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New SITES Requirements at the City of Austin

Jordan Clark

Some exciting news from Austin, Texas! The City of Austin has adopted a requirement that its Parks and Recreation Department projects achieve Sustainable SITES Initiative certification.

Austin now becomes the first city in the world to incorporate the SITES landscape performance rating system into local policy. This is a small but significant step in the direction of becoming a more climate resilient, ecologically functional, and human-friendly city.

We think this will have positive implications far beyond Central Texas, as Austin leads by example in prioritizing long-term health and resilience.

What is SITES?
SITES is a set of comprehensive guidelines for developing sustainable landscapes, from site selection and design to construction and maintenance. Modeled after the LEED building design framework, SITES sets high standards in water management, vegetation and soil health, materials, human health and well-being, and more.

The four goals of the Sustainable SITES Initiative, of which TBG is proud to be a Community Partner, are:

_ Create regenerative systems and foster resiliency
_ Ensure future resource supply and mitigate climate
_ Transform the market through design, development, and maintenance practices
_ Enhance human well-being and strengthen community

SITES Principles
You can read more about the Guiding Principles that underpin the SITES ratings system here (PDF). As a SITES Community Partner, TBG joins dozens of organizations in affirming and committing to these overarching goals and guiding principles.

The SITES guidelines and ratings system are voluntary; what’s new is a local government making these standards a prerequisite for new landscape projects.

And there is a deep Austin connection with SITES. It was originally developed as a collaborative effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Fund, The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden. The Austin area actually has 19 participating SITES projects, which is more than any metro in the world.

In fact, TBG also has some history with the development of the SITES ratings system.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Luci and Ian Family Garden, designed by TBG and completed in 2014, was a SITES pilot project.

And if you haven’t heard, Sustainable SITES Initiative is seeking pilot projects for its new Existing Landscapes certification program. TBG is currently evaluating past projects for possible certification. We think there is a lot of value in continuing to measure and understand the long-term sustainable impacts of our designs.

The step that City of Austin has taken is a meaningful one; it is an affirmation of the range of overlapping impacts that landscape and infrastructure design decisions have on a neighborhood’s (and broader region’s) ecological and social health.

“By using the SITES framework to guide the development of our landscape projects, PARD hopes to improve quality of life and human health by supporting and regenerating our ecosystem and built environment,” said Liana Kallivoka, PhD, PE, LEED Fellow, and PARD’s Assistant Director overseeing capital improvement projects. “Clean air and water, and a thriving ecosystem are essential to the health and well-being of humans and all life around us.” 

As TBG is currently in the midst of implementing its own internal sustainable performance standards, we can’t emphasize enough how critical it is for local governments to step up and raise the bar in this way. The more pressure there is to move our profession toward a holistic practice, the more resilient and durable our work becomes.

In the evolution toward a more ecologically informed, resource conscious, and socially equitable landscape design practice, it takes leadership from firms, from academia, from advocates, from regulatory agencies at all levels, and from municipal governments. We’re proud to be headquartered in a city that keeps pushing towards positive change.

On this note, one last thing before you go. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has been developing its first Climate Action Plan for the U.S. landscape architecture community. The plan is scheduled to be shared at the ASLA Conference in November 2022.

Per ASLA, “The ambitious plan seeks to transform the practice of landscape architecture by 2040 through actions taken by ASLA and its members focused on climate mitigation and adaptation, ecological restoration, biodiversity, equity, and economic development.”

Here is a bit more background on that effort and who is involved. We look forward to learning the details of this and joining with other leaders from around the country to take bold action on the climate and biodiversity crises we collectively face.