Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Landscape Component for Green Buildings

A coalition of organizations has formed the Sustainable Sites Initiative, a project to reduce the environmental impact of developed sites. The project is run by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the U.S. Botanical Garden. The goal is to create a complement to existing LEED ratings for sustainable structures, and the guidelines may eventually be incorporated into LEED. Their standard could be applied to any developed site, with or without buildings.

You can read the guidelines (pdf) at their website. To me, they appear quite thorough in addressing the worst impacts that human development can have on a landscape. There are guidelines for site selection, water use and runoff, soil and vegetation management, construction materials and techniques, human health effects, and site operation. They encourage "smart growth" patterns – away from farmland or wild areas and into established communities and urban areas with existing transportation infrastructure.

The sustainable sites standard falls somewhat short on wildlife impacts. To their credit, the guidelines require that new construction not disturb any endangered or threatened animals or plants on a site and that habitats used by those species be preserved intact. They also recommend reducing light pollution and cite its impact on migratory birds. They require the control of invasive species and suggest the use of native, site-appropriate plants for landscaping. These are all important steps towards sustainability that ought to benefit wildlife.

However, in perusing the guidelines, I did not see any requirement or credit for reducing window strikes, one of the most serious impacts that human development has on birds. There is a trend in contemporary architecture, encouraged in part by LEED ratings, towards designing buildings with large expanses of glass. While these are often aesthetically pleasing, they prove deadly to birds that do not see the glass as an obstruction. However, there are ways to reduce these strikes, either by reducing the amount of glass or making glass easier for birds to see. A truly sustainable development standard ought to incorporate these methods.