University Campus Restoration Earns SITES Certification

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

Project is designed to mimic the function of natural desert riparian corridors using native soils, rocks and vegetation to slow and cleanse storm water.

The University of Texas at El Paso’s (UTEP) Campus Transformation Project (CTP) was awarded Silver certification under the Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES) rating system, and is the first project to certify under SITES v2 (Version 2). The project has transformed the heart of the UTEP campus by redeveloping acres of sloping streets and parking space into a beautiful, pedestrian-oriented, accessible green space. By converting an automobile-centric environment dominated by asphalt to an inviting community landscape, the CTP also strengthens the connection between the city, campus and land.

Owned and administered by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), SITES is the first program of its kind to offer a systematic, comprehensive rating system that aligns land design and development practices with the functions of healthy ecosystems to protect, restore and enhance ecosystem services. The SITES rating system draws on the experience gained from a two-year pilot program involving more than 100 projects. Forty-seven of these pilot projects, located at corporate headquarters, national and city parks, academic campuses, private homes and elsewhere, have achieved certification. Site design categories included in the SITES rating system include Water, Soil and Vegetation, Materials Selection, and Human Health and Well-Being.

Soil Criteria

Whether in a nature preserve or a built landscape in an urban environment, the SITES rating system emphasizes the importance of healthy soil, the essential foundation for healthy vegetation and ecosystems. Healthy soil is also necessary for supporting the many other critical ecosystem services, such as filtering pollutants, sequestering carbon, mitigating floods, regulating water supply, controlling erosion and creating wildlife habitat, which is why protecting or restoring soil function is a critical first step in sustainable site design and management. SITES-certified projects must ensure degraded soil has been restored to meet certain criteria relevant to reference soils that include soil organic matter, compaction and infiltration rates, biological function and chemical characteristics.

The first step for any SITES project is to assess the existing soil on the site and conduct a detailed analysis that includes investigation of vegetation, materials, climatic and cultural conditions, and both the existing on-site soils and reference soils. With input from an integrated design team, which must include a professional with soil expertise in order to properly identify any healthy soil or degraded soil found on-site, the analysis precedes design and is a tool for optimizing site performance. To restore degraded soils, the team must identify the site’s reference soils during the predesign site assessment stage, which fall into one of the following categories:

  • Soils native to the site as described by the Natural Resources Conservation Service soils surveys
  • Undisturbed native soils within the site boundary
  • Undisturbed native soils within the site’s region that support appropriate native plants or appropriate plant species similar to those intended on the new site.

These assessments aim to protect any existing healthy soil rather than having to recreate what is already functioning, and also inform the site design and support the project’s sustainability goals.

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