Last month, the American Society of Landscape Architects, along with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the United States Botanic Garden, released the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SSI), an ambitious program to encourage sustainable practices in landscape design, construction, and maintenance. Much more than just another sustainable rating system, the initiative responds to shifting attitudes in how we think about the design of our built environment. At its core are the assumptions that every site—from the scale of a watershed to a quarter-acre plot—plays a role in the environment, and that every designer has a responsibility to contribute to solving the world’s most challenging environmental and social problems.
Given global concerns about climate change, environmental degradation, and our aging infrastructural systems, this initiative offers a user-friendly framework to ensure that landscapes perform functions such as retaining and treating stormwater, producing energy, mediating temperatures, providing habitats for insects and migratory birds, retaining open space, and growing food. Like the well-known LEED system, a project earns points by meeting criteria based on the initiative’s guiding principles: The more points earned, the more stars the project is awarded. The result goes a long way toward achieving truly holistic landscape designs.
Some might wonder whether guidelines that address site sustainability are relevant in a place as dense as New York City. The answer is yes. First of all, sites do not need to be large to accommodate environmentally sensible design. For example, in Jamaica, Queens, landscape architect Walter Hood transformed a small, underutilized community garden into vital open space that grows food, provides places for neighbors to congregate, and includes a sculptural rain-harvesting system where petal-like funnels convey rainwater into underground tanks for irrigation use. This partnership between the New York Restoration Project and rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson demonstrates how even small sites can provide ecological and social amenities.
The aggregate effect of many small green spaces contributes to the ecological health of the city at large—an important SSI goal. New York’s Greenstreets program is one example of how “stepping stones” of green mitigate human health issues like high asthma counts while increasing property values and reducing flooding throughout the city. Another example is the Brooklyn Greenway West Street Sustainable Storm Water Study, which provides a unique framework for open-space planning along the rezoned Greenpoint waterfront. For this project, our firm WE Design has proposed a series of connected “treatment trains” that include stormwater planters, rain gardens, and wetlands to convey, retain, and treat rainwater. The proposal shows how decentralized, inexpensive, and “soft” infrastructure can result in self-sufficient networks to alleviate the strain on our aging sewer systems.
Given that many of New York City’s future developments will occur along our water’s edge, city officials, developers, and designers will need adaptable solutions that can accommodate rising water levels and storm surges while promoting practices that reduce water pollution and stream-bank erosion. Brooklyn Bridge Park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is an example of a site that must accommodate the program needs of the park constituency while maintaining an extensive amount of infrastructural functions for the city as a whole. Now under construction, its resourceful design repurposes salvaged materials, develops natural areas that collectively restore ecological functions, and reintroduces native habitats like coastal shrublands. All of these are principles that Sustainable Sites can help extend throughout the city.
Of course, as with the LEED program, there are limitations to Sustainable Sites rankings. For example, a project could earn three out of four stars possible—150 points, meeting 60 percent of total points—but ignore all of the credits in the category for human health and well-being. However, the high number of prerequisites required by the system helps ensure that any SSI project comprehensively addresses site development. For example, under the prerequisite for protecting floodplain functions, design solutions must take into account current and projected flooding patterns.
Using these and many other strategies, the Sustainable Sites Initiative arrives at a pivotal time in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC has set the stage for a broad rethinking of how we can improve our quality of life by preserving natural areas, creating habitat, and addressing sea level rise. SSI also joins other city efforts like the Cool & Green Roofing Manual, the High Performance Infrastructure Guidelines, and the newly released Sustainable Urban Site Design Manual, published by the Department of Design and Construction. In addition, the Design Trust for Public Space has partnered with the Parks Department to create Designing Parks for the 21st Century: High Performance Landscape Guidelines, due out next spring.
While the city has taken the lead in ensuring that our public buildings and parks are following sustainable principles, SSI has the potential to penetrate the private realm, as laws are developed to ensure that privately owned sites are meeting sustainable principles as well. The New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects encourages policymakers to question the way we develop buildings and the spaces around them. With the Sustainable Sites Initiative, landscape architects can be a part of an integrated design approach, mediating the disparate forces of nature and culture to design sites that are green, productive, and vibrant.