2020 year in review

Published on
05 Feb 2021
Danielle Pieranunzi

From streetscapes and parks to corporate campuses and educational institutions, landscapes knit together the fabric of our communities and provide the foundation for our very way of life. They determine how quickly we will recover from the effects of climate change, provide natural systems for cleaning our water and keeping our cities cool and positively impact both our mental and physical health. SITES helps communities create spaces that provide clean air and water, support and protect us during extreme weather events and build a sense of community that contributes to our wellbeing. GBCI’s acquisition of SITES in 2015 and our ongoing partnership with the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), expands our ability to advance the field of sustainable landscape design and support the development of healthy, thriving communities and neighborhoods, globally.

It’s clear that 2020 was an unprecedented and challenging year for everyone. As it came to a close, we reflected on what was accomplished and the inspiring SITES community for their knowledge, innovation and leadership in carrying the SITES movement forward.

Leadership in action: SITES projects

To date, over 200 projects and more than 730 million gross square feet of outdoor space have registered or certified with SITES, covering 38 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. and 14 countries.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, projects from Maine to Alabama to California continue to pursue SITES and demonstrate the value that bringing sustainability into our landscapes provides. 2020 saw landmark projects achieve SITES certification like the first U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) SITES v2 project, Columbus Land Port of Entry in New Mexico, the first parks in Dallas, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia and the second project in Canada at the University of British Columbia. Projects in Japan, China, Brazil and the U.S. also achieved Precertification, a new SITES pathway which launched this year. Silver Bow Creek Conservation Area, the restoration of one of the largest Superfund sites in the U.S. became the first precertified project in the U.S.

“During the planning and design of the Silver Bow Creek Conservation Area we were searching for a quantitative mechanism to measure successful delivery of a sustainable and carbon-sensitive project solution. With the Silver Bow Creek Conservation Area project, the design team recognized an immediate opportunity to do just that through the Sustainable SITES Initiative. While we have always strived to incorporate sustainability and carbon neutrality in the design of this project, we now have [a] direct measure of our success. Being pre-certified at the Gold level is a great recognition of the efforts of our design team and confirms that this project will help Butte transition to a sustainable future.”
– Josh Bryson, PE, PMP | Operations Project Manager at Remediation Management Services Company, An Affiliate of Atlantic Richfield Company

SITES also witnessed several newly registered projects in 2020 including:

  • Colby College Gordon Center for the Creative & Performing Arts: Colby College is pursuing SITES for the grounds around its new center for arts and innovation, an exceptional performance and viewing space for theater, dance, music, and cinema studies that’s also a creative laboratory for the performing arts and multidisciplinary curriculum. This is Colby’s third SITES project, with its athletic fields already achieving the first SITES certification in New England.
  • Syme Residence Hall: NC State University in Raleigh, NC is honoring its 1916 Syme Residence Hall, a vibrant part of its history which has housed over 20,000 students over the last century, with renovated grounds built for SITES certification.

“The Sustainable SITES Initiative and the Master of Landscape Architecture Program at North Carolina State University are strongly aligned. Our approach to education, scholarship and community engagement incorporates the four SITES goals of fostering resiliency, mitigating climate change, transforming the development market, and enhancing human and community well-being. These goals are woven into the majority of our courses and our students and faculty engage them in their work. Consequently our graduates are well prepared to move into practice engaging SITES goals, prerequisites and credits.”
– Meg Calkins, Department Head + Professor Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning College of Design at North Carolina State University

