1st National Criteria For Sustainable Landscapes Released

November 25, 2009

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards used by the U.S. Green Building Council to assess environmental aspects of buildings have only lightly touched on development of the grounds on which a building sits. There have been no broadly accepted, comprehensive US standards for evaluating site development of any type, whether or not a building is involved.

A potentially significant step in filling that void was announced Nov. 6, 2009, with the release of the nation's first set of voluntary criteria for planning, design, construction, and maintenance of landscapes.

There are 15 prerequisites and 51 additional criteria for which credits can be awarded, covering topics such as energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, pollutants, mitigation of hazards such as floods and landslides, erosion, water use, habitat conservation, pollination, food production, and culture. Almost any type of site development can qualify, including small residential lots, commercial developments, parks, schools, hospitals, master-planned communities, airports, military lands, utility corridors, and many others. Projects are rated on the extent to which they meet the criteria, and assigned a final grade of 1, 2, 3, or 4 stars.

It's likely that some of the primary incentives for going through the process will be to distinguish a designer or contractor in the marketplace; for a site owner or developer to offer a distinctive finished product to prospective owners, renters, or users; to provide a demonstration project that can educate users; or simply to "do what's right."

The four-year effort to develop these criteria — a process that included comments from hundreds of outside reviewers — was led by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the US Botanic Garden.

You can immediately begin to use these criteria to subjectively gauge the merits of claims made on projects you cover. However, the criteria likely won't become official for a while. First, the organizers will do further testing via a set of pilot projects that are getting under way. That is expected to take about two years. Along with that effort, a formal mechanism for processing and designating projects will need to be finalized.

But there are many completed and ongoing projects you can use to help you clarify how the current criteria shake out in the field. Nineteen case studies used to help develop the criteria are in CA, FL, MI, MO, NY, OR, PA, TX, and WA, as well as Alberta, Canada, and Western Australia. The project types include residential, corporate, medical, school, university, mixed-use urban, historic, park, aquarium, botanical garden, riparian restoration, and regional watershed plan. A handful of other case studies are scheduled to be added in the next month or two.

Two design firms that are actively using the criteria are:

  • Andropogon Associates, based in Philadelphia, which is using the rating system for one active project (renovation of an urban garden space) and is talking with three other clients about using it on their large projects. Contact: Jose Alminana, 215-487-0700.

  • Mithun, based in Seattle and San Francisco, which is using the criteria for one project, and is talking with other clients about using this approach. Contact: Debra Guenther, 206-971-3404, cell 206-383-3115.

Organizations and agencies that are using the criteria include:

  • US Dept. of Agriculture, which is using the criteria to prepare a master plan and develop specific projects for its headquarters building on the National Mall in Washington DC. Issues being addressed for the grounds, which are seen by many visitors each year, include energy consumption, stormwater runoff, impervious paving, green roofs, rainwater harvesting, native landscapes, organic gardening, and invasive species. An organic garden has already been installed, and many specific projects are being designed. Contact: Bob Snieckus, 202-720-9155.

  • National Park Service, which is using the criteria as part of its master plan and designs for an upgrade of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Some of the issues the plan is supposed to address include quality, quantity, and source of water used, Potomac River shoreline development, renewable energy, paving, and protection of historic landscapes. A draft National Mall Plan and draft environmental impact statement are scheduled to be open for public comment until the beginning of March 2010, and a final plan may be adopted by mid-2010. Meanwhile, designs for specific projects are under way. Contact: Susan Spain, 202-245-4692. National Mall Plan: main page and overview.

  • US Botanic Garden, which is just beginning to use the criteria for a few of its projects, including a park and a rainwater garden. Contact: Sally Ruth Bourrie, 202-226-4145; source that she'll likely put you in touch with is Ray Mims, 202-409-1659.

  • New YorkBotanical Garden, which is considering using the criteria as it designs a major new garden for native plants. Contact: Daniel Avery, 718-817-8668.

  • University of Delaware, which reportedly has pledged its support for the criteria. Contact: Melinda Zoehrer, 302-831-0153.

  • National Recreation and Park Association, which reportedly is training its staff on how to use the criteria to manage park lands. Contact: Richard Dolesh, 202-887-0290.

LEEDS officials say they intend to incorporate at least some portions of the new site criteria into the next upgrade of their standards.

The release of the new criteria has drawn wide interest, as representatives of hundreds of US and foreign cities have visited the Web site in the past few weeks.

You can find a local landscape architect for further discussion or comment in the ASLA directory.