Using Healthy Soils to Manage Stormwater

In cities, healthy soils could be a powerful tool for managing stormwater, but unfortunately the status-quo is compacted, degraded soil covered in asphalt, said Zolna Russell, ASLA, Floura Teer Landscape Architects, and Stu Schwartz, Center for Environmental Research and Education, at the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco. Outlining novel techniques — “subsoiling,” which involves the use of agricultural de-compaction machinery, along with adding “soil amendments,” otherwise known as compost — Russell and Schwartz made the case for rebuilding the ecosystem function of soils in urban areas and creating new opportunities to manage stormwater through the ground itself. They also noted that the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) would provide credit for approaches like these that boost soil health.

According to Russell, the ecosystem services of soils play a large part in determing the quality of our landscapes. Healthy soils provide water absorption, groundwater recharge, food for plants, habitat for decomposers, and sequester carbon. Without healthy soil, stormwater management needs to be accomplished through green infrastructure techniques that rely more heavily on plants.

Soils can be evaluated along many lines. Their “biology, fertility, and structure,” which are all inter-related, are key to soil quality. Russell said “bugs, microbes, roots, naturally occuring chemicals all work together to affect the structure.” Zooming down to dirt-level, healthy soils have “open spaces” that let oxygen flow and water to infiltrate. Infiltration, unfortunately, works less well as we move from a forest to an urban environment. In the dense urban core, there’s often less interflow and groundwater recharge, even if there are parks and street trees.

The fact is then that “green in our urban environments doesn’t necessarily mean the system functions.” Lawns, for example, have the “bulk density of cement,” which actually prevents root penetration and plant health. In contrast, “deep, rich soils with long roots are a sign of a functioning landscape.”

So, given soil is so crucial to our ecosystems, why is it abused so much? She said unfortunately the common landscape architecture practice was to strip top soil and sell it, stockpile soils for later use in berms (degrading it in the process), amend old soils with compost, or import new soils, releasing lots of carbon in the process through hauling new soils in from other areas. In many of these human interactions with soil, soils are basically compacted, which means the essential ecological and hydrologic functions have been removed.

Schwartz said typical road building projects involve stripping vegetation, removing top soils, grading, and then compacting soil to form roads, foundations, and berms. Then, the “landscape is put back on top at the end.” The “engineered topography” — the earthern berm — is where all that valuable topsoil goes. While these berms can be useful sound and visual barriers, it’s a “wholesale disruption of the soil.”

Residential developments are often just as bad, leaving “material formerly known as soil” in their wake. Thin layers of turf are rolled out over the degraded soil, meaning that the lawn will need lots of fertilizers and water to live — as there will be no soil for the grass roots to grow into. With heavy rains, this thin veneer of grass provides no help in capturing rainwater, so there’s lots of runoff. “Modern practices are totally decoupled from the function of the landscape.” Schwartz went on to say that rain gardens in residential areas are basically useless if all the soils are damaged.

Instead of impoverishing soils and then adding asphalt on top, Schwartz said developers could use permeable pavers or pavements. But then, while those systems can help infiltrate water, the soils underneath still need to be in good enough shape to soak up the water. “It has to be a whole system.”

To address the challenges of soil quality in urban and suburban areas, a novel practice, subsoiling, may be the way to go. This practice involves adapting agricultural techniques to highly disturbed soils. In agricultural fields, farmers have long used decompactors to “reliably increase their crop yields.” Once the soil has been ripped, “soil amendments” or compost can be added to restore landscape function.

While the decompactors themselves looks like “medieval equipment,” with large hooks at the end of tractors, they are necessary for creating a deep enough rip. Schwartz outlined a pilot study his organization has done at a school in Baltimore, Maryland. Using a “5-bladed parabolic ripper” and adding 3-inches of “vegetated organic compost,” creating a 2-to-1 soil to compost ratio with a 9-inch depth of incorporation, his team is demonstrating a “new practice.” Schwartz showed photos clearly demonstrating how the new soils and lawn on top better handle stormwater and require no chemical fertilizer. A standard thin veneer of grass nearby flooded when it rained, while the ripped and decompacted soils with turf simply absorbed the water. The grass was deep and rich and even hard to get one’s hands into, whereas the standard lawn was patchy and fillled with weeds.

But not every site will be ideally suited to subsoiling. Russell said some sites may not have space for the equipment or be the appropriate size. She said some ideal early adopters would be long-term land holders like the U.S. department of defense, transportation department, or highway administrations. Sensitive watersheds would also be ideal spots for healthier soils that can absorb water. Other potential adopters include urban sites like schools or parks. She said athletic fields could also be a possibility, but recompaction could happen there. Some sites may also not work because of tree roots, utility lines, or naturally poor soils (for example, you can’t really aerate heavy clay soils). She noted that with these systems, “no one size fits all.”

Russell and Schwartz said for subsoiling to work an integrated design process must be used, bringing in all contractors early on in the process. Maintenance practices also need to be figured out in the beginning and their costs factored into project scopes. Russell said she’s seen too many projects put in thousands of dollars worth of plants, only to see them die because the soil wasn’t providing the right support. So including measures that maintain long-term soil health is need for the system to pay for itself. She said keeping soils healthy over the long-term also means you don’t have to create retention ponds or lay down pipe infrastructure. There’s no need for fertilizer, irrigation. Still, to achieve those benefits, landscape architects should factor in maintenance over the long haul.

To maintain this new sustainable design practice, there then needs to be lots of testing throughout the design and build process. At the beginning of the project, there should be soil testing and aftewards, too. Doing research will also help landscape architects and engineers get regulatory approval. In many communities, these practices may be illegal.

