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Landscape Architecture News Digest

May 3, 2004

Sustainable Design & Development: New ASLA PI Group to Bring Abstact Environmental Concepts Down to Earth

For the first time in several years, ASLA has established a new professional interest (PI) group. Like the other PI groups, Sustainable Design and Development will serve as a knowlege-sharing entity focused on a specialized area of landscape architectural practice. LAND talked with SD&D chair April Philips, ASLA, about how the group evolved and what goals the membership will work toward over the next year or so.

By Susan Hines

April Philips, ASLA

Why create a group on sustainable design and development--aren't all landscape architects committed to sustainability?

Landscape architects play a critical role in designing sustainable environments. However, as a group we have not been known for directly addressing the importance and value of sustainable design to the public although it is at the core of our professional foundation. There are certainly a few leaders in the profession who convey the environmental message, but the majority of landscape architects do not seek opportunities to promote their work in this area. Most of us tend to do the work and let it speak for itself.

There are many green building and sustainable development strategies that landscape architects use, obstacles we encounter, and innovative solutions that could benefit other professionals, but other than the annual meeting, no forum is available to communicate and discuss these strategies and issues.

What was the impetus for creating a SD&D PI group?

In May 2002, a partnership meeting was held between the Society and the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) at ASLA headquarters. The driving force behind this discussion was the rapid growth of the USGBC's LEED rating system, which has become the industry standard for evaluating sustainable design and construction. LAs were beginning to work with the USGBC's various committees, subcommittees, and educational workshops and felt the need for the profession to take a larger part in developing Sustainable Sites criteria for the rating system. The perception is that the rating system is heavily weighted to architecture and interiors issues rather than site issues. Yet, if brought to a deeper level of regional and site-specific environmental evaluation, site issues currently addressed in the rating system could go further in protecting and enhancing the ecological aspects of landscapes. The group is particularly interested in bringing all types of landscape projects under the sustainablity umbrella--to expand the understanding of what is and what can be sustainable landscape architecture.

How did the SD&D PI group evolve?

After that first partnership meeting, ASLA became a member of USGBC, and the government affairs department formed an ad hoc LEED advisory committee. When ASLA attended the USGBC's first conference in Austin, Texas, in November 2002, several members presented landscape architecture projects from a site development perspective. At the Society's meeting in San Jose that year, the ad hoc committee and USGBC staff developed a LEED lecture that was part of a panel discussion. We also began collecting the green infrastructure information and website links currently listed on the SD&D webpage as well as a list of volunteers for a temporary membership mailing list to determine the profession's level of interest in sustainable design.

Meanwhile, ASLA has been working to develop a position paper on a LEED site development product. Also, our advisory committee worked with ASLA to determine the appropriate mechanism within the Society to continue pursuing this potential product with the USGBC and of course to promote the theory and practice of sustainable design and development. Thus, the SD&D PI Group was formed and made official January 2004.

The SD&D group's key task for this year is to provide the motivation, drive, and framework for the development and implementation of a potential new LEED product called LEED for Site Development. The LEED site development product is targeted toward the designer or developer of a landscape site, park, open space, waterfront, infrastructure, or other non-building-oriented project.

How do you define sustainable design and development and what is the group's mission?

Sustainable landscapes are designed and developed to balance the needs of people and the requirements of the environment while benefiting both. By "landscapes" we mean all scales of development--site specific, regional, and global. For example: At the world-wide scale consider the impact of development upon global climate issues. At the regional scale, understand the critical relationship between the various and competing demands placed on the environment. At the site scale, evaluate the associated environmental issues on a project basis then relate that to their projected impact on the region. Through the integration of the three scales in our solutions, we begin to recognize the cyclical relationships inherent to development issues.

While the principles within ASLA policies on Environmental Sustainability (pdf) and Livable Communities (pdf) reflect the profession's values on these topics, we felt the time was right to develop a new group to champion the position of sustainable design and planning principles. The world most definitely needs more landscape architects and environmental planners to lead sustainable design in the global arena. The SD&D group will provide focus for this leadership and foster future innovation from within our profession. One of our long-range goals is that the group would become a resource for any future environmental platforms or policies that ASLA decides to pursue proactively.

Do you differentiate between sustainable design, green design, ecology-based design and environmentally sensitive design?

Like most of us, I tend to use "sustainable design" and "green design" interchangeably. I know other landscape architects who prefer the term "ecology-based" design to emphasize the biological aspects of their approach, while still others define "environmentally sensitive" design in the same way. In general, all of these terms aim towards the same goal—a wiser, natural-systems- oriented approach to design and land planning that looks deeper into how we conserve, protect, and utilize the Earth's resources. Landscape architects and planners with an ecological foundation provide a critical link between design professionals and natural scientists.

An ecologically grounded design begins with a thorough understanding of the interactions between hydrology, geology, topography, climate, soil, and habitat--a fusion of plant, animal, and human circulation and infrastructure. Integration of these systems and collaboration between disciplines from the earliest stages lead to more sustainable projects.

Anything exciting being planned for the future--what's next for the group?

Site metrics are critical to developing a site development product and more definitive sustainable site evaluation criteria. Site metrics are an essential aspect of an effective and viable evaluation process that can be applied to sustainable landscape development criteria. We are sure that significant ecological data exists, but no single group we know of has collected the data with the intent of quantifying, evaluating, and rating sustainable sites. For example, in England an ecological index exists to measures damage and performance related to land use and landscapes. Do these types of indexes exist in the U.S.? Can they be applied on a national level, or are they too regional to translate nationally? These and others questions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to determining the available and appropriate data needed to pursue a LEED site development product. Once we determine what data exists and what data is needed, we can pursue a dialogue with the scientists who can collect it.

I recently met with Dr. Paul Ehrlich and Dr. Gretchen Daily, conservation biologists at Stanford University. They are excited about this line of questioning. Paul is the Bing Professor of Population Studies at the Department of Biological Sciences, and Gretchen recently wrote The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable. We discussed the potential for a future "meeting of the minds" that would attract biologists, ecologists, landscape architects, and environmental planners. Together we can explore how scientific understanding of biodiversity and economic incentives can inform and encourage sound ecological-design decisions. Such an event has the potential to take the sustainability dialogue to a whole new level, and through the SD&D PI group, ASLA members would be an essential element of that conversation.

Would you like to convey anything else to ASLA members through LAND Online?

We hope our initial contact list will generate the first members of the SD&D group and that these professionals will help us collect, disseminate, and advance the data on sustainable design practice and theory within the field of landscape architecture as well as associated fields. The more members we attract, the more the group will be able to accomplish. One ripple can do a lot, but many ripples can create a waterfall.

Meanwhile, our webpage is updated monthly. In fact, we just began a monthly question-and-answer forum by topic. On April 2 we posted the question "When does rain water harvesting make sense?"

Finally, our members represent a cross section of the country, so LAND readers should feel free to contact any of the officers of the group.

Editor's Note: ASLA Professional Interest Groups are open to both members and nonmembers. Learn more about the Society's PI groups at

April Philips is the principal of April Philips Design Works, Inc., in Sausalito, California.
Susan Hines is the editor of
LAND Online.