  • Cherry Creek Trail, Denver, Colorado
  • Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, Ocala, Florida
  • Springwater Corridor Trail in Portland, Oregon
  • The Power Line Trail in Horsham Township, Pennsylvania
  • Katy Trail in Dallas, Texas
  • The Washington & Old Dominion Trail in Falls Church, Virginia

California is following the same steps, slowly turning its attention to transmission lines sites. According to the California Energy Commission, the state of California has about 200,000 miles of overhead transmission and distribution lines, and an additional 70,000 miles of underground lines. In some cities, the rights-of-way have been turned into trails or neighborhood parks.

LA Transmission Lines graphic by the California Energy Commission

LA Transmission Lines graphic by the California Energy Commission

The LADWP and Southern California Edison offer a guide for designers and stakeholders to refer to, in the hopes of ensuring a proper blend of their future use with the functionality required by the existing electrical infrastructure. Among the design considerations include:

  • Include drought tolerant vegetation
  • Avoid surfaces, materials and elements that can become obstacles
  • Vegetation shall be spaced from 2’ to 12’
  • Only 20% maximum of landscape can be occupied by plants
  • Water-efficient irrigation fixtures are encouraged
  • Plants must be easy to be removed, 3’ high and 5’ across maximum for groundcovers; other plants can be 15’ tall maximum and all must be slow growing
  • 15 gal trees and shade structures shall be 10’ tall and located outside the power lines. Site canopies shall not be flammable (i.e. wood) and must be easy to be disassembled
  • All metal structures shall be electrically grounded
  • No removal of existing soil
  • Plants shall not be closer than 100’ from the electrical infrastructure
  • Water lines must be buried 24” minimum and sprinklers shall be directed away from structures
  • Decomposed granite shall be no closer than 10’ from the structures
  • Include and integrate a 20’ patrol road with a gate-controlled access at the center of the right-of-way for maintenance purposes. Such trail shall be clear at all times and preferably separated from the existing trails in the site
  • Do not use boulders, benches or other fixed ornamental structures / urban furniture
  • No unleashed animals (6’ maximum leash)
  • No wetlands or other sensitive natural habitat

One particular case representing equal parts glory and shame in the matter of a few miles is the power lines corridor in the city of Irvine. Along a section of Barranca Way the corridor appears way out of context, but a few miles further on the Harvard Side Path, the corridor is perfectly integrated.

03-power-pylons-along-barranca-way 04-power-pylons-along-harvard-side-path

As Walter Rogers correctly appoints, one of the duties and competences of a landscape architect is to provide assessment and solutions for new power line corridors. But in my experience, sometimes I feel the profession only roughly touches upon these issues, wrongfully prescribing to the myth that “only engineers can do this, and only them alone”. Or that “it is impossible to do projects in these kinds of locations”.

The Land of Giants. Photo by CHOI + SHINE ARCHITECTS

The Land of Giants. Photo by CHOI + SHINE Architects

English landscape architect Sylvia Crowe devoted her entire life to study and provide aesthetical and planning solutions to the unappealing visual of the electrical infrastructure. In her work The Landscape of Power she portrayed the present challenges of her time regarding these metal giants using sketches and photographs. But as the Landscape Institute in the UK very properly denotes, these challenges could also be applied today. Crowe believed that buildings belonging to the emerging energy, transportation, and communication industries needed to be properly incorporated into the landscape, redesigning “the entire surface-cover of the land into one flowing comprehensive pattern.

Similarly, CHOI+SHINE Architects ‘Land of Giants’ proposal for Landsnet, Iceland attempted to turn the existing transmission towers into a true artistic masterpiece: power lines in the shape of giant human figures scattered across the landscape. Arphenotype, Bystrup Architecture Design Engineering, and other firms have additionally come up with more aesthetical appealing solutions for power pylons, all easier for the human eye to accept and for the landscape to embrace.

The Straw’ Power Pylon by BYSTRUP

The Straw’ Power Pylon by BYSTRUP

Perhaps if energy companies incorporated these solutions into their infrastructures, we wouldn’t be seeing cases like the one in City of Chino Hills a few years ago, where residents successfully opposed the installation of monstrous pylons in their backyards. Two aspects shall always be considered when dealing with these sites: 1. the perception of the utilities infrastructure,  and 2. the negative perception toward electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Studies conducted on this matter point to inconsistent and contradictory results. The National Trails Training Partnership recommends to leave those fears behind and to “avoid the numbing ‘everything-causes-cancer’ mindset, which can distract you from taking the steps that are known to protect your health“.


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