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Newly certified SITES™ program projects revitalize communities

Recycled concrete block walls provide seating under existing shade trees at the first federal courthouse and project of the U.S. General Services Administration to be certified by the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) program in Albuquerque. Photo by Robert Reck.

An urban Washington, D.C. schoolyard previously defined by black asphalt and chain link fencing now boasts raingardens and monarch butterflies in season. Across the country in Albuquerque, a traditional lawn in front of a federal courthouse has been replaced with a green roof that captures stormwater from its spot on top of an underground parking garage.

TOP: In Washington, D.C., the Brent Elementary Schoolyard Greening project is the first elementary school campus to be certified by the SITES™ program. Its playground and rain garden is pictured here. BOTTOM: Native plantings at Brent Elementary. Photos by Michael Lucy, Sustainable Life Designs.

The Brent Elementary Schoolyard and Pete V. Domenici Federal Courthouse are the first K-5 educational campus and federal courthouse landscapes to be certified sustainable by the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) program. This collaboration between the American Society of Landscape Architects, the United States Botanic Garden and the Wildflower Center has produced the nation’s most comprehensive rating system for sustainable landscapes. In addition to the schoolyard and courthouse projects, last week the SITES program also certified George Washington University’s Square 80 Plaza in Washington, D.C. and the East Bay Public Plaza in Olympia, Washington.

This brings the total number of landscape projects certified under the SITES pilot program to 30 including residential, commercial and other sites across the country. Lana Denkeler is one of the SITES program coordinators and the staff contact for the pilot projects, which since 2010 have field-tested the initial guidelines and performance benchmarks released in 2009. The pilot projects were intended to help inform a revised rating system — SITES v2 — that will be made available for use by the general public later this year.

"Now that thirty pilot projects have been certified, we have learned that the SITES program is — as we had hoped — encouraging design teams to think about their projects differently from the beginning," says Denkeler. "If the projects have the proper processes in place, we are able to reward their efforts to manage stormwater, use drought resistant plants and to conserve materials and resources."

Always excited to certify new types of projects such as the elementary school and federal courthouse, Denkeler and the SITES program team also pay close attention to what types of sustainable practices are most commonly implemented by pilot projects. Applicants for SITES program certification can earn credit for using different sustainable practices that include everything from reuse of materials to locally sourced plants, and from connecting to local transit networks to providing shade and seating for visitors.

"The majority of projects pursue credits that address water conservation — specifically innovative stormwater management practices," says Denkeler.

LEFT: At the East Bay Public Plaza in Olympia, Washington, the LOTT Clean Water Alliance developed features such as the Wet Science Center's outdoor classroom to showcase reclaimed water in a positive and participatory way. The East Bay Public Plaza is one of four landscape projects certified by the SITES™ program this month. Photo by Eric J. Williams. RIGHT: At East Bay Public Plaza, 100 percent of the water used onsite for irrigation is reclaimed water. The site's centerpiece, Confluence Creek, is the first interactive recreational water feature in Washington state to be permitted using reclaimed water. Photo by Kelly Carson.

This fact makes sense as so many regions face extreme, often unprecedented drought. Water scarcity was part of what drove the U.S. General Services Administration led by Rios Clementi Hale Studios to turn a resource consumptive "yard" into an efficient and evocative "garden" at Albuquerque’s Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse. The mission of the GSA is to deliver the best value in real estate to government and the American people with a focus on building a more sustainable government.

Another newly certified project by the SITES™ program — The Square 80 Plaza at The George Washington (GW) University — replaces an existing parking lot and service alleys with an urban plaza, expansive lawn, ornamental tree grove, extensive pedestrian network and an outdoor classroom for GW’s new Sustainable Landscape program. Using multiple low-impact development (LID) techniques, the project targeted 100 percent of all stormwater runoff to be retained on site. Pictured here is the site's firehouse and tree allée. Photo by STUDIO39.

"This project did this by rediscovering and reinterpreting what is local. This endemic approach of clever and careful water stewardship through water harvesting and redistribution allowed the landscape to be created and sustained through precision rather than force," says landscape architect Christian Gabriel who is the national director for landscape architecture within the GSA’s Public Buildings Service.

The courthouse sits within the Albuquerque Basin, a high desert region that gets 8-10 inches of annual rainfall — which generally comes in the form of intense storms. Twenty one thousand square feet of concrete was removed from the site before the project team installed raingardens, bioswales and cisterns to reduce and filter the tens of thousands of gallons of stormwater runoff that used to end up in the city’s sewers. Those features plus regionally appropriate xeric native plants in place of a traditional lawn help reduce the 3.5 million gallons of water previously consumed onsite each year.

The energy and water savings are impressive — but to the project team so is what the new courthouse landscape has done for the city.

"The site has itself become a destination. Citizens have discovered and are now coming to use the site," says Gabriel. "Rather than simply continue forward as an interstitial space between the sidewalk and the federal courthouse the site has bloomed and is beginning to change the perception of downtown Albuquerque.

Michael Lucy of Sustainable Life Designs in Washington, D.C. is also proud of what the transformed Brent Elementary Schoolyard has done for the community. Two thousand square feet of asphalt was torn out — along with invasive plants and out-moded equipment — to make way for features such as a central entrance space for parents, teachers and students and a raingarden that manages stormwater for one-quarter of the site. Most of the plants are now regionally native, and there’s even a habitat garden visited by monarch butterflies in season. The redesign opened up space for a 7,000 square foot outdoor classroom that has revolutionized what and how teachers teach and students learn.

"I think the SITES certification presents an exciting opportunity for this school to celebrate its grounds — and the incredible efforts over more than eight years by the Brent PTA’s Green Team, along with other parents and community members to make this project happen. It’s truly inspiring to have worked with this great school," says Lucy. "We are hopeful that the district government and other parents throughout the city will continue to ‘green’ their grounds. Schools obviously provide such incredible opportunities for health and well-being, and we would be well served to give children more places like Brent so they can thrive."

By Christina Kosta Procopiou

© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center