Demand for landscapes with hydrologic function is only growing. In many cities, the demand is driven by the need to meet local stormwater regulations, which call for managing stormwater on site or paying a hefty fine. The goal is to get local policymakers and designers to see healthy soils as a “cost effective stormwater management technique.” Schwartz said: “we really want this to go mainstream.”

Image credit: ASLA 2010 Professional Residential Design Award. San Francisco Residence. Lutsko Associates, Landscape / image copyright Marion Brenner

With SITES, Regenerative Design Moves Forward

In a session on measuring regenerative design at the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting, Danielle Pieranunzi, Affil. ASLA, LEED AP, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin; Joel Perkovich, ASLA, Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens; Jose Almiñana, RLA, FASLA, Andropogon Associates; and Michael Takacs, ASLA, Civil & Environmental Consultants, Inc., discussed recent developments in the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) pilot program.

Pieranunzi began the session by describing the development of sustainable landscape metrics for the SITES rating system. Aiming to improve ecosystem services while bolstering natural systems that we typically view as free, the SITES program is envisioned as a stand-alone rating system, operating on a 250-point scale with 4 levels of certification. This certification system could be applied to projects ranging form small-scale residential sites to parks and streetscapes.

The 2-year pilot program, which ended last June, tested the program metrics on locations spread across the U.S. Of course, developing a landscape sustainability metric is not easy, and the SITES program must define measures for hydrology, soils, vegetation, and materials. The pilot program allowed for critical testing of these measures, which can now be adjusted and refined.

Perkovich discussed one pilot project: the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) in Pittsburgh. The CSL grounds are located on the 15-acre Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden campus. Opened in 1893, the initial plant collection for the conservatory came from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Phipps Conservatory touts itself as the world’s “greenest” public gardens and it was the first to become LEED certified.

The new CSL headquarters is on a 2.65-acre site, the former location of a City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Works salt storage facility. The new design includes a 24,350 square foot building and is designed to be net-zero energy and water. In fact, the building is expected to be 80 percent more energy efficient than a conventional building.

Almiñana explained CSL’s design. The integrated design process included nine months of design charrettes with the local community and local designers. This process established a need for the site to be both an extension of the Phipps campus and to fit into the larger landscape. Almiñana discussed how the design offers natural air circulation by connecting the building design into the site, zero-waste energy through the deployment of interventions to generate energy and moderate temperature, and net-zero water by exploring the potential of every site surface.

Takacs talked about the hydrological design of the CSL site. To achieve a 100 percent, net-zero water level, 100 percent of water on the site must be captured or reused. Therefore, the design used pervious paving, bioretention areas, an open water lagoon, underground storage, a green roof, and rain gardens to dramatically reduce runoff. This system even captures runoff from the upper campus Botanical Gardens, which requires a tremendous amount of water to function.

For sanitary water treatment, the CSL design uses an array of tools including a septic tank, constructed wetlands, sand filters, and a solar distillation system. By employing these treatment elements, the CSL site generally doesn’t release anything back into the public sewage system.

As more landscapes like the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes are designed, built, and monitored, the more refined and sophisticated the SITES rating system will become. Each SITES project provides vital knowledge and creates incentives for the construction of future regenerative sites. The session ended with this thought: “What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?”

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer associate.

Image credits: (1, 3, 4, 6) Landscape Voice, (2, 5) Andropogon Associates

SITES Certifies Eight Projects

The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has announced eight projects that have achieved certification under the nation’s most comprehensive rating system for  the sustainable design, construction and maintenance of built landscapes. These projects, as part of a group of 150 projects participating in an extensive, two-year pilot program, have applied the SITES guidelines and met the requirements for certification.

The newly certified projects include the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden in Durham, NC; Cleveland’s Public Garden, Cleveland; Cornell University’s Mann Library Entrance in Ithaca, NY; Hunts Point Landing, an urban park in the Bronx, NY; Meadow Lake and the Main Parking Lot at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle IL; the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido, CA; the commercial SWT Design Campus in St. Louis; and the residential Victoria Garden Mews in Santa Barbara, CA.

SITES is a partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden. SITES was created in 2005 to fill a critical need for guidelines and recognition of sustainable landscapes based on their planning, design, construction and maintenance. The voluntary, national rating system and set of performance benchmarks applies to sites with or without buildings.

“This new group of showplace projects represents a tremendous amount of work toward making the built landscape more sustainable and adding to ecosystem services,” said Holly Shimizu, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Since June 2010, pilot projects have been testing the 2009 rating system created by dozens of the country’s leading sustainability experts, scientists and design professionals. The diverse projects represent various types, sizes and locations as well as stages of development.

The SITES 2009 rating system includes 15 prerequisites and 51 additional, flexible credits to choose from that add up to 250 points. The credits address areas such as soil restoration, use of recycled materials and land maintenance approaches. One through four stars are obtained for achieving 40, 50, 60 or 80 percent of those 250 points.

“The pilot program has informed and helped us refine the next iteration of the SITES Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks, which will be published in 2013.  Many additional projects are continuing to work toward certification while we proceed with our preparations for open enrollment next year.” said ASLA Executive Vice President and CEO Nancy Somerville.

The eight newly certified projects include two commercial ventures, one residence, one park, three public gardens and one educational institution.  Each project incorporates sustainable features and practices which enabled them to achieve a star rating:

The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Two Stars. Duke University, Durham, NC. (see image at top). This garden is a demonstration center intended to help school groups, families and camp participants understand and apply sustainable landscaping ideas at home.  Salvaged materials were used throughout and a cistern, a bioswale and a rain garden collect rainwater.  Teaching elements include organic vegetable gardens in raised beds, an orchard, bee hives, a compost bin and a “Food Forest” of native plants.

