Sustainable Development

by | Nov 1, 2007 | Conservation

PICTURE YOUR YARD as home to a rain garden that filtered rainwater and increased groundwater recharge by capturing excess water. Imagine that you also composted yard trimmings for the benefits it provides your land’s soil, preserved topsoil and took care not to remove or disturb native vegetation. You removed invasive plants and secured native vegetation from local growers to reduce the energy demands associated with shipping and to help make sure your plants were adapted to your site.

With these actions, you will have created a sustainable landscape at your home. By 2009, there will be standards and guidelines created by the Sustainable Sites Initiative that will both serve as tools to help you do so and recognize your good work.

The Sustainable Sites Initiative is an interdisciplinary partnership between the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the United States Botanic Garden and a diverse group of stakeholder organizations to develop guidelines and standards for landscape sustainability. With funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, U.S. Forest Service, Meadows Foundation and others, the participants are developing these criteria based on the premise that site design can be improved to protect and renew the landscape’s ability to regulate the climate, clean air and water, and improve our quality of life. The standards and guidelines will be used to create a third-party certification system that will recognize performance in achieving a sustainable site, much like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED® standards certify sustainable – or green – buildings.

The first of three reports to be developed over the next 18 months by the initiative was made available for public review in November. It is a preliminary draft of the standards and guidelines that have been created so far.

According to the Wildflower Center’s Sustainable Sites project manager Heather Venhaus, sustainable sites are linked to quality of life and the long-term health of communities and the environment. “Much of what we are doing today in the sustainability movement is not only for us but for future generations,” she says. “We want our children and our children’s children to have clean air, water and food. To do this we need to carefully use and restore the resources that we have today.”

Standards and guidelines can apply to sites with and without buildings, including open spaces such as parks, conservation easements and buffer zones; transportation rights-of-way, military complexes and airports; botanical gardens, streetscapes and plazas; residential and commercial landscapes; and public and private campuses.

Although the standards are created for the use of professionals like landscape architects and developers, Venhaus believes that homeowners will have opportunities to follow the initiative’s recommendations.

“I think the fact that what we create will have a component focused on existing landscapes as well as new ones will greatly interest homeowners,” says Venhaus. “Landscapes are alive and are constantly growing and changing. Over time, homeowners can make their landscapes sustainable.”

The Sustainable Sites Initiative has brought together experts in the fields of hydrology, soils, vegetation and materials use from across the country to develop criteria for sustainable landscape certification. These participants are mindful that, like buildings, landscapes can conserve resources or degrade or wastefully consume them. However, landscapes are unique in that they have the additional capacity to regenerate natural resources.

Take greenhouse gas emissions, for example. Vegetation helps reduce the amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere by capturing and storing it for use in producing roots, leaves and bark. In the United States alone urban trees capture up to 25 million tons of carbon each year. Sustainable sites seek to maximize this contribution that plants make toward clean air.

The U.S. Green Building Council will incorporate the standards and guidelines established by the Sustainable Sites Initiative into their LEED® Green Building Rating System. Richard Fedrizzi, president, CEO and founding chairman of the USGBC, says, “The USGBC believes that landscape design and maintenance are integral to sustainable development and that they must also be an integral component of the LEED® Green Building Rating System. The Sustainable Sites Initiative will be a valuable contribution to the continuous improvement of LEED® and to the advancement of green building practice as a whole.”

Venhaus and the project team at the Wildflower Center look forward to contributing what they’ve learned about native plant use and landscape sustainability to the broader green movement. She thinks the Center is poised to help bring people across the country together to address the issue of landscape sustainability. “This topic ties in to Lady Bird Johnson’s lifelong work. She may not have been using the same vocabulary in the 1960s that we use today to articulate these sustainability concepts. However, it’s the same idea: clean water and air and a better environmental inheritance for our grandchildren.”