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Code Green Part 1

By Buck Abbey, ASLA, Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture Louisiana State University

Baltimore's green goals include doubling the tree canopy by 2037. An exhibit in Patterson Park raised awareness for TreeBaltimore, city parks and green spaces.
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"The sustainable Baltimore we envision integrates all three elements of sustainability (social equity, economic health, environmental stewardship) into the decision making." -- The Baltimore Sustainability Plan 2009

Cities Going Green

Zak Patton, a talented writer, scripting away in the latest edition of discusses how cities across the nation are going green. He comments that cities are looking to rewrite their codebooks with a green pen to green up the skyline.

Patton describes the green leadership roles Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Austin are taking. He points out that many cities are finding it difficult to rewrite those codes that primarily affect private property. He cites specific building examples from Fayetteville to Fort Collins in which green is taking root. But in each instance, Patton warily points out, the code cleansing involves buildings only. In these green forward-looking cities new buildings are being built or renovated following sustainability standards set forth by the LEED rating system. Most of the greening involves high-performance buildings that some fear may be used to set the bar for all city green building.

Witness for instance San Mateo County's recently adopted and revised Green Building Code, Chapter 14, Division VII, Sec. 1401-1408 San Mateo County Code whose purpose is to encourage green building measures in the design, construction and maintenance of buildings.

To craft a green code to rebuild a city through high-performance buildings only, does seem a bit of a problem.

Baltimore's sustainability plan includes making the city bicycle and pedestrian-friendly. Baltimore was recently ranked the 10th most sustainable city in the U.S. by SustainLane. Rankings were based on 16 criteria ranging from solid waste diversion to housing affordability. Baltimore ranked as a "Sustainability Leader" in three areas: city innovation, the green economy, and city commuting. The city has put in over 50 miles of bikeways and hopes to install more light rail. The top five, rated by SustainLane, are Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and NYC.

Greening the Codes

Yet how does a community bring green into their codes? This is a problem perplexing local planners who write these codes.

The answer lies in identifying which parts of the codes affect the environment. Where are the impacts to land, air, water, food security, waste, energy, human health and nutrient recycling, chemical balance and wildlife habitat? Can the codes actually lower carbon emissions that scientists believe are warming the globe? These and other questions about coding need to be addressed regarding land use, transportation, housing and development. Once that's done, the codes can be rewritten in the color green.

Many communities today are establishing sustainability offices or directors to ask these questions, find answers, institute green programs and track results. The city of Baltimore, Md. not only has an office but a commission to develop a sustainability plan for the community and to green their building codes. The initial sustainability plan was released February 3, 2009 and sets forth the range of sustainability concerns facing a large urban city. See this plan at

Baltimore's 2009 sustainability plan includes restoring and stabilizing its streams. The city's green/sustainable plan notes: "Baltimore has the potential to be a city where our own natural resources are relied upon to provide habitat, shade, water and air purification, food, and recreational opportunities through the greening of our surroundings."

Non-Green Building

But one must ask, what parts of the city support sustainability? Which elements of the city clean the air? Which parts preserve water quality? What can reduce the carbon footprint of a four-story parking garage? It is important to ask the question, are buildings alone the answer to greening the code?

The answer, of course, brings up the role of city parks, open spaces, urban forest, public gardens, food producing areas, stream sides, wetlands and lakes. The quick response is that nature in the city is an integral part of the greening of the city too. These elements of the city provide sustainability to air, water, soil and public health. Then community building codes, zoning codes and development regulations must be rewritten to include not only buildings, but the public and private open space of the city. Landscape codes in particular must address sustainability.

High-performance grass, for instance, is not defined in any landscape code in the U.S. Presently, too few codes even think about this. But this is a coming trend in the drafting of community landscape codes.

Once these questions are asked, and answered, you clearly see that buildings are not the only element of the city that can green the environment. LEED by itself is not the answer. Green buildings without question, are part of the answer but it is not the complete answer. The landscape of the city can be a major part of the greening equation too. Cities that preserve their urban forest, steep slopes, flood plains, wildlife habitat, rich soils, wetlands, potable water supplies and native wildlife add a large measure of sustainability to a city.

As landscape architects, you should have plenty to say about that.

Sustainability Standard-High Performance Turf Grass

  1. Design configuration must be geometrically designed turf surfaces used for storm water infiltration.
  2. Grass shall not be used as a green rug, but to supplement landscape beds.
  3. Grass shall be used in areas immediately accessible to building terraces.
  4. Grass shall not be used in areas inaccessible to building interiors.
  5. Grass species must be drought, sun & shade tolerant.
  6. Grass species must be usable as short, medium and high mowed grass.
  7. Grass shall not exceed 50 percent of site open space.
  8. Grass shall be drought, heat and cold tolerant.
  9. Grass shall not consume more than 450 gallons per week.
  10. Grass shall not use potable water supply but re-used water supply
  11. Grass shall be insect and disease free
  12. Minimum use of inorganic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

D.G. "Buck" Abbey, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University, is LASN's Associate Editor for Ordinances.

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November 22, 2019, 12:59 pm PDT

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