Cleveland’s Public Garden: Modeling Sustainability in the Rustbelt. Three Stars. Cleveland. Cleveland Botanical Garden’s goal was to demonstrate best conservation practices its visitors could apply at home. Among the sustainable features are a low-maintenance lawn that does not require weekly mowing, additional irrigation or fertilizer; a rain garden that captures runoff; native plants; and a green roof that reduces energy costs and slows stormwater runoff.

Cornell University’s Mann Library Entrance. One Star. Ithaca, NY. The Mann Library, which houses the agriculture and horticulture collection, had been a construction site.  A Landscape Architecture/Horticulture class took on the renovation, including site assessment, design and plant installation as well as preparing documents for the certification.  Sustainable features include better soil health resulting from organic additions and percolation; a diversified selection of plants more suitable to local conditions; the removal of invasive plants; and preservation of all trees on the site.

Hunts Point Landing.
Two Stars. Bronx, NY. This 1.5 acre project converted a roadway dead-ending at a debris-strewn river bank into a recreation area in a densely-populated part of New York City. This public waterfront allows visitors to bicycle, fish, kayak or enjoy the panoramic view.  Among the sustainable features are recycled bridge stones and roadway materials used in the construction and habitat restoration and protection from storm winds provided by newly planted evergreens, flowering trees and shrubs.

Meadow Lake/Main Parking Lot at The Morton Arboretum. One Star. Lisle, IL. This project turned a man-made retention lake with eroded banks into an attractive, natural-looking waterway with wetland plantings.  It also added stormwater and water pollution controls to the main parking lot. Sustainable features include the first large-scale permeable parking lot installation in Illinois and a bioswale that captures and filters rainwater that would entered storm sewers.

Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens. One Star. Escondido, CA. The outdoor patios and gardens at this craft brewery and restaurant feature a palette of climate-adapted plants.  The gardens are located in a stormwater retention basin for a surrounding industrial park, and plantings are adapted for water and drought-tolerance. The gardens include edible plants such as avocados, olives and pomegranates as well as Chinook Hops used in making beer.  Most of the boulders and rock utilized in the garden came from the site itself and many of the patio materials were made from reused salvaged materials.

SWT Design Campus. Two Stars. St. Louis. This adaptive-reuse project grafted a contemporary design office and studio addition on an existing Victorian house. The outdoor area modeled a number of sustainable practices, including managing 95 percent of rainwater on-site using a rain garden, roof garden, native Missouri plants, and pervious cover for 75 percent of the hardscape.

Victoria Garden Mews. Two Stars. Santa Barbara, CA.  Three couples who are green building professionals converted a derelict Victorian house into four highly efficient urban units that share habitat-friendly open space. Almost all home energy needs are met onsite.  Sustainable features include rainwater collection in a 14,000-gallon system, a construction waste minimization program that diverted 13 tons from landfills and the use of recycled materials including redwood siding from the Victorian house.

“Perhaps the greatest impact of the two-year SITES pilot program has been the tremendous  interest it has created among people who design, create and maintain  landscapes of all types and sizes  in creating outdoor spaces that use the benefits of nature – ecosystem services—to benefit people and the environment.  Landscape professionals and home gardeners alike are really looking for ways to make what they do sustainable,” said Susan Rieff, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

About 80 of the initial 150 projects in the two-year pilot program have indicated they will continue to pursue certification. The draft 2013 credits will be available for public review and comment starting September 26.

See more images of all the projects.

Image credits: (1) Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden / Rick Fisher, (2) Cleveland’s Public Garden / Cynthia Druckenbrod, (3) Cornell University Mann Library Entrance / Nina Bassuk, (4) Hunts Point Landing / Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, P.C., (5) Meadow Lake at Morton Arboretum / Staff at Morton Arboretum, (6) Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens / Aerial Advantage, (7) SWT Design Campus / SWT Design, (8) Victoria Garden Mews / Holly Lepere Photography

Designing the Sustainable Site

Designing the Sustainable Site: Integrated Design Strategies for Small-Scale Sites and Residential Landscapes by Heather Venhaus, who worked on the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) guidelines and benchmarks at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, provides a broad overview of sustainable landscapes from concept to implementation.

Venhaus cites the common definition of sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987). She further describes sustainability as a recognition of the interdependency of the environment, human health, and the economy. Venhaus argues that sustainable landscapes need to be regenerative, not only easing environmental damage but actively reversing it. In order for a design to be regenerative, we cannot simply add sustainable elements to the end of a conventional design. Instead, ecological systems must be integrated into every step of the design process. For this reason, Venhaus has written a book that is aimed not only at landscape architects but also planners, architects, contractors, and home gardeners.

Designing the Sustainable Site is a broad introduction to a variety of concepts and tools, most of which will be quite familiar to landscape architects. The book discusses, among other things, how to assemble multi-disciplinary design teams, write construction documents, conduct site analysis, and formulate maintenance plans. The remaining bulk of the book is devoted to “Sustainable Solutions,” which mostly reads as an overview of current sustainable design technologies. These chapters cover techniques for addressing air pollution, water pollution, flooding, water conservation, invasive species, and loss of biodiversity.

Experienced landscape architects are not necessarily Venhaus’s target audience. Instead, Designing the Sustainable Site could be an introductory textbook for students of planning, architecture, or landscape architecture. In many ways, this book looks and reads like a textbook: it’s full of diagrams that are clear, legible, but uninspiring. More successful than the diagrams are the extensive, photographically-documented case studies of residential sustainable design. These case studies begin to communicate the aesthetic potential of sustainable design, lending the book a bit of graphic interest.

