The Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES™) is an interdisciplinary partnership led by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden to transform land development and management practices through the nation’s first voluntary guidelines and rating system for sustainable landscapes, with or without buildings. The guidelines and rating system represent years of work by dozens of the country’s leading sustainability experts, scientists, and design professionals and incorporate public input from hundreds of individuals and dozens of organizations to create this essential missing link in green design. Major funding for the Sustainable Sites Initiative is provided by the Meadows Foundation and Landscape Structures.
The Role of Landscapes
Existing design and construction rating systems include little recognition of the benefits of sustainable landscape and site design. While carbon-neutral performance remains the holy grail for green buildings, sustainable landscapes move beyond a do-no-harm approach by sequestering carbon, cleaning the air and water, increasing energy efficiency, restoring habitats, and ultimately giving back through significant economic, social, and environmental benefits never fully measured until now. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a stakeholder in the Initiative, anticipates incorporating SITES guidelines and performance benchmarks into future versions of its LEED® Green Building Rating System™.
About the Rating System
Modeled after LEED®, the SITES benchmarks include 15 prerequisites and 51 potential credits, which collectively make up a 250-point-scale rating system. Projects can earn one through four stars for obtaining 40, 50, 60 or 80 percent of the total points, respectively. Prerequisites and credits cover areas such as the use of greenfields, brownfields or greyfields; materials; soils and vegetation; and construction and maintenance. These credits can apply to projects ranging from corporate campuses to transportation corridors, from public parks to single-family residences. The rating system is part of two new reports issued from the Initiative, The Case for Sustainable Landscapes and Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks 2009.
The guidelines and performance benchmarks, as well as the rating system, can be used by anyone in the design, construction, and maintenance fields, as well as homeowners, governments, and those who maintain existing green building standards.
A total of 30 projects have now achieved certification under the rating system for the sustainable design, construction and maintenance of built landscapes. These projects, as part of a group of 150 projects participating in an extensive pilot program, have applied the SITES guidelines and met the requirements for certification. Among a new set of eight projects are two commercial ventures, one residence, one park, three public gardens and one educational institution. Each project incorporates sustainable features and practices which enabled them to achieve a star rating.
The most recently certified projects, released in February 2014, include:
Pete V. Domenici United States Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation, Two Stars, Rios Clementi Hale Studios, Albuquerque, N.M. (see image above). This federal courthouse is the first project constructed by the General Services Administration to achieve SITES certification. Originally constructed in 1998, the underused hardscape plazas, overwatered lawns and faulty water feature of the existing courthouse exemplified resource inefficiency, disconnection from its environment, and distance from the public. The landscape renovation reconceives the site as a cohesive park-like landscape rooted within the rich cultural, climatic and hydrological fabric of the Rio Grande Basin. Innovative strategies include the selective removal and re-use of excess concrete paving to create seat wall terraces that direct site stormwater into a series of native habitat rain gardens. The project creates a bold landscape and dignified setting for court operations while enhancing the efficiency and sustainable operations through improved water management, decreased energy use and increased urban habitat.
Brent Elementary Schoolyard Greening, One Star, Sustainable Life Designs, Washington, D.C. Located five blocks from the nation’s Capitol, this greyfield site with asphalt-dominated grounds was transformed into a sustainable landscape that educates students, parents, and neighborhood residents about green infrastructure. Improvements include the removal of 1,600 square feet of asphalt and the installation of pollinator gardens, stormwater management features, new play equipment, and 7,000 square feet of outdoor classrooms to enhance outdoor play and learning that were achieved through numerous volunteer hours. The stormwater management features include a rain garden, rain barrel, and bio-retention swale. A formerly trash-strewn space behind the school building is now an “urban canyon” that helps manage stormwater and provides native habitat.
