Wildlife & Traffic

A European Handbook for Identifying Conflicts and Designing Solutions

6 Integration of Infrastructure into Landscape
Original version (2003)
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6.2 Alignment

Route alignment and the design of earthworks should respond to the broad scale of the topography as well as to small-scale landforms. The guiding principle is to work with the topography using engineering elements to minimise habitat fragmentation by maximising the opportunities for connectivity below and above the infrastructure. Earthworks should respond to even minor changes in the geological characteristics encountered along the route. The design of each scheme should take into consideration the full range of vertical and horizontal alignment standards available. These standards will vary considerably according to the type of infrastructure. A single carriageway road in mountainous country that is lightly trafficked may have tighter radius curves and steeper gradients than a dual three lane motorway which by virtue of speed and traffic volume will require gentle gradients and generous radius curves.

A relaxation of standards can be used to good effect to avoid a nature conservation site without compromising the safety of the traffic. The presence of protected or locally rare species or habitats may influence the choice of alignment and associated earthworks in the design solution. The need to limit incursions into valued habitat may require innovative design solutions such as the use of retaining structures where the road or railway is in a cutting, or the use of a shallow or low-level viaduct rather than an embankment.

Adopting an alignment following the natural contours is, in general, good practice. This helps to integrate a road within the landscape, reduces the need for earthworks and minimises disturbance to adjacent landuse.

Figure 6.1 - A4/A46 Batheaston/Swainswick bypass - within the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and adjacent to the World Heritage City of Bath, UK. Landscaping was developed with highway design to ensure the best possible fit with the landform. There was extensive use of false cuttings and shallow embankments to screen traffic and blend the engineering slopes gently into the landform. (Photo by Highways Agency, UK)

6.2.1 Responding to ridges and valleys

An alignment that follows the foot of a major ridge will enable infrastructure to remain hidden from view. Even minor ridges offer opportunities for sensitive alignment; a rise of only five metres can be effective for screening purposes. The benefits to wildlife include lower noise levels, reduction of disturbance from vehicle lights and suppression of de-icing salt spray.

Although alignments on the skyline should generally be avoided, following the top of a major ridge can have environmental benefits by avoiding the valley bottom where it can have a major impact on sensitive wetland habitats.

Where infrastructure rises up or follows the side of a valley, the intrusion can be significant. In such situations earthworks need to be properly sited and designed. Major earthworks can be avoided by following the contours high up the valley side. Split carriageways and restored graded-out slopes are effective design solutions. Care must be taken not to grade out slopes where valuable habitats or species may be present.

There will be opportunities to place short sections of infrastructure on shallow viaducts in order to maintain an element of connectivity in the landscape. For further information see Section 7.3.1.

Following a valley bottom may be a satisfactory alignment only if the severance of watercourses and other linear features are avoided or minimised.

Figure 6.2 - The A27 Brighton bypass runs through the edge of the South Downs AONB in Southern England. Grading the cuttings and embankments to 1:6 fits the road into the downland character. (Photo by Highways Agency, UK)

6.2.2 Alignment in flat landscapes

Flat landscapes vary greatly in character - good alignment and design need to consider landscape scale and context and the following principles:

  • Habitat fragmentation should be minimised by integrating crossing points for the target species within the scheme design. On low-level embankments this may be through the use of culverts with dry ledges or the installation of dedicated tunnels such as those for badgers or amphibians. (See Section 7.3.5)
  • All transport infrastructure should be kept as near existing levels as possible but should allow for an element of connectivity with sufficient headroom for crossings such as mammal tunnels/underpasses. • Alignments using existing topographical features, drainage and vegetation are often the best.
  • Flat landscapes, particularly wetlands, are often of high nature conservation value, so disturbance of soils should be minimised. The use of a low-level viaduct may be the best solution to cross a wetland area where this is unavoidable.
  • Steep, intrusive embankments should be avoided. Viaducts are preferred as they maintain connectivity for species.
  • Patterns of large existing features (e.g. ditches and hedgerows) should be followed.