By stressing the importance of integrative design – working sustainability into all aspects of a project – Venhaus makes it clear that sustainability falls across multiple disciplines. While the concepts presented in this book may be obvious to landscape architects, unfortunately they may be news to other design professionals and much of the public. By specifically addressing residential landscapes and small-scale sites, Venhaus moves sustainability out of the exclusive domain of landscape architects and into the hands of anyone involved in the design and building process, including all those prospective clients.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: Wiley & Sons

A Robust, Sustainable Reference

The Sustainable Sites Handbook: A Complete Guide to the Principles, Strategies, and Best Practices for Sustainable Landscapes by Meg Calkins, ASLA, elucidates strategic design approaches, measures for site performance, and provides an intelligent framework to discuss sustainability and understand technical issues. The handbook is extremely clear and well-structured, synthesizing a wealth of specific information into a useable form. The book embodies the very significant achievement of the Sustainable Sites initiative (SITES), in its broad-based collaborative approach to the subject.

The book begins by discussing the conceptual underpinnings of sustainable design and then moves through a comprehensive project development framework; from planning and site selection, through water, vegetation, soils and materials, to a discussion of human health and well-being and the issues of management and stewardship.

The broad disciplinary base of the SITES program, with its numerous expert contributors and reviewers, has allowed a surprisingly detailed and nuanced approach to the subject areas covered. The value of the book is as a guide to practitioners who are finding their way through the SITES system but also as a general reference to issues of sustainable site development more generally.

Perhaps even more than its professional use, I believe the book will be an invaluable resource for educators and students as a guide to sustainable design practice. Its comprehensiveness and synthetic approach to issues of site development and management provide a framework that can be broadly applied. The book brings together sound technical and procedural information placed within a well-reasoned intellectual context.

The book’s layout is clear and legible but the book design and production exhibit the limitations of quality in both materials and images so ubiquitous in contemporary textbooks. Given the density of the material, significantly more attention to a more dynamic graphic design and layout would have made a profound difference to the reader experience. The photographic images, which are vital in the elaboration of the text, suffer from being uniformly low contrast black and white images as a result of paper quality, and a more varied and lively design approach to typography, illustrations, and color would enhance both the ability to absorb the information and relay how much fun it is. Given the quality of the content and its broad market appeal, this would have been an opportunity for the publisher to invest in what should be a classic text and reference work, and one can only hope that will happen for subsequent editions.

Given the scope of this book, Meg Calkins has done a superb job in providing intellectual direction and expert content and guiding her excellent collaborators in the creation of what is destined to become a key reference work for the profession.

Read the book.

This guest review is by Elizabeth Mossop, FASLA, Professor, Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, Louisiana State University

Image credit: Wiley & Sons

SITES™ Announces First Certified Sustainable Landscapes

The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has announced the first three projects to be certified by the nation’s most comprehensive system for rating the sustainable planning, design, construction, and maintenance of built landscapes.

The corporate headquarters of an international manufacturing company, a new university green space, and a children’s playground in an urban park are the first to be recognized for their sustainable land practices from among 150-plus pilot projects that began the certification process in summer 2010. These initial projects are the St. Charles, Missouri, campus of Novus International Inc.; the Green at College Park of the University of Texas at Arlington; and the Woodland Discovery Playground at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee.

SITES is a partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden. SITES was created to fill a critical need for guidelines and recognition of green landscapes based on their planning, design, construction and maintenance. The partners have collaborated since 2005 in developing a voluntary, national rating system and set of performance benchmarks for sustainable landscapes in areas with or without buildings.

The certified pilot projects are participating in a pilot program begun in June 2010 to test the four-star rating system created by dozens of the country’s leading sustainability experts, scientists, and design professionals. Projects selected to be pilots are at various stages of development and represent a diverse mix of project types, sizes, locations, and budgets. 

The SITES rating system includes 15 prerequisites and 51 additional, flexible credits to choose from. The credit options, totaling 250 points, address areas such as the use of redeveloping brownfields or greyfields; soil restoration; water conservation; use of recycled materials and native vegetation; and sustainable construction and land maintenance approaches.

Certified pilot projects are recognized with one through four stars for obtaining 40, 50, 60 or 80 percent of those 250 points. The Novus headquarters, the Green at College Park, and Woodland Discovery Playground SITES Certified Projects received a 3-star, 1-star, and 1-star rating, respectively.

Among the features Novus developed with SWT Design and others for the 9-acre headquarters was a parking lot with stormwater retention features, a walking trail that winds through restored prairie and other habitat, and a vegetable garden that staff maintain. The garden is fed by a windmill-powered well that retrieves rainwater stored underground. A detention basin captures stormwater on site and provides aquatic habitat and a scenic view from a nearby pavilion topped with a vegetated roof.

“The innovation and analytical thinking of these first certified projects is helping point the way for the next iteration of the guidelines, which will form the basis for open certification in 2013,” said ASLA Executive Vice President and CEO Nancy Somerville.

Landscape architects and engineers with Schrickel, Rollins & Associates designed sustainable features at The Green at College Park in downtown Arlington, including a gathering lawn, shade arbors and drainage gardens. David Hopman, an associate professor of landscape architecture at UT Arlington, led the effort for SITES application and worked with the designers documenting development of the roughly three-acre green space.

The site had served mostly as a parking lot, with poor stormwater drainage that flooded a nearby creek. Now the green space sits next to Arlington’s first mixed-use development and features native and adapted plants in rain gardens and a water detention system that help slow down the flow of stormwater. That process cleanses the water of impurities and captures it for re-use on the green space’s new vegetation. 