  • Huntsville New Courthouse: A new courthouse for the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Alabama, is being built by the GSA in Huntsville, AL. The GSA adopted SITES for its capital improvement program and continues to provide federal leadership in this regard, having determined that SITES “offers a highly effective and efficient way to compel environmental performance and project efficiencies, including effective cost control, on various capital project types.” Long time SITES supporter, Jose Alminana and Jason Curtis from Andropogon are heading the landscape design of this project, making it their fourth SITES project to date.
  • Tuolumne and Groveland Community Resiliency Centers: Tuolumne County, CA registered two "Community Resilience Centers," which won a National Disaster Resilience Competition hosted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The project will build on the tree planting and other restoration work already planned after the 2013 Rim fire, as well as creating fuel breaks to slow future fires, removing invasive plants and enhancing grazing land. The Rim was the biggest blaze in the Sierra Nevada’s recorded history, burning across 250,000 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park and private land.
  • Feriton Spur Park is embedded within an almost six mile old railroad line through the heart of Kirkland, WA and is being transformed into an “unmatched path for walking and biking, a stunning linear park, a site for future transit. This means places where people gather, a safe way to travel to a friend’s house, a speedy way to get to work, fun places for play and reflective spaces full of stillness.”
  • Expanding SITES global presence. The first SITES projects in Uruguay, Spain, Italy and Saudi Arabia also registered this year. This includes an 80-hectare park in Madrid, Spain and the site of a large university in Saudi Arabia.

SITES community

These projects wouldn’t be possible without the thought leaders, visionaries and experts who are creating landscapes that produce regenerative outcomes. People like Rebecca Dunn Bryan (Watershed) and Kate Tooke (Sasaki), who took the long view when creating a place like Gulf State Park Lodge in Alabama respecting the local ecology, enhancing the human experience, and in their words, “maximizing life per square foot.” There are people like Frederick Steiner who continues to raise awareness of SITES potential like in his recently published paper, “Landscape governance: the prospects for the SITES rating system,” about SITES as a regulatory tool and means to improve ecosystem services in our built environment. We are also grateful for the hard work of LEED Sustainable Sites technical advisors and Pamela Conrad for their support; thanks to their efforts we will soon have a SITES pilot credit focused on carbon sequestration!

SITES Community Partner Network

This past fall, we launched the SITES Community Partner program which intended to engage a wider network of organizations committed to prioritizing meaningful, high-performance outdoor spaces. To date, 33 partners across the industry have endorsed the SITES Guiding Principles.

SITES Accredited Professionals

A growing community of over 500 professionals and students have taken that extra step to show their commitment to sustainable and resilient places by becoming SITES APs. Leaders like Melanie Glorieux in Canada, who led the effort to certify the first SITES project in Canada, which transformed the main gateway to downtown Montreal from an elevated expressway to a beautiful green promenade that covers an area equal to five football fields. This new space offers a multi-generational park with new opportunities for commuting, physical activity, social interaction, stormwater management, and much more. And there’s Dou Zhang, Director at the Sasaki Associates, Shanghai Office for her leadership in getting the first project certified in mainland China with the stunning Runway Park which turned an old airport into a valuable ecological patch in a highly urban area and a healthier and more meaningful living environment for the local people.

We also thank SITES APs like Bryan Astheimer at Re:Vision Architecture (which recently joined as a SITES Community Partner) not only on his work certifying projects, but the many times he has shared his knowledge with others at a SITES workshop. Then there’s firms like Design Workshop going above and beyond by incorporating SITES AP training into the professional development for their staff.

Expertise in implementing SITES is critical, and so in order to expand the network of leaders with knowledge of sustainable landscape design and SITES, we developed a credit this year to reward the inclusion of SITES APs on project teams.

To date, GBCI has awarded 512 SITES AP credentials in 20 countries. 73 SITES APs were awarded in 2020.

SITES education and outreach

2020 started off with a SITES training for practitioners in China and a presentation for USGBC’s Federal Green Building Roundtable. In July, over 300 sustainability leaders from across the globe joined Mahesh Ramanujam, our president and CEO, for a SITES Town Hall in July 2020 to hear about his vision for SITES and sustainable landscape design. Mahesh emphasized how natural infrastructure contributes to the creation of a healthy, equitable and resilient future for all (Read the Town Hall report). And in November we joined a Greenbuild session, led by SITES champions Pamela Conrad and Lisa Cowan, demonstrating how outdoor spaces have the ability to act as a carbon sink, helping move us toward regenerative, sustainable spaces. That session explored how SITES and LEED are working toward climate positive solutions within buildings and outside of them.

