What LEED Did for Buildings, Sustainable SITES Will Do for Landscapes—and Not a Moment Too Soon

“One of the early ideas about the project … linked to the idea of restoring its existence for the people and being a much more authentic place, was the idea of making it much greener, a sustainable place and much more of a park space than a commercial space,” explains Sarah Weidner Astheimer, principal at JCFO. “It was discussed early on to pursue LEED certification and then we introduced the idea of pursuing SITES certification, as well.”

The goal is not only to conserve natural resources but also to promote human health, fitness, social equity, mobility and synergy with adjacent neighborhoods for the 9 million people who visit Navy Pier each year.

The goal is not only to conserve natural resources but also to promote human health, fitness, social equity, mobility and synergy with adjacent neighborhoods for the 9 million people who visit Navy Pier each year. PHOTO: Sahar Coston-Hardy for Navy Pier Inc. and James Corner Field Operations

Navy Pier Phase 1 is the first project to achieve GOLD certification under the Sustainable SITES Initiative v2 rating system and is a leading-edge international model for sustainable design and management practices. The project considers sustainability in its broadest sense; the goal is not only to conserve natural resources but also to promote human health, fitness, social equity, mobility and synergy with adjacent neighborhoods for the 9 million people who visit the pier each year.

Best exemplifying Navy Pier’s commitment to sustainability is its new “green spine,” the South Dock Promenade. With approximately 200 native and appropriately adapted trees, the redesign includes forward-thinking adaptation of aging infrastructure to create a series of gigantic “tree tubs” that redirect, clean and facilitate stormwater use for 100 percent of plant irrigation, new permeable pavements and strategic use of products with recycled content that are sourced from the region.

A few of the project’s other sustainable features include:

  • Hundreds of species of native and appropriately adapted plants.
  • A highly efficient drip irrigation system that utilizes sensors and metering to know when irrigation is necessary and how much water is being consumed.
  • Designed to manage the 95 percent storm event to reduce related Combined Sewer Overflow events and improve Lake Michigan water quality.
  • Sixty percent reduction in energy consumption through the incorporation of energy-efficient lighting, pumps, aerator and transformer components.
  • Nearly 30 percent of materials used were made from recycled content.
  • Low-maintenance materials and vegetation result in low maintenance costs.

“I can say that SITES, as a tool, was excellent for us during the design process because, like many other projects, we had to go through a series of significant value-engineering exercises, and budgets changed a little bit midway through because they weren’t exactly able to raise all of the funds we had imagined originally,” Weidner Astheimer recalls. “SITES was a great tool for us to preserve a lot of the sustainable features I think are often some of the first to be value engineered from a project.”

Case Study: University of Texas at El Paso

The results of connecting the University of Texas at El Paso campus back to its place in the Chihuahuan Desert helps instill pride in students and staff and community of their campus and heritage. PHOTO: Adam Barbe

The results of connecting the University of Texas at El Paso campus back to its place in the Chihuahuan Desert helps instill pride in students and staff and community of their campus and heritage. PHOTO: Adam Barbe


In celebration of its centennial anniversary, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) commissioned the design team at Ten Eyck Landscape Architects Inc., Austin, Texas, to design and oversee the transformation of the heart of its campus from an automobile-centric environment dominated by asphalt into an inviting community landscape that reflects the beauty of the Chihuahuan desert by increasing the vegetative area of the site by 60 percent.

“The project integrates the city, the campus, and the land by introducing a complementary network of walkways, native planted ephemeral rainwater arroyos, and green spaces that promote connectivity, inspire outdoor exploration and support natural processes within the urban fabric of the campus,” says Christine Ten Eyck, president, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. The core of UTEP’s Campus Transformation Project (CTP) includes Centennial Plaza and Centennial Green, richly detailed outdoor gathering spaces that feature a performance lawn and amphitheater. A diverse array of native plants and local stone create campus malls, a courtyard, promontories, and desert gardens that invite students and the community to embrace and enjoy nature.

In July 2016, CTP received SITES Silver and became the first project certified under v2 of the SITES Rating System. Sustainable landscape practices include vegetated arroyo and acequia bioswales that mimic the function of natural desert riparian corridors and the replacement of asphalt with a diverse native plant palette, including 571 trees, 1,831 shrubs and 4,089 perennials.

Through this project, UTEP is helping its community be more successful and deal with life challenges by providing a sustainable landscape that can improve cognitive function, reduce stress and offer opportunities for physical exercise.

“The campus is extremely proud of the SITES certification,” Ten Eyck notes. “The results of connecting the campus back to its place in the Chihuahuan Desert with comfortable malls and paths interlaced with new water-harvesting arroyos and desert gardens helps to instill pride in students and staff and community of their campus and heritage. The project is an example to the city of El Paso of low-impact development and hopefully will influence future projects.”

About the Author

Robert Nieminen

Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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