“Developing inviting outdoor spaces that make the most of precious resources such as water is critical to our future,” said Susan Rieff, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “These projects powerfully demonstrate how sustainably designed landscapes can produce environmental, economic, and aesthetic benefits.”

The conservancy that oversees Shelby Farms Park developed the Woodland Discovery Playground with James Corner Field Operations and others to restore a woodland and promote children’s health. The 4.25 acre playground with tunnels, swings and other amenities was developed based on current children’s play theories and after workshops with children and adults. It uses recycled athletic shoe material as a surface for several play areas and loose, recycled boot material as a soft landing under a playroom of nets and tree houses. The permeable surface material allows stormwater to soak into the ground to help nourish an arbor enhanced with native trees that surrounds and links playrooms within the space.

“The educational value of these pilot projects is significant. They demonstrate what a sustainable site looks and feels like and now serve as a model to others aspiring for sustainability in a designed landscape,” said Holly H. Shimizu, executive director of the United States Botanic Garden. “Having the first pilot projects certified solidifies years of work into something tangible that we hope will be replicated all around the country.”

SITES will continue to receive feedback from the SITES Certified Pilots and the remaining pilot projects until June 2012. These projects include private residences, streetscapes, industrial complexes, and other settings. Their input as well as the public’s will be used to finalize the rating system and reference guide, expected to be released widely in 2013.

Visit SITES to learn more. Any project can apply to be certified starting in early 2013. For those interested in pursuing SITES certification, start collecting documentation now.  

Image credits: (1) SITES, (2) Novus International Headquarters, Novus International / SWT Design, (3) The Green at College Park, University of Texas at Arlington / Schrickel, Rollins and Associates Inc, (4) Shelby Farms Park, Woodland Discovery Center / James Corner Field Operations.

The Race to SITES Certification

Instead of a lofty discussion on the merits of different prerequisites and credits, Jose Alminana, FASLA, Andropogon, Angela Dye, FASLA, A. DYE Design, Hunter Beckham, ASLA, SWT Design, and Sarah Weidner Astheimer, ASLA, james corner field operations, launched into the practical challenges and rewards involved in applying the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) to new and existing projects and steering the first pilot projects through the submittal and certification process. In fact, Beckham and Astheimer are now neck and neck, having moved past the first submittal process and now heading towards the final submittal and certification, meaning one will be the first SITES-certified project.

Alminana said that 157 pilot projects in 34 U.S. States, Iceland, Canada, and Spain are registered and moving through the submittal and certification process, with 9 projects already in the preliminary submittal process. Projects clearing the preliminary review move to final review and then are set at one of the four levels: 1-4 stars. He said landscape architects testing out SITES view the initiative as valuable because it “adds clarity and vigor to technical content.”

Now, the SITES team is also reviewing feedback from the pilot projects to determine the “accuracy and fairness of the credits weights, their applicability to diverse project types, and how challenging or rewarding certification levels are.”

A wide variety of projects are moving forward. Some 65 percent of projects are greyfield redevelopments, while another 15 percent are brownfields. There are lots of sizes, from less than one acre to up to 500 acres. Alminana said the guidelines will be available as a stand-alone rating system, or can simply be used as voluntary guidelines. SITES is being incorporated into LEED through updated credits, and the U.S. Green Building Council and SITES founding partners are also working out how SITES certified projects will be treated in the LEED systems. Pilot testing will continue through 2013. When that process ends, the reference guide will be revised and presented. “This is freeware for all.” (see earlier post on the progress of SITES).

A Few Projects Testing out SITES

The Novus International headquarters, a 9.5-acre site outside St. Louis, is part of a University of Missouri research park, and has already made its way through the preliminary submittal process. Beckham, the landscape architect on the project, said “they want everything in SITES in their project so I got lucky.” The building, which is LEED Platinum, is now surrounded by active design elements, including a running loop, biomimetic design features, and vegetable gardens. More importantly, Beckham mapped out the nine different habitats in the region and developed a plan and set of design proposals to incorporate those into the site. To accomplish SITES pre-requisite 2.1, the pre-design assessment, Beckham basically incorporated all these ideas into his client pitch, introducing all the concepts from the get-go. To match the LEED platinum building, Beckham is aiming for SITES 4-stars.

Shelby Farms Park, a massive 4,000-acre park less than 6 kilometers from Memphis, is one of the major projects of james corner field operations, and has already gone through the preliminary submittal process. Astheimer said the master plan’s goal is to create a “major public space and destination, along with a model of sustainable design.” One of the first projects, the 4.5-acre Woodland Discovery Center, is already done. Astheimer said Corner’s firm used this project because we “wanted to test ourselves” against the benchmarks and guidelines. The site include mature oaks surrounded by invasive Chinese species. An adjacent forest provides a frame for a series of “play rooms or nests.” There’s a “rich set of play experiences tailored to different children’s needs.”

Shoemaker Green, a yard and plaza on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, provides 3.85 acres of new open space, passive recreation as well as six tennis courts. It’s surrounded by buildings and has an innovative on-site water reuse program with zero runoff. There are “very intensive uses on the site” — some 57,000 participate in annual relays every spring. For Alminana at Andropogon, another key goal is zero-waste. “Every cubic inch of material on site was reused.”

