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SITES™ program certifies three new sustainable landscapes

At Washington Canal Park in Washington, D.C., rainwater is collected from the park and three adjacent parcels and reused in part as supplemental water for an ice rink. Photo credit: © OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

This winter, three remarkable landscapes are being recognized for being as productive as they are beautiful. The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™ ) program — a collaboration between the Wildflower Center, American Society of Landscape Architects and United States Botanic Garden — certified three additional projects in November, bringing the total certified sustainable landscape projects to 26.

The projects are Washington Canal Park that is estimated to save Washington, D.C. 1.5 million gallons of potable water each year; Shoemaker Green at the University of Pennsylvania that includes sophisticated ways to measure water conservation on site; and the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Garden in Pittsburgh — a net-zero energy and water landscape that is the first to achieve a 4-star rating from the SITES program.

These landscapes represent the innovative lengths to which some project teams go to engineer places of beauty that also provide benefits such as clean air and water, and food and habitat for wildlife.

At Shoemaker Green at the University of Pennsylvania, landscape architects and others on the project team turned a degraded spot with deteriorating tennis courts into a vibrant open space that combines sitting areas with a pedestrian route for the campus.

Each project was a participant in the SITES pilot program that began in 2010. The voluntary, national rating system and performance benchmarks of the SITES program can be applied to built landscapes with or without buildings. The pilot program has field-tested the initial guidelines and performance benchmarks released in 2009 with the intent of informing a revised rating system — SITES v2 — that will be made available for use by the general public.

As a principal at landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates, Ltd., Jose Almiñana played a part in two of the three newly certified projects: the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens as well as Shoemaker Green at the University of Pennsylvania.

Almiñana sees the SITES program as a way to value landscapes for the benefits they deliver beyond their beauty and as validation for firms like Andropogon that approach their designs with respect to these benefits.

“Unless you value landscapes for the performances they can deliver, then they are just things of beauty when they should be that and more,” says Almiñana.

At Shoemaker Green, deteriorating and underused tennis courts meant there was no possibility of water infiltration without running the risk of displacing soils. Redesigning this degraded spot as open space, pedestrian walkways and sitting areas that are both destinations and a route through campus, landscape architects and others on the project team found ways to address the water issues by treating water as a resource. Rainwater is intercepted from roofs of adjacent buildings and conveyed through the landscape to a cistern where it is held for use in landscape irrigation. In addition, air-conditioning condensate is also used for irrigation during the summer.

Best of all, says Almiñana, there is now a system in place to measure the quality of water and the quantity of moisture on the site. “We developed a system to monitor how much water falls on site and how much leaves the site. This is something that we are doing for the first time with this project as well as with the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens project.

Measuring performance allows us to assign value to landscapes. For us, that is a very significant contribution to what we are trying to do as landscape architects.”

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh is the first landscape to achieve four-star certification by the SITES program.

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh was designed to be the world’s first project to simultaneously achieve SITES four-star certification, LEED® Platinum and the Living Building Challenge™ (still pending). Built on a previously paved city maintenance yard, the site has the potential to manage a 10-year storm event on site. Even with its 24,350-square-foot education, research and administrative building, the site is designed to be net-zero for energy and water.

“At Phipps we like to show the vital connections between people, plants, health, the planet and beauty,” explains Phipps Executive Director Richard V. Piacentini. “Our new center helps us take this to a much higher level.”

At the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, a number of sustainable features are packed into three acres including a rainwater-fed lagoon where water is filtered by a constructed wetland, permeable pavement and rain gardens.

Offering many ways to integrate the landscape and building together, the CSL features a green roof demonstration garden with native and edible plants that help insulate the building and control stormwater runoff. Another example is the reuse of sanitary water treated on-site for toilet flushing. The CSL also features virtually every sustainable landscape feature you would expect from SITES’ first 4-star project: permeable pavement, rain gardens, a rainwater-fed lagoon where the water is filtered by a constructed wetland, adult and youth education components, and innovative stormwater management approaches, as well as commitment to paying living wages during construction.

For Joel Perkovich, sustainable design and program manager at Phipps, what’s really special about the CSL is that all of its sustainable innovations can be seen in action on one three-acre site. “It is rare to have constructed wetlands, permeable asphalt, a green roof, rain gardens, woodlands and more in one small space,” he says. “It really is a living laboratory for exposing visitors to all of these different processes at work.”

Like the other two newly certified projects, water conservation and public use were central to the design of Washington Canal Park. Designed by OLIN as part of D.C.’s Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, the park is situated on three acres of former parking lot for District school buses. Now a centerpiece for about 10,000 office workers and 2,000 new mixed market-rate and affordable housing units, Washington Canal Park’s focal point is a linear rain garden that functions as an integrated stormwater system. It will save D.C. an estimated 1.5 million gallons of potable water a year.

According to Steve Benz, OLIN’s director of green infrastructure, the park was designed to evoke the city’s old canal system that existed at this location. A vast water reclamation system operates to collect rainwater from the park and from three adjacent parcels. That water is recycled for toilet flushing, landscape irrigation, as supplemental water for an ice rink and — for the first time in the city — to supplement water in a jet fountain and children’s fountain. The water had to be treated to a high degree so that the city would allow such use.

Washington Canal Park is an example of how the SITES program can be applied to projects in urban settings. This site was buried in asphalt and literally restarted to include native vegetation, healthy soil and processes to recycle rainwater. Photo credit Left: Karl-Rainer Blumenthal. Right: OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

Benz says SITES certification validates his firm’s design approach towards restorative ecology. “This site was nearly completely buried in asphalt. Everything there was restarted — from microhabitats created with native vegetation all the way through soil health.”

“Some of these aspects are literally hidden from the end user, but what that user experiences is the reason for the park itself. This was to redevelop Southeast D.C.’s Navy Yard and serve as an economic engine in doing so,” says Benz.

For the millions of visitors that will experience these three certified sustainable sites, some of the more common sustainable elements that are beneficial will literally be buried — such as underground rain cisterns and composted soils. But for landscape designers and managers who place performance alongside beauty, these certified sustainable landscapes in all their sustainable details will possess beauty that is more than skin deep.

By Christina Kosta Procopiou

© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center