Energy & Environment

LEED Introduces Green Guidelines for Sustainable Landscapes

A new rating system seeks to make sustainable landscapes standard.
by | October 2010

New Orleans City Park, founded in 1853, is home to the world’s biggest collection of mature live oak trees, some older than 600 years. On Aug. 29, 2005, 90 percent of its 1,300 acres were left underwater. More than 1,000 trees -- many of them oaks -- were toppled, and most of the grass and vegetation was destroyed.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, City Park has planted more than 4,000 new trees and is embarking on a pilot project that will restore the grounds, complete with better site drainage, athletic fields, jogging trails, shelters and an electronic distribution center to help support community events. This project is one of more than 150 pilots worldwide testing the first green rating system devoted to landscape design, construction and maintenance.

The Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) is to landscape architecture what the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is to building construction. LEED has always set the standards for green buildings, but no comparable standards exist for sustainable landscapes: city and state parks, transportation rights-of-way, residential and commercial landscapes, medical and academic campuses, conservation easements, and buffer zones. The people behind SITES -- the American Society of Landscape Architects, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin and United States Botanic Garden -- look at site design as a way of preserving, enhancing and restoring ecosystem services, which plants and wildlife naturally do at no charge. The goal is to make the SITES guidelines and voluntary rating system a fast standard for sustainability.

So what makes a landscape sustainable? A November 2009 SITES report notes design, construction, operations and maintenance practices that “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, the landscape must play up and improve upon the inherent benefits and services provided by ecosystems in their natural, undeveloped state -- regardless of whether the site is a shopping mall, large subdivision, highway, industrial site, single home or park.

During the next two years, the SITES rating system will be put to the test. The more than 150 public and private pilot projects will strive to restore and rehabilitate habitats, clean and store stormwater runoff, mitigate the urban heat effect, and reconnect neighborhoods to parks and public transportation. Sites include Chandler, Ariz., where a 65-acre park will be installed on top of a closed landfill; Harris County, Texas, where best-use practices will be implemented for capturing untreated water, reusing natural materials to improve soil conditions, and reshaping gardens to retain rainwater and reduce runoff; and Hawthorne Park in Philadelphia, where a Parks and Recreation Department project will install permeable pavement and a high-efficiency irrigation system.

“It’s exciting that many of these pilot projects -- eight in every 10 -- will revitalize previously built landscapes,” said Susan Rieff, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, in a statement.

The SITES rating system works on a 250-point scale. Credits are rewarded for areas that include initial site selection, water, vegetation, materials, human health and well-being. The rating system awards one through four stars for projects that achieve 40, 50, 60 or 80 percent, respectively, of available points.

SITES will receive feedback from the pilot projects until June 2012, and a revised, final rating system and reference guide will be released in 2013.


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