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sustainable sites

Landscaping Design with the SITES Framework

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Nov 2, 2019

A little bit of grass, some rose bushes and daisies, and perhaps a fruit tree or two: for many homeowners, designing the landscape around their homes requires little more than walking through Lowe’s or Home Depot and searching for whichever flowers and bushes are on sale. In many cases, the contractors who build our homes will include a prefabricated landscape system that is mass-produced and repeated in the hundreds of homes they build. Walking through urban or suburban neighborhoods reveals cookie-cutter yards of well-manicured lawns and bushes. Not only does this monoculture require an enormous amount of agrochemicals to sustain, but it is also dull, ecologically barren, and not all that attractive.

Most of us have grown accustomed to calling the physical space around the homes we live in “our yards.” This semantic description further reveals our disconnection from the landscapes that used to sustain us. Throughout Mesoamerica, where ancestral agrarian traditions abound, rural and even suburban homesteads are surrounded by incredible diverse “home gardens.” Eric Toensmeier, the author of The Carbon Farming Solution, describes these home gardens as “one of the oldest agroforestry systems in the world.” They are constituted as a “highly diverse planting near and around the house on an intimate scale with trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, annual crops, and often small livestock — what is often known in the United States as a food forest or forest garden.” These home gardens might not look as “neat” as a monoculture of green grass. Still, they provide high levels of carbon sequestration, excellent levels of biodiversity, and an abundance of food.

Might it be possible for the typical American yard to transform to become more like the Central American home garden? The SITES framework is the most comprehensive system for creating sustainable and resilient land development projects.

sustainable site design
Photo Credit: SWT Design

The Importance of Landscape Design 

Most neighborhoods and individual plots of land follow from economic principles associated with the maximization of profit. Contractors, when designing a community, will often try to get the most out of the property through maximizing the number of available building plots. Permaculture design principles, on the other hand, ask us to consider the layout of the land and design the areas where we live as homesteads that “fit” the landscapes where we live.

By observing the natural layout of the land and asking ourselves: “what would the natural world do here?” we can develop mutually beneficial relationships. In this way, our homes can become more resilient while also becoming a regenerative part of the land that sustains us.

For example, through observing where the sun passes on the horizon, we can design our homes with the right orientation to take advantage of passive solar home design. Through understanding the slope and contour of the land around our homes, we can develop greywater recycling systems and rainwater harvesting systems that filter water back into the landscape for more excellent ecological resiliency. On a community-wide level, the Serenbe community outside of Atlanta, Georgia, is an inspiring example of how landscape design was able to develop a thriving urban district that allowed native forests to flourish.

sustainable sites serenbe
Photo Credit: Serenbe

What is the SITES Framework?

Unfortunately, our modern-day society has separated us from the land to the point that most people will have a hard time discerning an oak tree from an elm. Landscape design used to be an intuitive response that arose from our dependence on the health of the land. Today, many people contract landscaping services that replicate the monocultures of green grass that define most neighborhoods. The SITES Framework is a helpful tool that can be used by landscape architects, designers, engineers, planners, ecologists, architects, developers, policy-makers, and even homeowners to align land development and management with innovative sustainable design.

According to the SITES Framework website, “land is a crucial component of the built environment and can be planned, designed, developed and maintained to protect and enhance the benefits we derive from healthy functioning landscapes. SITES helps create ecologically resilient communities and benefits the environment, property owners, and local and regional communities and economies.” This framework functions as a comprehensive rating system similar to the many green building certification programs that we have reviewed here.  

The goal of the SITES Framework is to distinguish sustainable landscapes from traditional “lawns” that pollute the environment, lead to land erosion, and require upwards of 67 million pounds of pesticides each year. The SITES certification applies to lands both with and without buildings. It can be used for individual homes and for more community-wide landscapes such as “streetscapes.”

sustainable sites water
Photo Credit: ELSEE

Some of the elements that the SITES Framework takes into consideration include reduced water demand through irrigation, filtered and reduced stormwater runoff, an increase in insect and wildlife habitat, improved air quality due to less energy consumption and more vegetation, and more outdoor recreation activities.

The SITES rating system and “scorecard” is available for free download here and can be used by any homeowners to evaluate the sustainability level of the space around their home. The elements taken into consideration for the rating and scoring system include:

  • Site context: This includes limiting development on farmland, protecting aquatic ecosystems, and redeveloping degraded landscapes. Where we build and design our homes should be an essential part of the equation.
  • Design Assessment: The framework requires landscape designers to use an integrative design process that forces us to see things through the lens of the natural world where we are building.
  • Water Management: The SITES Framework requires some management of the precipitation on the land. The idea is to utilize this resource, prevent erosion, and create ways for water to filter into the landscape. It also encourages reduced water usage through water-smart home landscapes. Soil and Vegetation: Healthy soils and abundant vegetation are essential for a healthy ecology. Points are offered for the use of native plants, control of invasive species, improving and protecting soil fertility, and using vegetation to minimize building energy usage.
  • Materials Selection: This section gives points for homeowners who reuse salvaged and recycled materials and use local materials to limit the embodied energy footprint of our landscapes.
  • Human Health and Wellbeing: Healthy, thriving landscapes will also necessarily promote human health. The framework recognizes this and offers points for areas that support fair site use, mental restoration, opportunities for physical activity, and provide for on-site, organic food production.
  • Sustainable Construction: When planned correctly, buildings can be a viable and regenerative part of the landscape. This section looks at how buildings (including homes) incorporate sustainable construction practices, restore soils that were disturbed during building, reduce construction and demolition debris from ending up in landfills, and protect air quality during the building process.
  • Operations and Maintenance: This section of the SITES Framework gives credits for landscapes that actively recycle organic material, minimize pesticide and fertilizer usage, and reduce outdoor energy usage. Check out this article on solar outdoor lights for a way to achieve this goal.
  • Education and Performance Monitoring: the SITES Framework offers points for homeowners and landscape designers who attempt to educate their neighbors and others about the importance of sustainable landscape design. Promoting sustainability awareness and intricately documenting the performance of your landscape will yield extra points within the certification framework.
sustainable sites
Photo Credit: SWT Design

While you can hire a professional consultant to carry out an extensive SITES certification, the free resources offered by this organization allow virtually any homeowner to take landscape sustainability into their own hands.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-09T11:46:17+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.