Launching on Earth Day 2020 and offered throughout the year, the team also hosted a series of SITES Community Calls to convene the network of professionals and subject matter experts in conversation about sustainable and resilient landscapes. These live webinars also offered free SITES Continuing Education Units to the community. Topics included:

  • An in-depth discussion on how healthy landscapes improve human health and well-being where we heard from Dr. Kathleen Wolf, a social scientist and also a former SITES technical advisor who reviewed the multiple benefits (and supporting research) of being outdoors. Much of this scientific evidence informed the health-related credits that make up the SITES Rating System. The SITES Platinum certified Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory was also featured with Studio Phipps manager, Mark D’Amico. Under the continued leadership of Richard Piacentini, the Center continues to serve as an exceptional example of how projects can be designed with a focus on improving a site’s overall health and wellness benefits.
  • Learning how to deliver a successful SITES project from the ground up as told by team members from two unique and innovative projects: GSA’s Columbus Land Port of Entry in New Mexico and Grant Park Gateway in Atlanta, Georgia, developed by the City of Atlanta Parks and Recreation Department. Amy Danner of Epsten Group led the certification submission for LEED and SITES.
  • An inspiring story from Gulf State Park Lodge in Alabama, where team members walked through the details that led to this creative and resilient SITES and LEED Platinum certified project and demonstrated its resiliency in responding to recent hurricanes. The project is an extraordinary example of adapting a building and its landscape to work alongside its ecosystem.

“We are caretakers of this creation. The sustainable construction and the environmentally friendly management of The Lodge show how serious we are about that responsibility. We are very excited about how we can have this beautiful facility and still protect our environment.”
– Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

2020 efforts focused on creating avenues to better connect with the sustainable landscape community of practice, including the launch of a Community Call series, a monthly newsletter and the inaugural SITES Town Hall.

COVID-19 Response

2020 forced us to take a hard look at the systems we have created for ourselves: what we take for granted, what truly benefits our neighbors and communities and what doesn’t. As author Arundhati Roy notes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

In the SITES Guiding Principles, we aspire to create and implement outdoor spaces that respond to economic, environmental and cultural conditions. COVID-19 has increased both the urgency and challenge of ensuring access to parks, trails and other landscapes, while also supporting physical distancing. Our first step in 2020 was the introduction of the SITES Safety First Pilot Credit, which promotes best practice requirements in operations and management of landscapes, parks and other outdoor spaces to take precautions against the spread of COVID-19. The credit encourages projects to undertake a risk assessment using the National Recreation and Park Association’s (NRPA) Risk Assessment Tool, as well as create an updated operations and management plan which addresses physical distancing, cleaning practices, impact on equity and inclusion, worker and visitor safety, signage and communications and more.

Landscape governance

SITES is more than a rating system. It’s initiating a movement and building a global community of committed professionals like yourself. It’s implementing global goals at a project level and facilitating the development of regional and local action too, like with the Atlanta BeltLine.

"In this day and age, we focus too often on the here and now...That is why we adopted SITES for the Atlanta BeltLine. SITES ensures we optimize the parks for the community providing both short and long term benefits.”
– Kevin Burke |Director of Design at the Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

SITES can also be an essential tool for “landscape governance,” the process by which sustainability and other interests are balanced in landscape development, argues Frederick Steiner in “Landscape governance: the prospects for the SITES rating system.

“First, the services that landscapes provide must be understood and viewed as relevant and, second, there needs to be tools to act. Ecosystem services help with the first condition and SITES with the second.”
– Frederick Steiner |Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design

The potential for SITES to transform communities is vast. To gain the benefits of healthy ecosystems, we must prioritize sustainable, resilient development and we can do that by integrating nature back into cities. Conventional thinking must be transformed and shifted toward approaches that conserve and enhance the function of the land on which we all depend, while also protecting communities from disaster and improving human health and well-being.

We are incredibly proud of the work the SITES community of leaders have carried forward this past year and are looking ahead to an even better 2021!