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Turning over a new leaf

Wildflower Center ecologists help spur land use transformation through national green landscaping initiative

Feb. 14, 2011

If we cannot envision the world we would like to live in, we cannot work towards its creation. If we cannot place ourselves in it in our imagination, we will not believe it is possible. — Author Chellis Glendinning

A visitor to Santa Monica, Calif., might walk right past the house at 1724 Pearl St. without noticing it. Other than masses of silver-leafed sage, feathery tufts of muhly grasses and other plants that take the place of a clipped lawn, little distinguishes the single-story home from its neighbors. Until you learn that a study by the city’s sustainability office revealed the native landscaping at 1724 Pearl serves as a lean, green, resource-saving machine.

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With plants that are native to California or adapted to local conditions, gravel pathways that absorb rainwater and other simple features, the native garden scrimps on resources in ways that make a neighboring, traditional yard at 1718 Pearl St. seem extravagant. The City of Santa Monica found the native landscaping cost $4,844 to maintain over six years, versus more than $18,000 for the traditional yard.

This Santa Monica garden/garden project is among those the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin and its national partners –- the American Society of Landscape Architects and the United States Botanic Garden –- have featured in an initiative that has created a buzz about developing eco-friendly landscapes. The projects are highlighted by the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) partners because of what they show about the ways landscapes can be developed to harness nature’s capabilities.

In the six-year Santa Monica study, the native garden required 62,000 gallons less water annually than its neighbor. With little lawn to maintain, yard work took a fourth as much time and cost two thirds less. And half as much yard waste came from the native yard versus the traditional lawn with its Marathon grass, azaleas and other non-native plantings.

Susan Rieff, executive director of the Wildflower Center, noted that the project showcases the benefits of tapping into the built-in capabilities of healthy environments.

“By treating land as more than just a backdrop,” Rieff said, “you can create beautiful landscapes that don’t need ‘life support’ from excess chemicals, water and other resources.”

Lawns and gardens across the country, she pointed out, use more pesticides and water than all our agricultural lands.

Landscape Redux

Susan Rieff
Susan Rieff, executive director of the university’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, helps direct Sustainable Sites Initiative activities that promote environmentally friendly land use approaches nationally. Photo: Marsha Miller

To change the way homeowners, corporations, college campuses and others manage their lands, the SITES partners have drawn on four years of work by dozens of experts on soils, water, human health and well-being, vegetation and materials. Under the guidance of an executive committee that includes Dean Fritz Steiner of the university’s School of Architecture, the experts’ recommendations were captured as a set of standards and techniques for developing conservation-oriented landscapes. The rating system resembles that of the U. S. Green Building Council used to promote green building development. 

Since last spring, 162 pilot projects in 34 states and three other countries have begun testing the initiative’s Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks. These include homeowner projects on less than an acre, streetscapes such as the Indianapolis Super Bowl Village and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus. Several of the pilots may become certified SITES landscapes this spring.

Each pilot demonstrates how sustaining the health of natural areas gives back in ways no building can.

“The best you can do is reduce a building’s negative environmental impact,” Rieff said. “With sustainable landscaping you can help remove impurities from stormwater, help regulate building temperatures using shade trees, clean pollutants out of the air, provide habitat for wildlife and more.”

Here is a sample of the ways sustainable landscaping approaches are playing out nationally at pilot projects:

Private Residences

Homeowners of all types have taken up the SITES challenge, with 21 residential pilot projects under way from California to a Chicago suburb to rural Pennsylvania. The projects include subdivisions and a grand estate, and range from modest home gardens to million-dollar showcases of sustainability at the residential scale.

Water-permeable layers underlie most walkways in the urban courtyard
Landscape architects at STUDIO 39 worked with George Washington University staff to ensure Square 80 on campus retains stormwater on site for re-use. For instance, water-permeable layers underlie most walkways in the urban courtyard. Photo: STUDIO 39 Landscape Architecture

For under $20,000, a Portland, Ore., family reclaimed a backyard once filled with plants that originated elsewhere that aggressively competed with naturally occurring plants (native plants) for resources. Wood from an old garage was turned into a compost bin. The garage’s concrete became stepping stones across a backyard filled with dogwood trees and other native plantings. Instead of using chemicals, the landscaper snuffed out the alien, invasive, plants by mowing and covering them with layers of cardboard and mulch, topped by a nutrient-rich material and new plantings.

A more complex redesign occurred at a Tudor home in Atlanta. Laura Turner Seydel, daughter of environmental philanthropist Ted Turner, and her husband, environmental attorney Rutherford Seydel, had the garage equipped with a vegetated roof viewable from their family room.

“We wanted to bring nature closer to our home and to our site line,” said Turner Seydel. “Plus the green roof keeps the garage much cooler in the summer time.”

