Above: The Discovery Playground in Jaycee Park (St. Charles, MO) promotes equity through inclusive play, and, as a destination playground, supports increased social contact among diverse community members.

A New Tool for Parks: Sustainable SITES Initiative

Two weeks ago, parks and recreation professionals, planners, designers, and advocates gathered in Columbia, Missouri for the 2016 Missouri Park and Recreation Association (MPRA) Conference. The conference theme Building on a Solid Foundation spoke to the industry’s interest in employing existing resources towards the goal of promoting conservation, social equity, and health and wellness –NRPA’s three pillars. To this end, SWT Design Partner Jay Wohlschlaeger shared our firm’s approach to incorporating existing data and research into evidence-based park planning and design with a presentation entitled  ‘A New Tool for Parks: Sustainable SITES Initiative.’

More than a rating system capable of evaluating just the economic and environmental merit of an outdoor space, the Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES) considers the impact of a landscape on its community to be a significant factor in its classification as “sustainable.” To us, this makes sense: a space that is well loved will be well cared for; a space that supports its users will be supported, to the degree that is feasible, by its users. The principle isn’t hard to get behind. But, putting the belief into action by weaving this thinking into the design of a park or open space system? That can get tricky. And in our office, that’s when we lean on the SITES guidelines.

Take for example, the topic of human health and well-being. According to the NRPA report ‘Americans’ Broad-Based Support for Local Recreation and Park Services published earlier this year, 84% of residents polled believe that offering facilities and services to improve physical health should be a high priority for their local park and recreation agency. Likewise, 80% believe the same to be true for offering facilities and services to reduce stress and improve mental health. Those trusted with the design of public open space inherit these priorities and, due to the transparent nature of the public planning process, are often called upon to demonstrate a design’s ability to meet community needs, in this case a demand for improved human health.

As landscape architects, designing healthy environments is part of our DNA. The cause is so critical to our profession that the impact of landscape architects upon public health, safety, and welfare is frequently cited as chief cause for licensure. High performing landscape designs do much more than mitigate the dangers associated with standing waters and mosquitos. Landscape architecture promotes human health and wellness by encouraging stronger social networks and providing spaces for mental respite and physical activity that are accessible to community members of various ages, abilities, and backgrounds. In comparison to our field’s proficiency in this type of design, however, our collective body of research, and our ability to use performance metrics to inform and communicate design outcomes, is underdeveloped –something that can be a barrier to collaboration and community engagement.

Sites Section 6: Human Health and Well-being operates on a definition of healthful landscape design that is in line with the range of impacts described above. The section calls for tangible measurements in support of a site’s ability to promote community health. Guidelines such as “Provide optimum site accessibility, safety, and wayfinding” (Credit 6.2) and “Support physical activity” (Credit 6.5) serve as prompts for including health mitigating improvements into the site design. Metrics which demonstrate a design’s achievement of targeted guidelines can be curated from a solid foundation of resources that have already been assembled and in many cases peer-reviewed. Resources highlighted in the presentation include the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Landscape Performance Series and research published by the NRPA, American Planning Association (APA), Urban Land Institute (ULI), and parks leaders such as the National Park Service (NPS).

The practice of assessing a proposed landscape against SITES guidelines is one that can add value to open space design and planning at multiple phases within the design process, regardless of whether or not the project will seek SITES certification. When we use SITES as a framework for drawing information, studies, data, and best practices into the planning and design process we are challenging ourselves to critically evaluate the potential performance of a site. Because of the structure of the rating system which includes 8 distinct sections (ranging from Site Design: Water to Education and Performance Monitoring) we are challenging ourselves to examine the site as it will ultimately function, as one integrated living design.

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