Most people connected to the AEC industry are by now well familiar with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, more commonly known as LEED, the world’s most widely used green building rating system.

Less familiar to many is the Sustainable Sites Initiative, aka SITES. SITES is, broadly, LEED for landscape. The rating is a way of helping designers set and reach sustainability goals with clients. The system was developed through an interdisciplinary effort by the American Society of Landscape Architects Fund, The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden. After a rigorous testing period, the program was transferred to Green Business Certification, Inc (GBCI) in 2015. It’s a relatively new force in sustainability for the built environment, and in my opinion, it’s a powerful one. I am excited about how SITES can help create a holistic approach to sustainability in the built environment.

Every SITES prerequisite or credit is based on the idea of ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are the benefits we receive from natural systems, comprised of both the living and the nonliving components of the landscape. SITES sorts these benefits into four categories: provisioning, supporting, regulating, and cultural. Below are more details on these categories and some suggestions for how designers and clients can thoughtfully approach the SITES certification process.

  • Provisioning. Any useful product produced by the landscape would be the result of a provisioning system. These products include food, lumber, energy supplies, medicines, and similar items. These credits can be earned through a variety of approaches such as incorporating edible gardens, or using local quarries for stone elements on a site.
  • Supporting. Supporting systems keep ecosystems healthy. They include soil formation, photosynthesis, habitat creation, and biodiversity. Credits for supporting can be reached through both design intervention and preservation. Much of the program focuses on preserving healthy soils and ecosystems that would take years of in-situ cultivation to recreate. Improving degraded sites through soil remediation and using native planting to improve habitat value are another way to earn credits.
  • Regulating. Regulating systems produce benefits by maintain larger systems through carbon sequestration, local and global climate regulation, and water and air cleansing. A common regulating technique is the use of bioretention and filtration to clean water and recharge the water table. Biofiltration facilities allow stormwater management infrastructure to function in a healthy way rather than adding to city storm water systems. These systems can often add a cultural value as well by improving the aesthetic of a place.
  • Cultural. This category includes a wide range of tactical choices, like outdoor exercise and gathering spaces, highlighting local icons, and healthy benefits. It’s everything from the creation of a healing garden near a hospital to the inclusion of native plants in a landscape design.

Personally, the thing that excites me most about the SITES system (and about being the first SITES AP at Ayers Saint Gross) is the ability to help a landscape project improve a place’s ecological functioning. Living landscapes are unique for their ability to recharge systems and can make a place function better than before intervention. Too often we see a LEED certified building that is a sustainable island in a landscape that doesn’t support the same high-performance objectives. SITES is a terrific tool to help align the development and management of land with innovative sustainable design.

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