A formal site-only rating tool will take some five years to create. The Sustainable Sites Initiative’s interim products, however, will be available in as little time as six months. These technical reports will provide practical information to guide decision-making for site design based on performance outcomes and costs. As soon as each interim report is complete, ASLA and The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center will post it on the SDD PPN website and on www.sustainablesites.org. All SDD PPN members will be notified by email when a new report is released, and you will be asked for feedback to shape each document’s expansion or revision.
The Draft Tool
The SDD PPN Officers pulled together the first draft site-only tool in a matter of weeks as a group of volunteers. The purpose of the first draft tool was to provide a starting point for discussions at the 2005 Austin Summit regarding the central issues and scope of the Sustainable Sites Initiative. Summit participants assigned a five-year timeline for converting this rough outline into a workable, official site rating tool.
The Officers drew on their personal knowledge, conducted interviews with other knowledgeable professionals, and collected reference information. The resulting draft tool promotes admirable practice goals: understand a site before altering it, reduce environmental harm, respond to local context, and enhance the ability of the site to sustain life. Many landscape architects follow these principles as a matter of course. The complicated part is measuring and verifying success.
Building Systems vs. Landscape Systems
The USGBC’s LEED rating systems succeed because each credit is linked with a verifiable performance outcome. Most credits relate to building systems. The USGBC explains the cause of this imbalance: verifiable performance outcomes are more readily available for successful building systems than for successful landscape systems.
The Sustainable Sites Initiative extends the promise that true sustainability not only minimizes environmental harm but also restores and enhances the health and living richness of the world around us. The Sustainable Sites Initiative tools must provide a firm anchor for these lofty expectations.
Figure 1. Timeline of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, including accomplishments to date and projected product release dates
The Sustainable Sites Initiative’s primary goal therefore is to establish a credible and authoritative basis for evaluating the performance of landscape systems. What practices are always beneficial in all contexts? What performance benchmarks are meaningful, verifiable, and defensible? How might standards vary to account for differing site attributes, programmatic needs, and bioregional contexts? What economic benefits or incentives accompany sound land stewardship? These questions represent new territory and significant challenges. Addressing these questions relies in part on expanding available knowledge of site-related practices and their effects on natural systems.
A Foundation in Science
The next critical phase of the Sustainable Sites Initiative will focus on solidifying the needed technical knowledge base that does not yet exist in a consolidated or accessible form. ASLA and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center are organizing multidisciplinary research teams composed of between four and six leading experts in critical topics. The first teams will focus on soil, hydrology, vegetation, and materials and waste. The next teams to constitute will focus on bioregional context and landscape ecology.
The teams each will share findings through two yearly reports. These reports will be made available to ASLA members and other stakeholders to review, comment on, and apply to practice, starting in summer of 2007. The SDD PPN members who respond to a team’s report with feedback will compose ASLA’s “Review Committee” for that team. SDD PPN members will receive invitations and instructions for joining a Review Committee in advance of a report’s release.
Benefiting from Your Experience
Feedback from SDD PPN members to the research teams will help to identify and prioritize research needs. In the next month, SDD PPN members will be asked to share project case study thumbnails to illustrate accomplishments in sustainable design. This body of reference projects will be available to all SDD PPN members to review, will provide ASLA with information for promoting members’ work in this area, and will also guide research by the Sustainable Sites Initiative technical subcommittees. All SDD PPN members are urged to participate.
While the finished tool is still some years away, the critical building blocks are in production and will have immediate value and use. And when the next draft of the tool is released in 2011, we can be sure that it will have the authority to raise performance requirements for practices across the industry.