The Tempe Transportation Center in Tempe, Arizona, was a 2-acre employee parking lot. Constructed between 2006 and 2008, the project is close to downtown, and across from Arizona State University dorms. Suited to SITES, it displaced parking, includes a vegetated green roof (one of the first in the desert), shaded areas for “respite,” a 3-story mixed-use building, and bike station with valet, repair, and lockers. The site is also of great historic significance to the local native American community: the city found that the location of the transportation center was a burial ground sacred to the Hohokam. Archeological investigations were blessed by tribal elders. Remains found by the city were removed and are being inventoried, with the goal of eventually returning them to the tribe.

Challenges with Using the Prerequisites and Credits

All speakers discussed in detail some of the challenges they had trying to get various prerequisites and credits.

Alminana noted how pre-requisite 2.1, the pre-design assessment, was “hard to get right. We had to look at existing soil conditions, look at reference soils.” With prerequisites 2.2 and 2.3, which relate to “integrated site development process” and engaging site users, Alminana had to take an early look at the entire design process and figure out “key site considerations” like the amount of sun that hits certain areas of the space in different seasons. These early prerequisites also forced him to “look at materials inventory in advance, to really look at every element of the site.” In the same way, prerequisite 8.1, which relates to a “plan for sustainable site maintenance,” meant that Alminana had to talk early-on with his client about all the different site maintenance plans (he listed around 10).

Beckham said the construction prerequisites, 7.1 and 7.2, make things harder for contractors in the midwest, “who are not familiar with SITES.” Astheimer at james corner field operations agreed, saying that contractors were not familiar with the materials requirements. “No one is familiar.” She said her firm worked with contractors in a collaborative way but it’s “not easy to achieve all points.” In many cases, both Beckham and Astheimer, who are neck and neck in the submittal process, also said they couldn’t find local manufacturers or fabricators for many materials. Astheimer: “We couldn’t identify those folks locally” so they used highly sustainable playscape products from Germany, far outside the 500 mile range recommended by SITES. Field operations did use local steel, iron workers though, but on some products, “we couldn’t trace back the source of the iron ore,” which is needed to gain points for SITES.

For Tempe city officials and the design team, local stormwater regulations were a challenge to achieving some water efficiency goals. Cisterns can only be used under certain conditions in the city. Historically, there was a concern with mosquito breeding, which limited the use of large on-site storage systems. So, to get around these regulatory obstacles, the city and Dye found a way to remove all water from the storage tanks in a few hours. Some of the water is also regularly used to water the landscape. In addition, the project couldn’t reuse the greywater from the building for landscape irrigation (although the city does allow it for other uses). Another challenge was finding the appropriate resources for landscape maintenance, so in one instance, Dye brought in some University of Arizona graduate students, who went with her up to the green roof to do weeding. Overall, though, the city has been very serious about implementing its maintenance program and providing enough maintenance.

Alminana said Shoemaker Green sits above a historic stream, so the site is at a large drainage point. “It’s one of the area’s most problematic sewer outfalls.” He has to take a total site strategy to deal with rainwater as well. An interesting system includes a rain garden, with “slat drains” that moves any excess rainwater through sands to an underground cistern. Alminana had to preserve all biomass on site, replacing all vegetation with native vegetation, and reusing salvaged materials and plants. An innovative material reuse program was developed that involves reusing all soils, breaking up cement for recycling, and separating metals from rebar so they could be reused. “To be more efficient, the contractors took the materials offsite to be recycled. We asked contractors for tickets for each load so we could track the path, cradle to cradle. Every material has a destination in the new site.”

Beckham zoomed in on maintenance, holding up the 300 page manual he created for Novus. His client wanted a comprehensive set of guidelines to cover how to maintain the solar power and pump systems, replace worn-out materials, basically explaining what any maintenance contractor had to do. “It’s a super-thorough document.”

The Rewards of SITES

Many panelists thought that engaging stakeholders, and getting points for this, was fantastic. Beckham worked with the local university, botanical garden, and other scientists to identify known invasives. Responding to the employees at Novus, he added beehives, which are now used to create honey for tea. The sustainability education credits were also useful: there were 17 locations for new signage explaining how sustainable site features work.

For Astheimer, there were “similarly rewarding experiences.” An invasive species management program, which is incentivized through SITES, will earn Field Operations lots of credits. Lots of native trees were planted and “there has not been a lot of understory growth.” Foresters are also actively involved in meeting the team’s forest restoration specifications. Health and wellbeing credits were easily picked up. The firm engaged with children and health professionals through on-site workshops to create a “unique outdoor play” space. There are areas that bolster self-direction skills and introduce challenges and risks. All the programming was the result of an intensive dive into play theory. There are “dizzy play, sensory play,” and a “tree home nest” segments that are “incredibly popular.”

The Tempe design team was able to reuse materials including the use of a glass-making byproduct, glass slag, into the artist-designed courtyard that provides a brief respite from the commute and uses native trees to offer shade. Covered bus stops have green walls with vines that also cool the air, providing relief. “We had to do this if we expect people to wait in 110 degree heat.”

Why Use SITES?

Dye wanted to “bring public transit to a car city and make it work.” She and the design team shared the technical assistance fee of $5,000. She believes it’s important to make a commitment at this stage to gain a deeper understanding of how SITES works. “This is on our shoulders to follow through.”

Alminana wanted to get into the process early-on because “we need to revise all our specifications.” Documention for the submittals is leading to a revamp of those. Also, he’s driven by the desire to “create places where people can really enjoy themselves.”

For Beckham, SITES can have enormous influence on contractors. Given many of the plants he wanted to use are not available near him, he reached out to a local contractor and explained all the SITES requirements. Persuaded that this where the future is, the contractor created a memorandum of understanding explaining how he would change his business.