Square 80 Plaza at The George Washington University, One Star, Studio 39 Landscape Architecture, Washington, D.C. The Square 80 Plaza project converted an existing parking lot into a park that creates pedestrian connections and open space at an urban university campus. The project retains 100 percent of its stormwater runoff on site through the use of biofiltration planters, permeable paving, hardscape diversion through use of small channels, and the collection of site water into a system of inter-connected cisterns. All plants used on the site are native and adapted species, and all water used for irrigation and the sculptural water feature is fed by the rainwater collected in the cistern, which uses no potable water.
East Bay Public Plaza, One Star, Robert W. Droll Landscape Architect, Olympia, Washington. East Bay Public Plaza is a vibrant public urban space located in the Puget Sound region that showcases the benefits of reclaimed water and the efforts of the LOTT Alliance, an Olympia-based wastewater treatment company. The former brownfield includes new educational elements such as discovery markers, interactive stream features, a series of interpretive panels, and a ground plane timeline that playfully charts the past, present and future of reclaimed water to inspire and inform visitors.
Another set of certified projects was released in November 2013:
Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Four Stars, Andropogon Associates, Pittsburgh, Pa. The Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens was designed to be the first project in the world to simultaneously achieve LEED Platinum, SITES four-star certification, and The Living Building Challenge (still pending). Built on a previously paved city maintenance yard and documented brownfield, the nearly three-acre site supports a new 24,350-square-foot education, research, and administrative building; manages all sanitary waste and a ten-year storm event on site using a range of green infrastructure strategies; has successfully reintroduced 150 native plant species; and is designed to be net-zero for energy and water. The CSL is open to the public and its building and landscape performance is being extensively researched and monitored to inform the design and construction of similar projects that restore ecosystem services, generate their own energy, and clean and re-use their own waste water.
Washington Canal Park, Three Stars, OLIN, Washington, D.C. One of the first parks built as part of the District of Columbia’s Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, Canal Park is a model of sustainability, establishing itself as a social gathering place and an economic catalyst. Located on three acres of a former parking lot for district school buses, the three-block long park is sited along the historic former Washington Canal system, and is a centerpiece for approximately 10,000 office workers and about 2,000 new mixed market-rate and affordable housing units. Canal Park’s focal point, a linear rain garden, functions as an integrated stormwater system that is estimated to save the District of Columbia 1.5 million gallons of potable water per year. The park also features electric car charging stations and a neighborhood-scale system for capturing treating, and reusing rainwater. Numerous opportunities are provided for residents and workers to enjoy the park, including an ice rink, a café, pavilions and space for concerts, movies, and farmers’ markets.
Shoemaker Green, Two Stars, Andropogon Associates, Philadelphia, Pa. As part of the University of Pennsylvania’s “Penn Connects” campus master plan, this deteriorating site with underused tennis courts was redesigned as a passive open space of lawns, tree-lined walkways, and sitting areas. The green space is both a destination and a pedestrian route from the core of campus to the historic buildings surrounding it. The site can be adapted for multiple events and activities at a wide range of scales, from secluded areas for eating lunch to staging areas for the Penn Relays and graduation ceremonies. Through the innovative use of various sustainable strategies and technologies, Shoemaker Green has also been optimized to capture and control stormwater from the site and surrounding rooftops, provide viable native plant and animal habitats, minimize transportation of materials to and from the site, and serve as a starting point for the development of a sustainable maintenance strategy for the university at large.
Projects released in August 2013:
Blue Hole Regional Park, One Star, Wimberley, Texas. A beloved local swimming hole degraded by overuse was transformed into an environmentally sustainable regional park in the Texas Hill Country. The park seeks to strike a balance between preservation of the site and recreational and educational opportunities for users. Sustainable landscape strategies include managing storm- water through the use of rain gardens and cisterns, irrigating recreational fields with treated effluent, minimizing impervious surfaces, protecting trees and endangered species habitat and restoring shoreline. New vegetation is primarily native plantings, and the park features on-site composting.
