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A Rating System for Sustainable Landscaping
Patrick Rollens, 9 Nov 07
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Green building works. The success of programs like LEED and Green Globes is proof positive that the industry has taken hold in the building sector. Now, a new initiative is attempting to codify the same common-sense mentality for a building's exterior development, under the rubric of sustainable landscaping: making exterior site decisions based on the local flora and fauna, with a nod toward stormwater drainage and proper irrigation.

Consider most corporate office campuses around the country. They're surrounded by pleasing hillocks planted with eye-catching flowers and shrubs; a landscape that requires constant tending and significant irrigation. Even worse, the same shrubs and trees that might be planted in Baltimore are also fair game in Phoenix.

This approach, of course, is not sustainable, especially in the water-parched American Southwest.

A better method is championed by companies like Tallgrass Restoration, a firm I've encountered on a number of projects around the Midwest that specializes in prairie restoration. This involves returning cultivated land to its natural prairie form by planting native grasses and trees. It's a novel idea, and the benefits are enticing: reduced maintenance costs, reduced erosion and the re-introduction of native animals that might otherwise have been pushed out of the development. The only downside is that a restored prairie looks like weeds to the untrained eye. This is a problem of mindset, not ecology, as these hardy plants have extensive root systems that hold the soil in place far better than traditional turf grass.

Tallgrass is doing good work, but where's the benchmarking system that would help the company to fine-tune its' practices for maximum impact?

Well, the framework was laid last week with the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SSI), a partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the United States Botanic Garden and others. From the article in Lawn & Landscape magazine:

Much like LEED does for the building sector, SSI will measure the sustainability of designed landscapes. Though SSI is a standalone system, the USGBC is lending its support to the project and plans to adopt SSI metrics into the LEED system once they're finished.

The group's preliminary draft report, designed to introduce SSI's investigations into soils, hydrology, vegetation, materials and human services, will be available for download at www.sustainablesites.org on Nov. 1 and will have a 45-day public comment period.

The program appears to be extensive, reaching far beyond the traditional ideas of sustainable landscaping and moving into the realm of soil chemistry and water management.

Right now, the program is in its infancy; the timeline shows that we're in the midst of the research and development phase, with the rating system itself to be created in 2009.

SSI is an example of sustainability working its' way into industries and businesses that sorely need it. As commercial development continues, we'll see more and more opportunities to mold the earth in a thoughtful, sustainable manner that has benefits not just for corporate tenants, but also for nearby communities. And when considered alongside traditional green building, it's clear that we're well on our way to a paradigm shift in the building industry.

Image: Flickr/DCF_pics

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