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CHAPTER 11. VISUAL QUALITY OVERVIEW Visual quality is a very important component of human existence. Because we are continuously exposed to visual stimuli in the environment, visual quality helps shape our perceptions, attitudes, and general views of life. Our visual physical environments can range from the grand and inspirational, such as a mountain vista or a pristine lake in the woods, to the utilitarian and dreary, such as views of a refuse dump or a barren, surface parking lot. A positive visual environment can stimulate feelings of well being, whereas a negative one can diminish enjoyment and quality of life. One key component of improving quality of life is thus to improve and enhance the visual quality of our environments. Visual quality is one of the most tangible areas affected by physical improvement projects. Almost all transportation projects will in some way alter the physical landscape and thus the perceived visual quality of the community. Many people will accept basic alterations in their physical environment as the price of progress, and so these changes may not be controversial. Some alterations, such as adding landscaping to screen a transportation corridor from a residential area, may even be perceived as beneficial and a positive impact. Other types of changes, however, such as adding a screen wall that blocks views of adjacent businesses in a transportation corridor, may be perceived as having a negative impact and may be highly controversial. It is important to remember that visual quality is highly subjective. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," as the saying goes, and perceptions and interpretations of visual quality can vary widely. This is especially true among populations with different backgrounds, ethnic origins, or cultural traditions. In developing improvement projects, it is imperative that you first gain a clear understanding of the standards and values of the affected population group or groups. It is equally important to clearly and accurately communicate to the affected populations the likely visual impacts of the various project improvements and their rationale. Care needs to be taken that negative visual effects do not disproportionately impact protected populations. Assessments of visual quality play a key role in the project development process. These assessments help not only to communicate and explain the visual quality impacts of projects but also to illustrate the nature and appearance of the improvement project as a whole. Visual quality design and assessment should not be delayed until the end of the design stage when most design decisions for a project have already been made; rather it should be viewed as an integral component of the total design and project development program. This is especially true where environmental justice issues are concerned. It is much more efficient and effective to identify and avoid negative impacts early than to try to offset or mitigate them at the end. 251