James corner field operations wants to “create a healthy environment for kids.” Astheimer said her clients were “dedicated to sustainability.” However, she did say that the “documentation process was challenging and time consuming,” and client support and financing on this was crucial.

Getting to Stars

The final steps in the certification process involve reviewing the feedback from the SITES team on the first submittals. Beckham said each credit is marked as “anticipated,” meaning that SITES is expected to award that credit, “pending,” meaning more documentation is needed, or “denied.” Then, project teams have a call with SITES and go through all the issues in detail. Beckham “freaked out” at the number of pending items he had but thought they were largely due to the fact that he was missing a few signatures.

Astheimer said she knew “where we would get questions,” and “accidentally forgot to document some items.” She said the work is largely over with the project so retroactively getting the contractors, who “have already been paid and are off-site” to submit documentation is going to be a major headache.

All thought that client support for the SITES process was crucial, particularly in these economic times. Still, Alminana said the University of Pennsylvania told us “we won’t buy any points.” For him and the others, just going through the process revamped how they interact with their contractors and clients, design, specify, document, build, and maintain.

Image credit: Woodland Discovery Park, Shelby Farms Park / james corner field operations

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

Should SITES Offer a Professional Credential? Take a Survey

There may be a new green professional credential for design and construction professionals on the horizon. The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has launched a survey to gauge market demand for a new SITES credential and project certification. In one possible future scenario, credentialed professionals would use a “SITES AP” or something similar after their names.

SITES – a partnership between the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower at the University of Texas at Austin and the U.S. Botanic Garden – created a new rating system for sustainable land design, construction and maintenance in 2009. Now, SITES is working with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), which manages the certification and credentialing programs for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating Systems™.

The survey consists of approximately 70 questions and will take around a half an hour to complete. While the survey is on the long side, it will help the SITES and GBCI teams understand the potential market for a new credential and project certification. The survey is open until Wednesday, November 2, and respondents are eligible to win a $100 Amazon gift card. Any questions about the survey should be direct to Will Terrill with the subject “SITES Survey” at

Take the survey.

Image credit: SITES

Interview with Bob Peck, GSA’s Public Buildings Commissioner

Bob Peck, Honorary ASLA, is Commissioner of Public Buildings for the U.S. General Services Administration.

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) manages more than 370 million square feet of space for more than one million federal employees. Martha Johnson, GSA administrator, says a zero environmental footprint (ZEF) for all of GSA’s half a million buildings will take a “moonshot, and require the GSA to innovate, take risks, and get out of our comfort zone.” How is the GSA now taking risks in terms of green building and landscape design? How far has GSA progressed toward its ambitious environmental goals?

Actually, we just did a groundbreaking ceremony for the renovation of a historic federal building in Grand Junction, Colorado, which is going to be our first net zero building and apparently the first net zero project in a building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. We’re pretty excited about that. To be candid, we have a lot of really good one-off examples of places where we’ve been innovative.

In 2000, we approved a design that’s now up and running — a federal building in San Francisco, California. The building isn’t air conditioned. The question to ask yourself is why do they even have air-conditioned buildings in San Francisco at all? The windows open. It’s a narrow floor plate. We’ve got great energy reductions in the building. We’re trying to look at our comprehensive inventory and say, what can we do? There are small interventions in buildings where you’re not doing major renovations. Huge interventions can be done in places where you’re doing a complete redo like skinning the building and taking out all the old mechanics. What can we do to make those things work?

San Francisco Federal Building, San Francisco, California. Architect: Morphosis; Dedicated: 2007 / Tim Griffith/ESTO. GSA copyright prevents the reuse of these images. Please don’t download.

The other thing we’re trying to do is to be a green proving ground for the whole building industry because, after all, we’re taking your dollars and investing them in our buildings.We think for some part of what we’re doing we can beta-test new technologies and practices, see if they work, and report out to the whole design and construction industry on what’s really working. I think there’s a hunger out there for this. Everybody is talking green and a lot of people are trying to figure out what can I do, what works,  what’s the best bang for the buck if I’m a private investor, and so we’re anxious to do that too.

A near term goal issued by the President calls for reducing federal greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2020. This is equal to 250 million barrels of oil or taking 17 million cars off the road for one year. What role do landscapes play in the GSA’s energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emission reduction goals?

We all know that we have developed in some of our formal landscapes unsustainable landscapes. Landscapes that require a lot of maintenance. It could be the truck that has to drive in and put down certain kinds of chemicals, which we don’t like either. In the old days, that was what was needed to make landscapes work.

Your profession knows better than anyone how you can design or plant a landscape that is appropriate to the climate, that’s low maintenance, and obviously we want to take advantage of that as much as we can.

The second side is what landscapes can contribute to a building. That’s everything from recycling greywater to including ponds that manage stormwater runoff and filter out pollutants. This enables us to reduce runoff from impervious surfaces. Then, there are obviously green roofs that we’re also using as much as we can.

GSA has been an early adopter on sustainable landscapes. Now three very different landscape projects in New Mexico, Florida, and Washington, D.C., are Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) pilot projects. What is GSA hoping to accomplish by participating in the pilot phase of this new rating system?  Just as the GSA requires new buildings to meet LEED gold levels of certification, do you foresee GSA requiring landscapes to achieve higher levels of SITES for all government landscapes?

We just kicked our new building construction standard up from LEED silver to LEED gold. We’re serious about environmental stuff. You know how they say in business, you get what you measure? If we don’t measure the landscape side of what we’re doing, we’ll do some nice things here and there but that’s it. We want to make sure they are actually as sustainable as they can be. I don’t think it’ll be a terribly long time, if we can have any confidence in the rating system. We’re prepared to test the rating systems and see what really pans out. It’s clearly something we’d like to do soon and work with the profession to make happen.

