In the seaside community of Bra- denton Beach, Florida, just steps from the Gulf of Mexico and along- side a scenic highway, is a sight that pains Jeff Caster, FASLA: a dry, sandy pit surrounded by a chain-link fence. It’s a stormwater pond, built years ago by the state of Florida. And like many of its kind, it is ugly, a label Caster hopes to avoid for all future stormwater projects.
Caster is the state transportation landscape architect for the Flori- da Department of Transportation (FDOT), and for much of his ca- reer, he has undertaken an almost quixotic quest to improve the aes- thetic quality of these types of hy- perfunctional landscape fea- tures. Hired in 1993, Caster joined FDOT at a time when landscape architects were “decorators,” adding trees and shrubs to what were considered engineering projects. But Caster couldn’t help but challenge some of the department’s policies, and the assumptions they were based on.
FUNCTION, ALSO FORM JEFF CASTER BELIEVES IT’S TIME TO RETHINK THE HUMBLE STORMWATER POND Photo Gallery
“I just constantly put my camel’s nose under the tent, so to speak, going places where I wasn’t invited, in terms of policy meetings and re- viewing policy documents and com- menting on them,” he says. In 2011, when Caster’s longtime col- league Ananth Persad was appointed State Secretary of Transportation, Persad made aesthetics a priority, calling particular attention to the state’s dismal stormwater ponds, which he called big ugly retention ponds, or BURPs for short. In terms of land use, a state’s road- side stormwater ponds are not in- consequential.
FDOT is required to manage the stormwater along state- owned rights-of-way and owns 4,369 stormwater ponds, many of them in view of Florida’s most traveled road- ways. Given that a state’s roadways comprise some of what Caster calls “the most visited and visible public space out there, it’s important that it look good.” FDOT, in other words, has the power to enhance or detract from Florida’s natural beauty; it can even reinforce negative stereotypes, Caster says, citing a stormwater pond in a low-income neighborhood of Talla- hassee that is ringed with barbed wire.
Over the past several years, Caster has compiled a visual catalog of his state’s stormwater ponds, using Google Earth and Streetview, as well as his own photographs. He asked himself what made the ugly ponds ugly and the pretty ponds pretty. As a study, it was not at all scientific, but Caster was able to generalize. The most appealing ponds had three things in common: the presence of trees, the absence of a fence, and evi- dence of upkeep. Less important, he found, were size and shape, despite his department’s designers’ assump- tion that a curvilinear pond is more appealing than a rectilinear one. Slowly, these ideas are becoming for- malized through policy.
As of 2015, FDOT rules assume that stormwater ponds will not be fenced in, and “if you want a fence around your pond,” Caster says, “you have to convince the department that you’ve designed a dangerous pond.” In a way, this is Caster’s legacy, shaping and beau- tifying Florida’s landscape through small changes to transportation pol- icy. “There are no big, momentous victories in this,” he says. “It’s just every time these policy documents get updated, you make a bunch of suggestions, and some of them will stick. And those little policy changes, over a state as big as Florida, have huge and lasting impact.”