Posts Tagged ‘Sustainable Design’

It Pays to Grow Green

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

The old saying “money grows on trees” may not be literally true, but a sustainable landscape comes close. New studies demonstrate that environmentally friendly gardening practices not only can decrease utility and maintenance costs but also increase property value.

Parking Gardens

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

Parking lots make great settings for film noirs—I’ll give them that. But they’re bad for the environment. Their extensive paved and impervious surfaces bake in the sun, exacerbating the urban heat island effect. Virtually all the rain that falls on them is funneled into storm sewers, polluting local waterways. And they’re some of the ugliest places on the planet.

Public gardens are leading the way to greener parking lots—parking gardens—with plantings that absorb rain and prevent runoff and solar arrays that produce energy while providing shade. (more…)

Landscape For Life

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

You’ve heard me sing the praises of the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), the country’s first rating system for landscapes that make ecological sense. SITES, which provides technical metrics for landscape professionals striving to go green, sets sustainability standards for landscapes the way LEED does for buildings. Landscape For Life, a collaborative project of the U.S. Botanic Garden and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, is the new homeowner version of SITES. Landscape For Life makes it possible for anyone to create a sustainable garden. (In the interest of full disclosure: I worked with the USBG and the Wildflower Center to develop the content for the Landscape For Life website and print materials.) Stay tuned, because further enhancements, such as interactive features and a souped-up design, are in the works.

Here’s my “Growing Greener” column on Landscape For Life that appeared in Public Garden magazine, the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association, Vol. 25 No. 3. In my “Growing Greener” columns I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff. (more…)

Green Restaurants

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

Here’s another one of my “Growing Greener” columns in Public Garden, the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. This one appeared in Vol. 25 No. 2 (2010). In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: I’ve heard that it’s possible to have our restaurant certified “green.” Is this true, and if so, what does it entail?

A: Missouri Botanical Garden’s restaurant Sassafras and Phipps Conservatory’s Café Phipps have joined the ranks of top-rated American restaurants that have been certified by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), and for good reason. It’s a little known fact that restaurants consume vast amounts of water and energy and generate an astonishing amount of solid waste and pollution each year.

Some statistics to chew on: (more…)

Living Building Challenge

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

The following was published as part of my regular “Growing Greener” column in Public Garden magazine, Vol. 25 No. 1 (2010).  Public Garden is the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: What is the Living Building Challenge, and how is it different from the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system?

A: By the sound of it, you’d think the goal of the Living Building Challenge—to encourage the creation of “living buildings” that “function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower”—was tailor made for public gardens. Although it grew out of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, a chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, it is designed to push the industry—and LEED itself—to a whole new level. In the words of one observer, the Living Building Challenge makes LEED’s incremental system of credits that get tallied up to determine whether a project earns Certified, Silver, Gold, or top Platinum rating “look like something drawn up by Exxon.” (more…)

Are All Green Roofs Created Equal?

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

The following was published as part of my regular “Growing Greener” column in Public Garden magazine, Vol. 24 No. 3 (2009). Public Garden is the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: There are so many different green roof systems. Are they all effective?

A: It’s easy for us plant enthusiasts to be seduced by the idea of verdant rooftops. Aesthetically, living roofs are a major improvement over typical asphalt or tar roofs, which are about as hospitable to humans and most other life forms as Death Valley on a mid-summer day. But before falling head over heels for green roofs it’s worth asking whether they really, as touted, help insulate buildings and thus save energy that would otherwise be consumed for heating or cooling, counteract the urban heat island effect, remove particulates from polluted air, detain and cleanse storm water, and more. (more…)

Dickson Despommier Does it Again

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

You gotta give it to Dickson Despommier—he’s certainly persistent. The professor of public health at Columbia University has been pushing the concept of vertical farming in cities for the past several years, and he made his pitch again in Sunday’s New York Times. He even tossed in a few stats on the economics of growing food in urban highrises to counter the arguments of skeptics. You can find my previous takes on vertical agriculture here,  here, and here.

Growing Greener: The Sustainable Sites Initiative

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

The following was published as part of my regular “Growing Greener” column in Public Garden magazine, Vol. 23 No. 3/4 (2008). Public Garden is the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: What is the Sustainable Sites Initiative, and how can public gardens use it?

A: In the past several years, the LEEDR program of the U.S. Green Building Council has become synonymous with sustainable design. The USGBC awards four levels of LEED certification for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. This rating system has provided targets for public gardens and other institutions striving to go green.

One limitation of LEED, especially for public gardens, is that it currently is concerned primarily with buildings. It’s not surprising, then, that two public gardens, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the United States Botanic Garden, have teamed up with the American Society of Landscape Architects to produce the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the first program to develop guidelines and standards for sustainable landscapes. (more…)

Regenerative Design Update

Monday, May 18th, 2009

So I’m back in New York, having seen enough redbuds in bloom on our cross-country trek to keep me happy for an entire lifetime. While I was gone, I heard from David Schaller, whose essay “Beyond Sustainability: From Scarcity to Abundance” has been a driving force for regenerative design. He’s now sustainable development administrator for the city of Tucson, and publishes a weekly newsletter called Sustainable Practices.

