Whether through climate change lectures, or events like Ag Day, university science departments often strive to inform students and foster their participation in sustainable practices. However, two relatively small departments in the College of Agriculture and Life Science feel that their individual efforts may not suffice. Faculty in the Architecture and Horticulture departments joined forces to inform their students about sustainability and to involve them in The Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a program aimed at creating sustainable landscapes in any surrounding.
SITES is an interdisciplinary effort by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden to create voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction and maintenance practices. According to SITES’ Initiatives Technical Core Committee member Prof. Nina Bassuk, horticulture, SITES defines sustainable as “something that is not only environmentally ‘friendly’ but is also beneficial for the public at large.”
An offshoot of Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), an internationally recognized green building certification system, SITES is relatively new, and remains in its alpha testing phase. Like LEED, SITES aims to “encourage the consideration of ‘best practices’ as related to designed, improved or modified landscapes [and] is intended to be incorporated into LEED into 2012,” said Prof. Peter J. Trowbridge, landscape architecture.
During the alpha testing process, SITES will evaluate the effectiveness, fairness, and other qualities of their rating system with the use of 175 “pilot sites.” The chosen sites vary, not only in size, but also in geography. According to Bassuk, “[The site] can be as small as 200 sq feet [the minimum requirement for a SITES location], or as large as an entire prairie. The challenge is to do a rating system that’s going to be applicable to all these different sites and their geographic and social features.”
Each site is given a score out of 200 points, but because “pilot project” sites vary significantly in many ways, not every site is eligible for each credit. “There’s a credit for restoring a stream which you obviously can’t get if there’s no stream around,” said Bassuk. “But there are always ways to make up credit for those situations and restore something else,” she added.
Bassuk and Trowbridge’s joint class, Creating the Urban Eden: Woody Plant Selection, Design, and Landscape Establishment (Horticulture 4910 or Landscape Architecture 4910) restored the entrance to Mann Library, one of the “pilot projects.” The members of the class took sole responsibility for completing the analysis and pre-design, the design remediation and the installation.
According to Trowbridge, “students were engaged in the assessment of soils, microclimates, surrounding plants, drainage, opportunities for social engagement and other factors affecting the site. The students then designed the gardens using re-cycled and re-purposed materials, plants that were either native or site appropriate and spaces that encouraged social interaction. Students [also] modified soils to improve their quality, installed plants in an appropriate manner and included salvaged stone for seating.”
The Mann Library site had a high pH, very poor drainage, highly compacted soil, and a host of other challenging features. “Plants were chosen that are tolerant of high pH, can take re-reflected heat (the building faces West, so it is very sunny), and are drought tolerant. They had to be relatively low maintenance (after an establishment period of 1-3 years),” said Pat MacRae, a technician in the department of horticulture.
The site’s performance is still in the process of being scored.
While this was Bassuk and Trowbridge’s first experience following SITES guidelines, the Creating an Urban Eden class has used the same principles of sustainability for ten years. According to Bassuk, “We’re all about creating landscapes in disturbed areas, and we’re all about doing it sustainably. We want the landscape to be providing services and giving back. All the work we do with [the department of] landscape architecture is aimed at sustainability. Whether it’s choosing the right plants or developing soils that can sustain life over long periods of time … all those practices are sustainable.”
Even though Bassuk and Trowbridge used SITES guidelines for the class project last semester, Bassuk remains unsure if they will seek actual SITES accreditation in the future. She said, “Mann was just a pilot project, and I’m on the [Initiatives Technical Core] committee, so we had a scholarship. But it actually costs a lot to put a project up for credit, and we have no money. We’ll be using the same principles, but we might not officially go for the SITES credit.”
The cost is not only a hindrance for Cornell. “We’re actually evaluating the cost as part of the pilot project testing process because it could end up being an issue, especially since getting accredited is entirely voluntary. It’s definitely something we’re concerned about.”