Ray Mims, Conservation and Sustainability Manager of the U.S. Botanic Garden spoke at this year's Lewis Ginter Winter Symposium on the Sustainable Sites Initiative. The initiative is a joint venture between the American Society of Landscape Architects, The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Society, and the U.S. Botanic Garden to create a national rating system for sustainable landscape development and management.
The definition of sustainability that Mr. Mims used came from 1987's Our Common Future report from the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development. It defined sustainability as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Mr. Mims began his talk by showing images of gold and platinum rated LEED buildings. Though the buildings had achieved very high ratings for sustainable construction, there was almost no landscape to be seen around them. Mr. Mims made the case that buildings, even when built using the most up-to-date technology, aren't truly environmentally beneficial; they have to displace some amount of natural environment. Maybe it's more appropriate to describe them as less environmentally bad. Landscapes on the other hand, can actually give back to the environment, cleaning air, purifying water, and providing wildlife habitat.
Part of the reason the Sustainable Sites Initiative was started back in 2005 was because landscape development issues weren't adequately covered by LEED green building guidelines. However, the United States Green Building Council, which over sees the LEED program, is very supported of the initiative and the principles developed by SSI may be incorporated into future iterations of LEED.
The Sustainable Sites Initiative covers several aspects of construction: hydrology, soils, vegetation, materials, health & well-being. Hydrology was one main focuses of Mr. Mim's talk. He pointed out that for a long time, we've thought of water as a problem to be dealt with by getting it away from buildings as quickly as possible. In fact, in some places it was illegal to treat water on site or even to disconnect your own downspouts! Thankfully, we're now starting to see it as a valuable resource to conserve and treat on site. A couple of his illuminating statistics: only 3% of the world's water is fresh, and most of that is frozen. Put that way it sure doesn't seem like there's a lot to go around. But on the east coast 30% of its water is used in lawn irrigation! That hardly seems to be the best use.
Several of the projects Mr. Mims showed demonstrated how water is now being more carefully managed through the use of cisterns, bio-swales and other techniques. As he explained, a paradigm shift is occurring. Rather than seeing land as a commodity that belongs to us, we're starting to see it as a community to which we belong. Mr. Mims has made his own contribution to sustainability by giving up his car and using mass transit or walking. Though this generated skeptical looks from some in the crowd, it may become a more viable option as sustainable development practices become more widespread.
The Sustainable Sites Initiative is currently looking for 75-150 pilot projects to test out the initiative's guidelines. For more information visit www.sustainablesites.org/pilot/.
For information on the other speakers at the 2010 Winter Symposium click here.