Lawn areas were minimized and covered with a native grass. Native plants populate a one-time patio, which slows the movement of stormwater and cleanses it before reaching nearby streams. Lawn terraces also slow water movement.  Water from indoor sinks and recaptured stormwater supplies a water feature and native plantings that include red maple trees and inkberry shrubs.

“It was important to me to choose plants so that something would be in bloom at all times for the different pollinators,” said Turner Seydel.

Educational Campuses

Five blocks from the White House, the Foggy Bottom Campus of George Washington University is in a dense urban area where patches of greenery can be as rare as open parking spaces. To combat that, a central parking lot has been turned into a green space for students, faculty and staff. Dubbed Square 80, the three quarters of an acre became a frisbee haven and lunch-hour favorite last spring, with a lawn and twice as many trees for shade. Rain is collected from rooftops surrounding the square. Native plants such as Virginia sweetspire and American beautyberry decorate rain gardens and other sunken areas that have plantings that capture stormwater. Walkways of permeable material usher rain drops into underground tanks that supply water for the landscaping and a decorative fountain.

“Developing Square 80 has sent a message to the students, staff and neighborhood that we take sustainability very seriously,” said Nancy Giammatteo, director of facilities planning and design review at the university. The green space’s features also help in teaching sustainable landscape design. Sustainable elements made up 14 percent of the $2.4 million project’s budget.

The 32 educational projects serving as pilots also include a Habitat for Hope campus for families with children who have illnesses in Millington, Tenn.; outdoor play spaces at the Louisiana Children’s Museum in New Orleans that promote understanding of the natural world; and a plant garden and park-like gathering spaces near the University of Texas at Arlington’s new Special Events Center.

Open Spaces

Cities nationwide are greening real estate, as evidenced by revitalized pocket parks in San Francisco and Philadelphia and the restoration of wildlife habitat in Cleveland. Forty-one parks and nature preserves are SITES pilot projects. These projects are complemented by 13 at gardens and arboreta, such as two being developed by SITES leadership: the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Children’s Garden, a playscape that will be built on 4 ½ acres with a stream, oversized bird nests and other interactive elements where kids can learn ecology and other subjects; and the U.S. Botanic Garden’s Bartholdi Park, which will give visitors a chance to view sustainably designed gardens they could adopt at home.

Among the park projects is Atlanta’s Historic 4th Ward Park, which will bring a 17-acre park to an African-American neighborhood blighted by abandoned industrial buildings. Killdeer, frogs and other wildlife now visit a pond with waters that will nourish landscaping. Solar panels will provide energy for LED lights, water fountains and other features. A veneer made from locally obtained granite will decorate structures. Concrete and asphalt were recycled and re-used, and organic landscaping is planned.

The park is part of a 25-year redevelopment project.

“We’re using our early parks to show that, for any public space, there are alternatives to the ‘mow, blow and go’ approach to managing landscapes,” said Kevin Burke, a senior landscape architect with organic accreditation who works at Atlanta Beltline Inc., which is managing the redevelopment.

Commercial Campuses

Architects, ecologists, civil engineers and others have also helped businesses and non-profits lighten their footprint on the land. The 25 commercial SITES pilots include a Seattle PBS station, a 12,000-acre office park in Vero Beach, Fla., a North Carolina equestrian facility and the St. Charles, Mo., offices of a pet food manufacturer. In addition, 13 transportation projects are greening cities as SITES participants.

Redevelopment of Georgia Street in Indianapolis, Ind. where the 2012 Super Bowl will be played
Redevelopment of Georgia Street in Indianapolis, Ind., began last month to create a boardwalk that enhances street space north of where the 2012 Super Bowl will be played. View a higher resolution version of the Georgia Street redevelopment. (Image opens in a new browser window.)

The Georgia Street corridor will open for the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis, Ind., showcasing a central boardwalk for sports fans and visitors to the nearby mall and other hotspots. Lamp posts along the boardwalk will have adjustable panels for summer cooling, and sunken, planted areas will cleanse stormwater before it reaches a sewer system.

The Make It Right Foundation in New Orleans is developing a different streetscape where the Lower Ninth Ward flooded during Hurricane Katrina, using permeable concrete and other approaches to help absorb stormwater. Meanwhile, at a hub for buses and light rail in Tempe, Ariz., desert vegetation is used to shade visitors at transit centers and cool the roof top of a three-story building.

Federal Facilities

The National Mall has fine examples of environmentally sensitive landscapes, including the People’s Garden with its native plants and bee hives at the U.S. Agriculture Department.  A vegetated roof atop the National Aquarium is also planned by the U.S. Department of Commerce. These are among nine federal projects testing the SITES guidelines.

“The Sustainable Sites Initiative partners hope that these projects will help shift conventional thinking about landscaping,” Rieff said. “We’re part of nature, and by replenishing the Earth’s ability to sustain life, we help address some of the biggest issues of our time.”

For more information, contact: Barbra Rodriguez, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 512 232 0105.