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Sustainable Sites Initiative certifies first sustainable landscapes

The Woodland Discovery Playground in Memphis is one of the first three Sustainable Sites Initiative™ pilot projects to be certified.

At today's typical outdoor playground more safety restrictions can mean less adventure, and limited garden space can make for less butterfly chasing. One new Memphis playground, however, is safe and modern yet altogether different — and has now proved to offer more than just child's play.

Last week when the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) certified its first pilot projects, Woodland Discovery Playground became one of the first certified sustainable landscapes in the nation. SITES is a partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Wildflower Center and the United States Botanic Garden (USBG) formed to develop a voluntary, national rating system and performance benchmarks for sustainable landscapes on sites with or without buildings.

The playground, an international company's corporate headquarters and a new university green space are the first of 150-plus pilot projects to be recognized for sustainable land practices. The pilot study tests the four-star rating system created by dozens of the country's leading sustainability experts, scientists and design professionals.

Woodland Discovery Playground is part of a plan to convert Shelby Farms Park's 4,000 urban acres into a major public landmark. The playground includes a 1/4-mile long arbor of native woody trees and vines that link six play areas called "play nests" featuring developmentally appropriate outdoor experiences for children of different ages and with different interests and abilities. For example, a net and tree house system hovers above so that older children can safely climb into the tree canopy.

LEFT: A safety net feature at the playground allows older children to safely climb in to the tree canopy.
RIGHT: The playground offers age-appropriate play experiences for children of different ages, interests and abilities. 

"What really sets this playground apart is its commitment to outdoor play and to enabling children to have an incredible experience outside," says Sarah Weidner Astheimer, a landscape architect who manages the project from James Corner Field Operations in New York.

The SITES rating system operates on a 250-point scale with four levels, or "stars" of certification. Points are assigned to different credits that promote practices like recycled materials use, sustainable stormwater management or restoration of native plant communities for wildlife habitat.

The playground earned SITES certification in part by using recycled materials, all native plants and by restoring adjacent forest invaded by Chinese privet. It uses recycled athletic shoe material as a surface for several play areas and loose, recycled boot material as a soft landing under the tree house and net system. The permeable surface allows stormwater to soak into the ground to help nourish the arbor.

ABOVE TOP: At Novus International, the pavilion overlooking the improved aquatic habitat is an outdoor venue for meetings, dining and after-hours events.
ABOVE BOTTOM: The Green at College Park at UT-Arlington features shade structures and a garden of Muhly grass.

Incredible outdoor experiences for adults were on the minds of designers of the other two certified pilot projects — the corporate headquarters of St. Charles, Missouri-based Novus International and a new park district at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Among the features Novus developed with SWT Design and others for the nine-acre headquarters was a parking lot with stormwater retention and a walking trail that winds through restored prairie and other habitat. A vegetable garden maintained by staff used to stock the chef's indoor pantry is fed by a windspire-powered well that retrieves rainwater stored underground. A bioretention basin captures stormwater on site and provides aquatic habitat and a scenic view from a nearby pavilion topped with a vegetated roof.

Landscape Architect Hunter Beckham of St. Louis-based SWT Design says integrating the sustainable site design with the pre-existing LEED®-Platinum certified building was the goal of both the design team and Novus International, a global leader in sustainable corporate culture.

"With a LEED®-Platinum certified building, Novus understood how an outdoor sustainable design could intertwine with the sustainable building design and sustainable corporate culture they have achieved indoors," he says.

That meant removing invasives and planting nearly all native plants. Since interaction with nature was important, beehives were brought in so employees could harvest honey. They do — and monitor birds and bats and identify insects with the help of the St. Louis Zoo's invertebrate experts.

SITES filled a gap where sustainability is concerned, according to David Hopman, landscape architect and University of Texas at Arlington associate professor. Prior to SITES, the closest thing to rating landscape sustainability was the minimal landscape criteria set up for the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED® certification for green buildings.

Professor Hopman is one of many people at UT-Arlington who have been advocating for the type of development measured by SITES. The Green at College Park — a SITES-certified park created around the idea of controlling campus drainage with a solution that features bioswales, rain gardens, permeable pavement and a large retention area filled with native plants — is the result of their advocacy.

LEFT: At Novus International, the woodland edge habitat area is adjacent to the campus cafeteria's shaded outdoor dining area, providing colorful views of plants and wildlife for employees as they enjoy their lunch break. RIGHT: A bioswale and rill garden at The Green at College Park help cleanse stormwater and retain it onsite.

"SITES takes sustainability certification to a new level by making it performance-based. I think it's a terrific way to elevate everyone's way of thinking about the future viability of landscapes," says Hopman.

Hopman facilitated SITES certification for The Green at College Park. The acreage once served as a parking lot with concentrated and rapid stormwater drainage that flooded a nearby creek. Now the park features native and adapted plants, rain gardens and a water detention system that slows down the flow of stormwater, cleanses the water of impurities and captures it for re-use. The park is also intended to be an important element in campus and city life as the new College Park mixed-use district takes shape. Amenities include an open 'low mow' lawn/activity area, pedestrian promenades, shade arbors and more on roughly three acres in downtown Arlington, all designed by Schrickel Rollins and Associates, Inc.

Input from pilot projects and the public will be used to refine the next version of the SITES rating system, expected to be released in 2013.

By Christina Procopiou

* The terms “partner” and “partnership” as used herein to refer to the Sustainable Sites Initiative shall not refer to a legal partnership, joint venture or other transaction or creation of other legal entity, but rather it shall refer to a collaborative effort between independent autonomous legal entities.

© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center