Proposal for Sustainable Sites Initiative Landscape, Pete V. Domenici Federal Courthouse, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Landscape Architect: Rios Clementi Hale Studios / Model, Rios Clementi Hale Studios. GSA copyright prevents the reuse of these images. Please don’t download.

In terms of managing stormwater, green infrastructure can be defined as man-made systems that mimic natural functions. Green roofs, bioswales, bioretention ponds, permeable pavements and all ways to turn hard asphalt surfaces into green ones. Does GSA see green infrastructure as a workable solution for its sites? Have you seen any data or analysis within the government on the costs and benefits of green infrastructure?

I haven’t seen any good numbers on the costs and benefits, and unfortunately, I think you can say that in general about a lot of green design. We’re still in that phase in part because these landscapes are long-term things. You can measure car emissions pretty fast and project them. In our business, it takes a little bit longer so I haven’t seen the numbers but we’re certainly trying to do everything we can on the green infrastructure side.

We have a lot to learn from people in the past who didn’t know they were doing green, who didn’t have the opportunity to “mechanize” the landscape and the buildings. Green infrastructure uses the land to filter runoff. I hate to say this but I didn’t know land did that until I was many years in to my career and people started making that point. I thought once you were in a city or a civilized area you always had to build a sewer system that took all of that for you. So, I think we’re all sort of feeling our way in to it but we’re sure interested in getting there and using the natural landscape and natural materials as much as we can. Substituting the hard materials that would have to be manufactured is another big benefit.

GSA installed its first green roof in 1975. Now there are more than one million square feet of green roofs across all federal government buildings. A roof on the building of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is more than 100,000 square feet alone. This is an achievement, but in terms of all GSA’s buildings a drop in the ocean. To spur the growth of green roofs has GSA been providing incentives to organizations? Is there a bigger goal for green roofs?

Instead of being prescriptive, we’re trying to be performance oriented. We’re saying to people, we’ll at least consider any idea you bring to us that will reduce the energy and resource use in our buildings and lower our carbon footprint. Those government green roofs are not a result of our design people telling somebody to do it. It’s somebody else coming in and saying, the only way I’m going to meet your standard, the only way we’re going to get to either a LEED rating or your energy reduction standard, is if I give you the following things and one of them will be a green roof.

Green Roof, NOAA Satellite Control Center, Suitland, Maryland. Architect: Morphosis; Dedicated: 2005 / GSA. GSA copyright prevents the reuse of these images. Please don’t download.

It’s quite conceivable that at some point we get to a point where we’ve measured enough that we can. I’ll give you an example from the mechanical side of things. We know there are areas where you’re going to say, don’t even talk to us about a wind turbine. There’s no wind. In other places we say, photovoltaics don’t work so well in this area. We may end up in the same business where we say, this doesn’t seem to be a terribly good place to try a green roof but we try other things. That’s a possibility.

Does GSA see itself as a model for commercial green building and landscape practices?  If so, are there any examples of organizations or developers that have taken up a GSA best practice?

We are talking about ourselves as a green proving ground. We want to try not only the things that everybody knows about like a green roof or photovoltaics, but actively solicit ideas for technologies and practices that haven’t been tried in real-life application. We’re describing it as beta-testing the next generation of green technologies. I can’t say what new technologies yet because we have a solicitation that just closed in which we asked people to give us their ideas. We haven’t selected the ones we’re going to go with but we’re actually going to put some money into a couple of these things and see what works.

I’m not sure that yet I could cite anything where we have done what you described, which is actually my dream. I hope we find something that really works well, gets adopted by industry, and then a couple things could happen that the Obama administration loves to talk about: we will create jobs for people in green technology and infrastructure. If somebody has an idea that they invented in a garage, we take it, and it becomes a big standard practice that would be a big win for us.

In the past government buildings have sometimes been sited without community input. In addition, many buildings often feature high levels of security. What steps is the GSA taking to design buildings and landscapes with the input of existing communities? Are government buildings now being designed to spur community revitalization?

We hope so. There is usually a good deal of community input on where to place government buildings. It depends on how you define community input. Sometimes it’s local elected officials who tell us where they would like us to locate a project. Often, it’s in an area where they’re hoping to spur economic development. That puts an obligation on us to design a facility in a way that actually does spur economic development. Going back to the new federal building in San Francisco. First of all, there’s a McDonald’s in a building we built on that site, on the corner. That’s a small aspect of community development but it was a vacant lot. The area has become a pretty hot area for development in San Francisco. It’s not so far from the Museum of Modern Art.

We have a number of issues that landscape architects can help us with. We are a public investment on whatever site we build on or wherever we renovate. It’s the community’s tax dollars. It shouldn’t just be a nice building for the federal employees who work there or even for people who visit. It ought to do something more. We also have a lot of security requirements these days that often work against the whole goal of being open, inviting, and creating an atmosphere of vitality around the building. If you build a building that looks and works like a fortress, that site could be a dead hand right in the middle of commercial and residential activity. We need some help on the default design responses to security. We have not tapped into the creativity of the design professions. For example, people always putting bollards around a site. We know trees of a certain caliber are as sturdy as a bollard so we can at least substitute some trees for bollards. In some cases, we’ve done that. It’s still not clear that we need to ring our buildings with bollards because we can get the security enhancements we need in other ways.

Finally, our sites need to be more welcoming, which will help create a better community around them. We really don’t need formal landscape designs that are not attractive to people. We need formal landscape design that’s sustainable and makes people want to be there. More parks and less empty plazas. That’s what we strive for.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.