Cypresswood Harris County Water Conservation and Improvement District (WCID) 132’s Water Conservation and Demonstration Center, One Star, Houston, Texas. As Texas struggles with water shortages, WCID 132 created a community outreach project dedicated to showing alternative methods for reducing stormwater runoff and demand for potable water. This project transformed an under-used public campus into a series of gardens that educate residents on sustainable water use and landscape strategies. Features illustrate efficient water conservation, stormwater management, and soil-centered practices. Paths and planting areas were built with locally salvaged and reused materials.
American University School for International Service, Two Stars, Washington, D.C. This entrance plaza is a gathering place for students and faculty that is integrated with a LEED® Gold building to manage 100 percent of stormwater on the site and, as a result, needs no irrigation. The site features a Korean garden with adapted plants, an edible herb garden, an apiary and regional materials. The university has a zero-waste policy that includes recycling and composting landscape clippings and debris and coffee grounds from the student- run coffee shop inside.
Bat Cave Draw and Visitor’s Center, Two Stars, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, N.M. After finding contaminants from parking lot runoff, including motor oil and antifreeze, in cavern pools, Carlsbad Caverns National Park removed the existing parking area and rehabilitated it to a natural state using vegetation native to the park. All native plants used for the project were grown nearby from locally-genetic stock, and additional work was done to collect and treat runoff from the new parking areas. The park near Carlsbad, N.M., was one of several parks that participated in a National Park Service pilot program to develop monitoring standards for re-vegetation.
Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, Two Stars, Mesa Verde National Park, Co. The site-sensitive landscape design surrounding the center reflects the national park’s mission to educate the public about the archeological, biological and physical resources of the park and their interconnectivity. Stormwater from the site is directed through vegetated swales and retention ponds, and the area was re-vegetated with a mix of native and drought tolerant species, meanwhile addressing concerns about wildfires. The site produces 95 percent of its energy from on-site renewable energy sources and uses locally-quarried stone. The building has earned a LEED® Platinum certification.
George “Doc” Cavalliere Park, Three Stars, Scottsdale, Ariz. A primary strategy for the park, located on 34 acres of rugged desert terrain, was preserving and restoring its natural resources. The design uses 100 percent native plants, and all existing native trees, cacti and plant communities were preserved in place or salvaged and re-used onsite to restore desert upland and riparian plant communities. The park also incorporates a regional on-site stormwater management system. Other strategies include rainwater collection, permeable paving in parking areas and driveways, high efficiency LED lighting, net-zero energy consumption using a grid-tied 24 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system, and exclusive use of high-content recycled steel without industrial finishes.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Research Support Facility, Three Stars, Golden, Co. This federal research laboratory, a former National Guard training facility, consists of a 327-acre government research campus. The Research Support Facility, one of the newest campus additions, has achieved LEED Platinum certification for its innovative building design. The landscape framework for this net-zero energy facility includes establishing natural drainage for stormwater, minimizing impacts on local habitats, protecting habitat through conservation easements, providing hiking trails for staff and community members, using porous paving surfaces, restoring existing prairie and arroyo site features, using on-site materials for the construction of retaining walls and installing energy efficient lighting. Regional materials and high recycled content were emphasized in the selection of site materials and furnishings.
Scenic Hudson Long Dock Park, Three Stars, Beacon, N.Y. This project transformed a 14-acre property on the Hudson River from a degraded, post-industrial brownfield into a major waterfront park that realizes themes of recovery, remediation, reuse and re-engagement. The project returned public access to the river, remediated contaminated soils, rehabilitated degraded wetlands, re-used found materials in innovative ways and restored ecological diversity to upland, wetland and intertidal zones. Features include decks and docks popular with anglers; ADA-accessible paths; areas for picnicking, river gazing, dog-walking, and Frisbee tossing; a kayak pavilion and an outdoor classroom.
Over 60 of the initial 150 projects in the two-year pilot program are continuing to pursue certification under the Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks 2009. Feedback from the pilot program and public comment period held last fall is being incorporated into the next version of the SITES v2 rating system and reference guide, currently in final development.