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by Chris Loftus, RLA

All landscapes hold “the potential to both improve and regenerate the natural benefits and services provided by ecosystems in their natural state.” (SITES, 2009)

To help achieve that potential, Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES) sets environmental benchmarks and provides guidelines for sustainable landscape design. SITES v2, a revised rating system, will be released later this year and will establish the initiative as a tool for evaluating sustainable site design solutions.

SITES is a voluntary program similar to the USGBC’s LEED certification. While LEED pertains primarily to buildings and developments, SITES focuses on performance criteria for a built landscape’s ability to provide ecosystem services. In addition to reducing environmental impacts, ecosystem services provide long term economic benefits.

Founded in 2005, SITES evolved from the combined efforts of the American Society of Landscape ArchitectsLady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanical Garden. The SITES pilot program was initiated in 2010 to gather more information and develop more permanent guidelines. Since then, 162 projects in 34 states registered with the program, 30 of which received certification as sustainable sites. An additional 50 projects are currently pursuing certification, including the Fort Totten North Park in New York, a collaboration involving Nancy Owens Studio and Great Ecology.

SITES evaluates projects based on various criteria including site selection, habitat preservation and restoration, stormwater management, construction practices, and long term maintenance strategies. The criteria are divided into broad categories including site design for water, soil, vegetation, monitoring, and innovation. Projects earn credits by fulfilling requirements and are certified after accumulating sufficient credits.

The Mesa Verde Visitor Research Center, a pilot project that earned SITES certification, was completed in late 2012 in southwest Colorado. The project encompasses 105 acres of desert landscape within Mesa Verde National Park. Through the use of native plant material, appropriate soil management practices, on-site renewable energy generation, and the establishment of a sustainable maintenance program, the Center met SITES certification requirements. In addition to implementing sustainable measures, the Center provides opportunities for visitors to learn about the project’s regenerative qualities through interpretive trails, signage, and immersion in the landscape.

Another pilot project, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory(NREL) Research Support Facility, combined a 175-acre conservation easement, Low Impact Development (LID) stormwater management techniques, and Smart Growthprinciples to earn SITES certification. Located in arid Golden, Colorado, the project conserves water by harvesting stormwater for irrigation. A network of bioswales, bioretention basins, and native vegetation corridors was constructed to imitate historic drainage patterns and treat contaminated runoff from impervious surfaces. The project’s other sustainable features include porous paving materials and the use of salvaged stone for retaining wall construction.

Pilot projects such as Mesa Verde and NREL illuminate challenges associated with the SITES system. Completing the necessary documentation and tracking SITES requirements through design, construction, and monitoring incurs additional financial burdens. Gathering sufficient baseline data for monitoring project performance and insuring the implementation of long term maintenance measures can also prove difficult. The revised rating system aims to address these and other issues by incorporating knowledge gained through the pilot program, input from technical advisors, and additional research.­

The benefits of participation in SITES include energy savings, reduced infrastructure and long-term maintenance costs, marketing and PR opportunities, and healthier, more productive places to live, work, and play. SITES is gaining momentum and will likely continue to do so. It may soon be incorporated into the LEED certification system, which could streamline inefficiencies and introduce SITES to a broader audience.

As demand for environmentally sound development continues to increase and understanding of the value of ecosystem services grows, SITES will guide the enhancement and restoration of ecosystems while realizing positive economic impacts.