6.2.3 Crossing valleys

Infrastructure can be carried across valleys on embankments or viaducts. Viaducts have environmental advantages subject to the choice of the appropriate crossing point.

Viaducts are suited to narrow, steep-sided valleys as they:

  • Minimise landtake and fragmentation within a valley by allowing watercourses and any existing nature conservation interest to continue under the structure;
  • Maintain connectivity for species movement; and
  • Retain views up and down the valley.

For further information see Section 7.3.1.

Embankments are suited more to wide, shallow valleys as they:

  • Can maintain some degree of connectivity through the use of appropriately sited and dimensioned culverts and underpasses. In other situations lower alignment may allow the construction of an overpass.
  • Can be integrated with the adjacent landform by good use of earthworks and planting; and
  • Offer more scope for screen planting.

Figure 6.3 - M6, Cumbria in Northern England. The road follows a major ridge and avoids the river valley. Verges are restored to the classic upland vegetation types. (Photo by Highways Agency, UK)

Figure 6.4 - Viaducts minimise landtake and fragmentation within a valley by allowing watercourses and any existing nature conservation interests to continue under the structure. This viaduct carries the A9 highway over an important wetland surrounding the River Mino (Galicia, Northwest Spain). (Photo by AUDASA, Spain)

Figure 6.5 - M40, Cherwell Valley, Oxfordshire. The embankment is a dominant feature but care has been taken to retain the character and form of the river on both sides of the road. (Photo by Highways Agency, UK)

6.2.4 Crossing watercourses

Diverting or crossing watercourses is often unavoidable and requires good design to ensure a good fit with the landscape and the minimisation of disturbance to the watercourse and the riparian environment. Watercourse crossings need to minimise impacts on the flow characteristics and vegetation and maximise opportunities for new habitat creation.

In general, new or modified watercourses should be wide with shallow margins to allow the establishment of appropriate marginal planting. Engineering design should respect the natural flow and substrate characteristics of the existing watercourse. A wide range of geotextiles and modular systems such as gabion mattresses can be used to create an erosion-resistant watercourse edge which can support riparian vegetation. Local materials should be employed within a site-specific design. It is important to ensure that animals can climb out of rivers, streams and ditches and so steep banksides and concrete elements should be avoided. Where it is absolutely necessary to use them exit steps or inset shallow slopes should be provided. Nature conservation opportunities include the planting of particular species associated with the water environment e.g. willow species or the creation of special features like nesting opportunities for birds, dry ledges and other bankside elements for small mammals.

6.2.5 Junctions and roundabouts

Highway junctions and roundabouts can be wildlife traps or islands and are very intrusive unless well sited and designed with earthworks at a scale appropriate to minimise the impact of any signs, gantries, lighting and overbridges. They should be designed to avoid fragmentation with good connections above or below the carriageways as appropriate for the species native to the area.

  • Major junctions should be sited on lowlying ground screened by landform, wherever possible.
  • Roundabout earthworks generally need to be low, simple and rounded.

Land contained within junctions can be very extensive (up to 40 ha) and, in some cases, may offer opportunities for substantial planting and the creation of areas of nature conservation interest, e.g. species-rich grassland and wetland with balancing ponds. However, these areas should not be isolated from the adjoining land otherwise they become dangerous traps for fauna. They should not be considered for compensatory habitat creation.

  • Connectivity between the segments of a major interchange may be important for the movement of fauna and can be achieved using culverts or tunnels.
  • Fencing of the correct type may be required to prevent the larger mammals from crossing road carriageways and railway lines at these busy intersections, junctions and triangles.
  • Exits from fenced areas should be provided for larger mammals.
  • Whenever possible existing vegetation should be retained within the junction.

It is important to be aware of how these structures meet (crossing roads, railways and fences) to avoid confusing the fauna and unintentionally leading them onto the road.

Figure 6.6 - A73, Limburg, The Netherlands. The interchanges have been densely planted to minimise the degree of fragmentation caused to the woodland. (Photo by Rijkswaterstaat, Netherlands)