Two SITES Pilot Projects Tell All

Kevin Burke, ASLA, senior landscape architect with Atlanta’s ambitious Beltline project, and Constance Haydock, a landscape architect working in the northeast, have been moving through the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) pilot project phase and lived to tell about it. In their presentations at the 2011 GreenBuild, both forward-thinking practitioners mentioned that early on in their careers, some 20 years ago, they were, “embarrassed to say,” not using sustainable best practices. Haydock said back then she was “pouring concrete, ordering up machinery, and producing terrific waste.” Now, with SITES and its focus on creating regenerative landscapes, “there’s another way, and I am excited about that.”

Burke described SITES as a rating system focused on ecosystem protection, restoration, and regeneration. The system enables the development of man-made landscapes that are “sustainable and don’t rely on future resources.” The end goal is that “what we design today should be able to function on its own.” Haydock added that SITES can help mitigate some major environmental issues: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.), in 2007 there were 33 million tons of municipal yard waste, 13 percent of the total. As encouraged by SITES, “this can now be used for compost tea.” Also, invasives, which cause an estimated $38 billion in damage annually, can be fought through SITES-encouraged removal programs and adding and protecting native plants.

On soils, SITES can help reduce erosion and compaction. For water, the system can help eliminate the use of increasingly scarce potable water for landscape irrigation. Native plants can also be used to reduce water use overall, and increase biodiversity. SITES encourages more sustainable material use, including local products made up of industrial byproducts like flyash and foundry sand. Haydock said she loves her Italian marble, but won’t be importing it for projects anytime soon. For the important area of human health and well-being, SITES also rewards projects that enable exercise, which “helps ward off anxiety, depression, and improves mood.”  (See an overview of SITES and the pilot projects).

The system, which many landscape architects already know, offers a maximum of 250 points. To certify, 100 points must be earned. To reach 1-2 stars, projects need to hit 125-150 points. 200 are needed to achieve the “very challenging” SITES 4 star level.

Haydock’s 19-acre SITES pilot project is Hempstead Plains in Long Island, New York. Managed by Nassau Community College, the site is surrounded by historic areas, parkways, and a stadium, but has remained a “pure prairie” landscape, largely due to the dedicated efforts of a group of passionate biologists. Running through the SITES pre-requisites and credits and applying them to her project, she noted that pre-requisite 2.1, which calls for a “pre-design site assessment”, is a challenge, involving seven pages of paperwork. However, she said that process was actually critical because it “forces designers, engineers, landscape architects to get together as a group in the beginning. It’s a powerful tool to get people thinking and anticipating future problems early on.”

The total water credits, with a possible 44 points, are tools for helping man-made landscapes reduce potable water use. Haydock said 70 percent of water pollution in urban areas comes from stormwater runoff. So for her project, she is applying a “demonstrative green roof” on the interpretive learning center she’s building in the 5 percent of the total site she’s allowed to use. The green roof, which will help capture any runoff, will use BioTrays made of coconut husks. These will be filled with engineered soils and native grasses and flowering plants.

Moving into the soil credits, Haydock said “these are pretty standard” — soils can’t move off the site. She said SITES was right to recognize the issue with construction sites as well given the average construction site has 20 times the sediment runoff of an agriculture site and 1,000-2,000 times that of a forest. For credits dealing with vegetation, Haydock noted that she is expected to earn credits for “preserving plant biomass” as she’s working with the biologists to protect an endangered wildflower in the prairie.

Moving deeper into more sections of SITES, Burke took over and discussed how Atlanta’s Beltline provides opportunities for 6,500 acres of redevelopment. Within the Beltline, there are 45 neighborhoods, covering 8 percent of the city’s land and 22 percent of its population. One component of this project is the Historic 4th Ward Park, which includes brownfields and greyfields, and is a natural stormwater catch basin. In an clever landscape architecture design, the Beltline team created a new basin that doubles as a park. An example of smart multi-use infrastructure, the new park, which cost 50 million, is designed to flood in severe storm events. When not flooding, there are ledges for exercise, with a theatre in the center. “We built a 17 acre park and a new piece of infrastructure for $50 million.”

To earn SITES credits on materials, Burke said they used recycled plastic panels set within local woods railings for a boardwalk that helps visitors avoid the old pecan trees on site.  “Weathered granite” excavated during site development was also reused. For credits on using local materials, the team made sure all materials were sourced within 250 miles, except for LED lights. However, Burke said that the local material credits were pushing the Beltline staff to look for a local LED light manufacturer.

The project is also expected to earn credits for human health and well-being (through the inclusion of stairs), responding to community input (by creating the theatre), cleaning soils (through removing lead and asbestos-laden soils in favor of new, clean soils), and developing a plan for sustainable maintenance (instead of “sterilizing soils,” Burke will bring in compost to create microbiological processes). There are other credits to be earned through the project’s use of solar power to run the lights. Here Burke noted that the Georgia Parks department said some 55-60 percent of total costs are associated with electricity so installing renewable energy can have a demonstrable impact on site sustainability.

Both Haydock and Burke said they were aiming for SITES 2 stars for their projects, and think they can get to 3 stars over time, with greater effort. Still, Burke noted that “we’ve created a very valuable project, even if it’s not 4 stars. Any project that’s 1 or 2 stars is doing great”

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Student Awards General Design Honor. Co-Modification Joseph Kubik, Student ASLA, Graduate, University of Pennsylvania
Faculty Advisor: Mark Thomann

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