Catherine Neilson

Catherine Neilson, Australian Institute of Landscape Architects,

24 April 2013 — The SITES rating tool for green landscape could provide the trigger for a shift towards a more integrated and holistic approach, says Catherine Neilson.

A recent collaboration between the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects and the US-based Sustainable Sites Initiative may prove a game-changer in terms of how we understand and measure urban sustainability in this country.

Over the past decade there has been increasing focus at government and community level on improving the sustainability performance of Australian cities and settlements. A great deal of attention has been paid to how we might best define and monitor progress in this area, and a plethora of tools developed for measuring and rating the sustainability performance of buildings and other hard infrastructure within our cities and towns.

However, previous research conducted by the AILA in partnership with the International Federation of Landscape Architects and the CSIRO, has identified significant gaps in the scope and capacity of existing sustainability assessment tools within Australia.

In particular, despite the fact that the urban landscapes in and around our cities can amount to 60 per cent of the total urban area,  concerns have been raised regarding the extremely poor capacity within most existing tools for appropriately measuring urban environmental quality or green infrastructure performance as a key component of overall urban sustainability .

We can no longer afford to ignore this deficiency. The landscapes that surround us and provide the backdrop to our daily lives are our primary life support system.  More than half of the world’s wild places are now gone forever, and over 50 per cent of the global population now live in cities.

Over the coming decade, urgent reform in the way we plan and design our urban environments will be crucial in reversing the dangerously declining levels of biodiversity and landscape quality worldwide before the trend becomes unstoppable.

One of the key findings of The State of Australian Cities 2012 report was that the “proper management of natural systems and ‘green infrastructure’ can make major contributions to the sustainability and liveability of our cities”, including the strategic role of sustainable landscape design in improved climate adaptation outcomes. Yet to date there are no agreed guidelines or tools for defining and measuring “proper management” of our urban landscapes, much less goals and targets to conserve and enhance this critical regenerative asset base for current and future generations.

The Sustainable Sites Initiative is set to change all that.

SITES is the first rating system in the world designed to assess and improve the sustainability performance of landscape or “green infrastructure” – that is, the vegetation, soil and water networks that intersperse, connect and provide vital life support for humans and other species within our urban and regional environments.

It has been collaboratively developed by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the United States Botanic Garden.

The target audience for the SITES tool includes all those who plan, design, construct, operate, manage and maintain urban landscapes, as well as those who influence land development and management practices in urban and regional areas, especially those concerned with addressing increasing challenges relating to biodiversity loss, resource depletion, urban intensification and climate adaptation.

SITES is designed as an openly accessible, voluntary rating system and set of national guidelines for sustainable design, construction and maintenance practices for landscapes of all types, with or without buildings.  The rating system is structured so that projects can use the guidelines and performance benchmarks to inform decision-making for more sustainable landscape design and management outcomes, regardless of whether official certification is being pursued or not.  The tool covers a broad range of site sustainability criteria including impacts of design and management decisions on soils, water, vegetation, materials use and human health and well-being.

There is no tool on the market or currently in development within Australia which is comparable to SITES in terms of scope and capacity for benchmarking and measuring the performance of urban landscape and green infrastructure assets.  It is unique in this regard.

Over the past year, the AILA has been working in conjunction with the SITES executive committee to test the potential applicability of the SITES rating system in the Australian context, through evaluating a suite of Australian best-practice projects against the current pilot version of the tool.

The findings from this research are extremely encouraging.  While data from AILA’s detailed case study analysis will be used to inform current revisions to the final SITES rating system (scheduled for release in the US in mid-2013), the AILA national scoping study also revealed that the structure and content of the SITES tool renders it highly suitable for potential future modification and use within an Australian context.

Preliminary findings indicate that the SITES tool could potentially provide a valuable framework and mechanism for assisting local government and industry organizations to meet responsibilities for improved planning, design, management and monitoring of green infrastructure assets implicit in recent national policy initiatives, including:

  • The new Australian Standard AS 5334 – “Climate change adaptation for settlements and infrastructure – A risk-based approach”
  • The Australian Urban Design Policy
  • The Australian Urban Design Protocol
  • Capital City reporting against the COAG Criteria for Strategic City Planning
  • State of the Environment reporting responsibilities
  • NCCARF 2013 Policy Guidance Briefs

SITES has been specifically designed to complement identified existing global “best-practice” rating tools such as LEED-ND.

The AILA scoping study also revealed the potential for the SITES rating framework to support, extend the capacity of, or guide future modifications to, existing tools such as Green Star and the IS Rating Tool, providing a credible and comprehensive approach to landscape assessment which these tools currently lack.

The ecosystem services and systems-thinking approach underpinning the SITES guidelines and rating system is also closely aligned with the design assumptions inherent in more comprehensive “decision-support” or integrated sustainability assessment tools , and the two could be used to complement each other for different aspects of urban sustainability assessment. In particular, SITES provides a useful framework for provision of evidence-based indicators that could be used within integrated assessment models to analyse the relative merits of alternative design strategies for addressing locally-specific sustainability goals.

It could indeed provide the trigger for a shift towards a more integrated and holistic approach to urban climate adaptation and sustainability assessment that urban design professionals have long been calling for.

The AILA is now in the process of coordinating a group of key stakeholders and partner organizations interested in supporting the development of SITES or similar tools for application in the Australian context. For further information, please contact the AILA national office on (02) 6248 9970 or

Catherine Neilson is the National Project Manager for the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, where she is responsible for policy development, advocacy
and stakeholder liaison on built-environment design and sustainability.

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