LEED for the Outdoors? Landscapes Get Their Own Green Certification Standards

The Sustainable Sites Initiative, which just certified its first three projects, hopes to do for outdoor spaces what LEED did for buildings.

Green-building standards like LEED and SEED help guide and spur environmentally conscious construction. But step outside the door and into the garden, the campus quad, or the street, and there’s never been one set of rules to promote sustainability. Until now.

The American Society of Landscape Architects and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin have been working to create a set of standards since 2005. Last week, the program they developed, The Sustainable Sites Initiative, certified the first three landscapes through its standards process. In Missouri, a corporate campus where parking lots retain storm water, a walking trail passes through restored prairie, and a garden grows vegetables earned three stars. A green space at a Texas college and a playground at a urban park in Memphis each earned one star. To earn certification, sites can earn points for features like soil restoration, water conservation, native plants, and sustainable land maintenance.

The organizations running SITES, which now include the U.S. Botanic Garden, hope the standards program will raise awareness of the possibilities of sustainable landscapes in the same way that LEED boosted the profile of sustainable building. When ASLA conducted a public opinion poll a couple years ago, respondents said they're concerned about the environment and they know how to make their homes greener, says Nancy Somerville, ASLA’s executive vice president. But when asked whether they knew what they could do to make their outdoor spaces more sustainable, their level of knowledge dropped. "The overall public has been completely unaware of what you want to be doing in the design and maintenance of the outdoor environment," Somerville says. "But all that connective tissue from the building envelope out plays as great or a greater role in the environmental sustainability and livability of our communities."

One of the challenges of developing the standards has been creating criteria flexible enough to work for a wide variety of outdoor spaces—from office parks and military complexes to national parks. The three sites that earned certification are participating in a pilot phase meant to identify any difficulties in using the system. A streetscape, for instance, might not be able to rack up points for using recycled materials or use of native plants because the standards must work as well for a wetland in Louisiana as for an arid zone in Arizona.

But the larger challenge might be convincing people that sustainable landscape are not inferior aesthetically to the lawns and gardens and road medians that have dominated America's outdoor spaces for decades. Holly Shimizu, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden, says people often believe sustainable landscapes must be wild and untended. Her organization is working to spread the principles established in SITES to a less technical audience: provides home gardeners with guidance on soil, water, and plants, derived from SITES principles.

“You can still have a lot of beauty in these projects, and you should,” says Susan Rieff, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “But it requires a lot more care, I think, and a lot more thought. Just as building a green building takes more thought and attention than people were used to.”

Photo courtesy of SWT Design

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