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Sustainable approaches to landscape design

By Melanie Sifton

For conventional pool installations, builders can add plants and landscape elements outside the feature to reduce evaporation and promote water conservation.

Interest in sustainability is on the rise everywhere. Hot topics worldwide include water conservation, climate change mitigation, biodiversity, carbon footprints, recycling and use of local products. Now is the perfect time to start considering how some of these issues play out in pool and spa landscapes. For professionals in the landscape industry, ‘going green’ can be beneficial not only for the environment, but also for the bottom line. While sustainability accreditation systems for traditional structures—such as the Canada Green Building Council’s (CaGBC’s) Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED)—have become popular frameworks for green building design, the outdoor building environment is just now receiving some well-deserved attention. The Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES™), a new voluntary sustainable landscape accreditation system, has recently released its new Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks to help provide a framework for greener landscapes among designers, builders and maintenance professionals. Though primarily designed to address new landscape construction projects, this system may also help in retrofitting existing sites.

What is SITES?

Use of local, natural-stone products and aggregates in the landscape design and construction process can support local economies and help to reduce environmental impacts from transportation.

Though it is meant to tackle specific components of a landscape design, SITES has built its guidelines upon United Nations (UN)-approved protocols for ecosystem services. These are defined as benefits people receive from their natural environment, but are often dismissed because they have generally been considered as free and infinite resources.  Examples include climate regulation, pollution correction, water supply and regulation, erosion and sediment control, hazard mitigation, pollination, habitat, waste treatment, human health and well-being, food and other products, and cultural benefits. Global threats to clean water, air and healthy food have prompted economists to begin examining the true value of the services and resources provided by the outdoor environment. Thus far, estimates for the global economic contribution of ecosystem services ranges between $16 and $54 trillion US a year. (de Groot et al. 2002.) This amounts to more than the annual gross national product of all human economies in the world. (Costanza et al. 1997.) Put simply, ‘products’ like air and water are no longer considered free. They are now an economic asset. While these statistics may seem overwhelming to the average pool, spa or landscape professional, there are some smart tactics they can use to increase and support the benefits of ecosystem services. In fact, in many cases, small adjustments to typical processes can reap great benefits, environmentally and economically. All the above-mentioned ecosystem services can be provided through landscaping—and it should be marketed as such. While certain protocols are being set for sustainable landscapes, they are not intended to be prescriptive or overly restrictive. In theory, any type of landscape esthetic can be treated as a sustainable site, whether formal or informal in design. One must simply consider a few guiding principles. Examples include:

  • Doing no harm to the environment;
  • Using precaution in decisions affecting environmental health;
  • Design with culture and nature in mind;
  • Collaborating with others;
  • Support living processes; and
  • Fostering environmental stewardship.

Many of these guiding principles require a pool, spa or landscape professional to stop and think through their decisions to consider whether some of the standard construction and maintenance practices may be harmful to human and environmental health. For instance, chemical sensitivities to chlorine and other common pool chemicals are becoming more common, so fully considering the human health and environmental impacts of pool and spa system designs is very important. In order to ensure the best and most functional product is delivered to the client, all relevant design, construction and maintenance professionals should collaborate at the beginning of the design process and throughout construction to reduce possible conflicts. Support for living processes means when given the option the project should be designed to build and support landscape systems that rely on living organisms for its function. For example, choosing to plant a living lawn rather than artificial turf or choosing to use biological systems for water filtration rather than rely on non-living chemical processes. In terms of environmental stewardship, if all the principles above have been included in the process of a project, the work should be promoted to educate others on using sustainable principles to achieve a greener and more ecologically-friendly outcome.

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