There’s a good chance you’ve seen the work of Elisabeth Hassett and an equally good chance you didn’t really notice it. Hassett is the landscape architect for the Florida Department of Transportation’s District 4, which includes Broward and Palm Beach Counties. When there’s a need for highway-side landscape design, Hassett has almost definitely had a hand in choosing the plants and the layout -- a far more complicated art than you might imagine.
I met Hassett beneath the I-95/I-595 interchange where one of the state’s largest highway beautification projects is finishing up.
MALONE: We’re looking at a $6-million project that includes $2 million worth of trees and plants. Can you describe what $2 million worth of trees and plants even looks like?
HASSETT: Well, the whole theme was to be tropical modern: royal poincianas, yellow tabebuias, pink tabebuias. The different thing that we did here is we put in these terracing areas. And that allows us to put very large palms in a steep slope. And once it gets filled out it’s going to be really, really beautiful.
MALONE: You might wander on here and mistake it for a golf course if you didn’t know better.
HASSETT: Yeah, but we don’t want anybody to get out of their car and wander here. That isn’t what it’s for; it’s just to drive by and be beautiful and maybe it’ll reduce road rage a little bit because it’s so beautiful. You want to look at the beauty, you don’t want to be looking at the crazy drivers that make you mad.
MALONE: Is this something that we know -- that has been studied -- that road rage, in fact, is affected by the landscaping on our highways?
HASSETT: Absolutely, yes. The shade, the coolness, the beauty all affects drivers for the better.
(I asked Hassett to show us some specific examples of the project’s plant life. She walked me up to a picturesque palm tree.)
This is a coconut palm, it’s very good in hurricanes -- they’re just going to sway. They’re not going to be damaged at all and hardly lose their fronds at all like... the royal palms. The only thing that we will be careful about is as soon as they fruit, we’ll take the fruit down so they don’t become wind obstacles during a storm, because all of our state roads are evacuation routes and we cannot allow them to be blocked in any way. A lot of the flowering trees are very brittle and break up in the storms. So the golden shower tree, jacaranda -- there’s lots of pretty flowering trees that I won’t allow on the right of way. So these are very, very stable palms and trees that we have.
MALONE: When we talk about $2 million worth of plants and trees, by law the state of Florida has to set aside at least 1.5 percent of the annual construction budget for highway beautification projects. So theoretically the millions of dollars behind this project weren’t going to be used for anything else. But I do think people wonder: Why do we need this at all? Why do we gussy up the interchange to begin with?
HASSETT: Well, business development. Business owners are looking at this, they see a beautiful interchange -- well designed, well taken care of -- they’re going to think, “you know what? I think I want my business in this area.” I’m always watching our state highways for something I can improve or if I see something dying I make sure it’s taken care of, but I’m always looking. I’ve driven this interchange for years and looked over and there was nothing here but wasteland and I would just envision what it could look like. And now it’s here. So it’s really pretty exciting that the vision has come to pass.
EDITORS NOTE: The original version of this story incorrectly quoted Elisabeth Hassett as saying "royal poinsettas" instead of "royal poincianas."