Defining and Designing Sustainable Landscapes

By Meghna Tare

Meghna is the Executive Director, Institute for Sustainability and Global Impact at the University of Texas at Arlington where she has initiated and spearheaded many successful cross functional sustainability projects related to policy implementation, buildings and development, green procurement, transportation, employee engagement, waste management, GRI reporting, and carbon management. She is a TEDx UTA speaker, was featured as Women in CSR by TriplePundit, has done various radio shows on sustainability, is an active blogger, and graduated with an MBA in Sustainable Management at the Presidio Graduate School. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter @meghnatare.

Aug 1, 2013 | Smart Cities | 0 comments


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As land becomes scarce and ever more precious, outdoor spaces need to be designed to provide value in many ways, i.e., increasing land values, rewarding the senses, promoting environmental quality, and most importantly promoting healthy communities with a sense of pride and engagement.

The term is commonly used by educators, architectural firms, researchers, and consultants who acknowledge a common understanding of the term. Yet the idea of a “sustainable landscape” often remains undefined.

Sustainable landscapes are responsive to the environment and can positively contribute to the development of healthy communities.  While energy efficiency remains the Holy Grail for green buildings, sustainable landscapes help sequester carbon, clean the air, promote water conservation, prevent resource depletion, and create value through significant economic, social and, environmental benefits.

The Sustainable Sites Initiative

To foster this change, in 2006 the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden launched an interdisciplinary project called The Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) to create voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction, and maintenance practices. Major funding for the Sustainable Sites Initiative was provided by the Dallas-based Meadows Foundation and Landscape Structures.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), an important stakeholder in the initiative, anticipates incorporating SITES guidelines and performance benchmarks into the future versions of its LEED Green Building Rating System.

The SITES rating system includes 15 prerequisites and 51 additional, flexible credits to choose from. The credit options, adding to 250 points, address areas such as the use of redeveloping brownfield, soil restoration, water conservation, use of recycled materials, native vegetation, sustainable construction and various land maintenance practices. Certified pilot projects are recognized with 1-4 stars for obtaining 40, 50, 60 or 80% of those 250 points.

The Pilot Program spanned two years (June 2010-12) with over 150 pilot projects testing various aspects of the Sustainable Sites Initiatives. Feedback from the pilot projects were incorporated to revise the final rating system and the technical reference guide that is scheduled for release in the fall of 2013, at which time open enrollment will begin—allowing any project to pursue the certification.

Even the federal government has acknowledged the importance of this rating system. To help achieve the sustainability goals issued in President Obama’s Executive Order 13514, The White House Council on Environmental Quality issued the Guidance for Federal Agencies on Sustainable Practices for Designed Landscapes based in part on SITES.

A list of all approved SITES projects is available at SustainableSites.org.

Case Study of University of Texas at Arlington

Click photo to enlarge

The Green at College Park at The University of Texas at Arlington is one of the first three projects to be certified under SITES Pilot Program. The Green at College Park is an inviting 4.62-acre space, an urban oasis and green space for the University community, neighbors and downtown visitors. The Green features a large lawn, a curved stone wall that offers seating, paving materials made from recycled bottles that allows water to permeate, native grasses, adaptive plants, and a dry creek bed that helps manage rainwater and storm water runoff.

The park helps reduce storm water runoff by more than 25%. It filters 80% of the suspended solids out of the water before it flows towards the flood-prone Johnson Creek. The project was funded through a North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) grant in partnership with the City of Arlington and UT Arlington.

The Future of Sustainable Landscaping

Sustainable landscaping is a growing area. Too often, it is assumed that because a space is green, it is also sustainable.  The manifold dimensions of sustainable landscapes raise challenging questions over the nature of how to design, plan, and manage them.

The central message of the Sustainable Sites Initiative is that any landscape—educational institutions, federal buildings, shopping malls, city parks, or commercial office buildings,— holds the potential both to improve and to restore benefits of ecosystem services. These benefits—such as clean air and water, runoff prevention, or simply providing a safe habitat for a hummingbird—are essential to the health and well-being of humans and promoting healthy communities.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” writes that conventional wisdom dictates living a long life depends to a great extent on who we are, on the decisions we made, on what we chose to eat, how much we chose to exercise, or the access to medical treatments. No one is used to thinking about health in terms of the community, and he proved this point by uncovering the Roseto Mystery. I use the same analogy to bring home the point that when we bring community gardens or sustainable landscapes to the discussion of sustainability; we are doing more than just sustaining the future- we are helping build healthy communities!

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