You know regenerative design is on the fast track when the annual meeting of the ASLA, to be held in Chicago in September, is titled “Beyond Sustainability: Regenerating Places and People.” “We’ve been anticipating public sentiment to turn to the need for sustaining the planet for many years,” wrote ASLA President Angela Dye in an email that arrived in my inbox this morning. “As landscape architects, we must go beyond, and aspire to adopt practices that not only sustain, but regenerate our ecosystems and restore diminishing biohabitats.”

Regenerative Design: The Next Big Environmental Thing

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

“Earth Week” is as good a time as any to reflect on the environmental movement and how it’s evolved since the first Earth Day in 1970. Back in those days, the toxic smog spewed from chemical factories that lined the New Jersey Turnpike was so thick you could barely get from New York to Delaware without a gas mask. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Paul Ehrlich predicted that exploding human population growth would lead to mass famines and planetary disaster. In its report Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome said people were devouring natural resources, particularly oil, so fast that the days of economic growth were numbered. The old Sierra Club motto that people who enter natural areas should “take only pictures, leave only footprints” captured the prevailing environmental view that humans are “unnatural,” ecological outlaws, predators on a planetary scale.

Early environmentalism resulted in some landmark laws and considerable environmental clean-up. But twenty years later, ecosystems were still declining rapidly, and we still were faced with climate chaos, not to mention a mass extinction episode that could rival anything in the three and a half billion years of life on earth, including the demise of the dinosaurs. As a public relations strategy, gloom and doom got old real fast, and in the past decade or so, a more positive approach has become environmentalism’s mainstream face—the quest for sustainability. As a guiding philosophy, sustainable development certainly beats misanthropy and apocalypse. But LEED Platinum buildings and Priuses can get you only so far, and sustainable design, at least as currently conceived, won’t lead to true sustainability anytime soon. By settling for a higher recycling rate, more fuel-efficient cars, or less water consumption, we’re just making things less worse.

Five years ago, in an influential presentation, David Schaller, sustainable development coordinator in the EPA’s Denver office, called this a “cruel, zero-sum game that we are destined to lose in the end.”  No wonder there’s still talk about austerity and apocalypse, he said: “There is an austerity all right, but it is an austerity of imagination. All of it is fueled by the premise of scarcity in nature. I propose that there is an abundance to nature that, in our ignorance and even arrogance, we are only beginning to fathom.”

Any gardener who has contemplated the act of photosynthesis knows that life on earth is no zero-sum game. Plants are able to pluck sunlight out of thin air and transform its energy into the food that all animals, including us, need to survive. Through photosynthesis, plants are constantly renewing the planet. The business of nature is quite the opposite of scarcity and limits. It’s the creation of diversity and complexity, and also increasing consciousness. Although it’s been interrupted on a handful of occasions by episodes of mass extinction, the increase in the diversity and complexity—and consciousness—of species since life began is astonishing. Okay, so we humans have been misguided. But we are as capable of evolving and growing as the rest of nature. In fact, as the quintessential self-conscious species, we have a key role to play in the future of the earth.

The number of people in the world long ago overwhelmed what nature could accomplish via the plodding, incremental, and unconscious process of biological evolution encoded in our genes. Human thought and imagination, by means of cultural change, are now subsuming the far slower process of biological evolution. And in the past few years, a new way of thinking called regenerative design has been bubbling up into our collective consciousness. While the highest aim of sustainable development is creating things that do no harm, regenerative design recognizes that people can be a positive ecological force—that we have the potential to create more diversity and abundance on the planet than would be possible without us.

A lot of people scoff at the idea that we humans, who are almost singlehandedly responsible for climate change and the current extinction crisis, could ever become promoters of biodiversity and abundance. But as a gardener I know that from one single species of wild cabbage native to the Mediterranean we’ve created not only a multitude of cultivated cabbages but also a multitude of cauliflowers, and broccolis, and kohlrabis, and kales, and Brussels sprouts, and collards, and more. And in some ways we’re producing ever more diversity, ever faster. It took centuries for us to create the many vegetable varieties from that single species of wild cabbage. But in a matter of decades, we’ve developed enough new daffodil varieties to support an entire garden industry.

Of course, under our influence there’s also been a rapid evolution of invasive weeds. We need to learn how to distinguish between horticultural practices—and other practices—that enhance diversity and abundance and those that degrade and destroy them. We can do this by studying the natural patterns and processes that over the millennia have transformed the planet from a barren hunk of rock, to a green globe cloaked with lush ferns and giant conifers, to the world of multicolored floral ebullience we know today. That is what the native landscaping movement has been about. And permaculture. There are also glimmers of regenerative design in the Living Building Challenge, which is poised to surpass LEED as the gold standard for ecological building. In the words of the Cascadia Green Building Council, where the Challenge originated, a living building “is as elegant and efficient as a flower.” It doesn’t just use less energy, water, and other resources but rather generates more energy from renewable sources than it uses, captures more rainwater than it needs, and actually adds to the abundance and beauty of a place.

Heck, regenerative design already has its own Wikipedia stub. You’ll be hearing more about it.