Performance Metrics for Landscape Design: Assessing the Sustainable Sites Initiative

EPA Grant Number: FP917503
Title: Performance Metrics for Landscape Design: Assessing the Sustainable Sites Initiative
Investigators: Springer, Nikki Johnson
Institution: Yale University
EPA Project Officer: Zambrana, Jose
Project Period: August 29, 2012 through August 28, 2015
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2012) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Forestry and Environmental Studies


The goal of this research is to complement the SITES pilot program with performance-based, quantitative proof that the SITES Guidelines and Benchmarks produce landscapes with a reduced environmental impact. Specifically, it will address the following two hypotheses: (1) Pilot projects that score higher in the SITES certification system will have smaller carbon and water footprints than those that score lower; and (2) The distribution of credit points in the SITES program is correlated positively with the relative impact produced by each aspect of the project.


The research will combine a variety of environmental impact assessment methodologies with cost-benefit analysis to assess the performance of landscapes designed under the SITES program guidelines. The carbon footprint assessment will measure both direct (scope 1) and indirect (scope 2) emissions using the World Resources Institute/World Business Council for Sustainable Development Carbon Footprint Standard. Carbon sequestration will be measured non-destructively by calculating the biomass of trees and vegetation utilizing both design documents and aerial photography to determine land cover. Water footprint calculations will be based on the ISO Standard 14046 and local rainfall data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Data Directory. Water consumption will address not only the empirical amount for each project but also its relative impact on local resources given its location, elevation and drought risk. Both carbon and water footprints will be calculated and aggregated for a 50-year project life cycle. EPA’s Tool for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and Other Environmental Impacts (TRACI) will be utilized as the basis for calculating the impact assessments and will be run using the SimaPro 7 software platform.

Expected Results:

The research is expected to confirm the efficacy of the SITES program by verifying that projects ranked higher in program have a smaller carbon and water footprint than those that score lower. It is further expected to confirm the appropriate allocation of credits within the scoring system by illustrating that the life-cycle impacts associated with each credit point are equivalent, indicating that equal project scores, regardless of distribution, correlate with an equal environmental benefit. If the research reveals that either of these hypotheses is not correct, the data will help to inform a revision of the SITES program.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

Though LEED was launched as a voluntary certification, it increasingly will be transformed into a regulatory mechanism as many local jurisdictions and even the federal government now require LEED certification for new buildings (Cater, F. 2010. NPR Story ID 129727547). Given that the SITES program is intended to be incorporated into LEED, it is likely that it also will be written into local regulations in many locations. Thus, confidence in the SITES program’s ability to create landscapes that conserve natural resources and ensure that usage remains in check for the life span of the project is crucial to the future of shared landscapes. Coupled with the potential of portfolio-wide certification by large developers, the potential impact of this research is on a scale of national importance.

Supplemental Keywords:

life-cycle analysis, environmental footprint, landscape management

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2013
  • 2014
  • Final