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Piloting the Sustainable Sites Initiative™

by CeCe Haydock

The Sustainable Sites Initiative, or SITES for short, was born from a need for a nationwide, voluntary rating system for landscape construction. The collaborative effort involved forty groups, with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the U.S. Botanic Garden as lead partners, and the rating system was codified in the Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks 2009.

In May 2010, over 150 projects from 34 states as well as from Canada, Iceland, and Spain were chosen as part of an international pilot project program to evaluate the new SITES rating system for landscapes both with and without buildings. The goal of the system is to promote sustainable landscapes that can clean water, reduce pollution, and restore habitats, while providing significant economic and social benefits to land owners and municipalities.

Sustainable demonstration garden.

SITES is a direct descendent of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system which has been used successfully for buildings for more than a decade. Focusing on landscape construction, operations, and maintenance, the SITES system offers a maximum of 250 points; a project must earn 100 points to be certified with a single “star.” To attain two or three stars, projects need to hit between125 and150 points, and 200 points are required to achieve the challenging four-star level.

Aerial view of Hempstead Plains, Garden City, New York.

The system covers five main areas: water, soil, plants, materials, and human health and well-being. Divided into nine separate sections, SITES outlines the guidelines and benchmarks for 15 prerequisites and 51 credits which cover the requirements and points required in order to achieve a star-rating. For instance, between 5 and 10 points are awarded if the project uses a brownfield or greyfield and results in a greener more sustainable space. “Regeneration” is one of the tenets of SITES, with the hope of repairing past damage done to the environment and ecosystems.

A view across the native grasses of Hempstead Plains.

Currently three pilot projects have been certified: a corporate office park, a university green space, and a children’s discovery playground. The pilot project phase will end in June 2012, and after a review and comment period, the system will be open to the public in early 2013. Already SITES criteria have been folded into the new LEED 2012 guidelines and SITES may become a stand-alone rating system with its separate credentialing system.

One other pilot project that is a natural for the Sustainable Sites Initiative is a proposed education building on a native grass preserve, the Hempstead Plains Interpretive Center in Garden City, New York. Long Island’s Hempstead Plains is the only naturally occurring prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains. Once covering almost 60,000 acres, this endemic East Coast grassland has been reduced to a mere 60 acres due to the pressures of urbanization. Nineteen of those acres now comprise the Hempstead Plains Education Center, the SITES pilot, which will also include a trail network and a children’s nature discovery area.

Milkweed at Hempstead Plains.

The nature preserve will connect to its past by showcasing plants native to the prairie, creating a visitor center with classrooms powered by alternative energy, and providing trails for visitors to learn about Long Island history and ecology. Like the other pilot projects, the site will test the point system for achieving different levels of site sustainability and will achieve a 2- or 3-star rating. The site’s other sustainability features include an environmental biotoilet, solar power, and a native grass roof.

Useful Resources:

The website Landscape for Life provides information and tools based on the principles of the Sustainable Sites Initiative and presented in an easy-to-understand format for homeowners and gardeners in the home landscape.

More information on SITES is available at

Additional information about Hempstead Plains is available at

About the Author

CeCe Haydock is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accredited New York state licensed landscape architect, a national and chapter member of the US Green Building Council, and a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Her practice focuses on site planning and on design and consulting for sustainable design, adaptive re-use, and projects seeking LEED certification. In addition to overseeing the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) pilot project on Long Island, NY, she lectures on the SITES program and historic gardens.