by Dennis Carmichael, FASLA, LEED AP, and Kelly Fleming, ASLA, SITES AP
Towne Square at Suitland Federal Center is a 25-acre neighborhood proposed on the site of a former public housing project that was demolished in recent years, as it had become a den of crime. The site adjoins Suitland Federal Center, which houses the U.S. Census Bureau, NOAA, and other federal agencies. The Suitland Metrorail station is south of the federal center and within walking distance of Towne Square. As such, the project is a worthy model of Smart Growth: urban infill within areas of existing infrastructure, multiple modes of transportation, and employment opportunities. The program for the site is residential, retail, and a cultural arts building. The master plan was prepared by an architecture firm, Lessard Design Group. The client is the Prince George’s County Redevelopment Authority and their goal is to transform the site into a community with affordable housing that will serve as a model of sustainability. As part of that strategy, they included SITES® certification as a part of the scope for the landscape architecture to ensure the project meets a high standard for sustainability and that everyone on the project team is accountable.
The landscape architecture scope included the design of the public realm: parks, open spaces, and streetscapes which knit the neighborhood together as a walkable community. Parker Rodriguez was selected as the landscape architect, along with the Low Impact Development Center, for the SITES certification work. SITES certification includes 18 prerequisites and 48 credits for measuring site sustainability. The Redevelopment Authority is requiring that the project achieve Sustainable SITES Initiative Silver Certification, which means that the project must earn between 85 and 99 points out of a possible 200 points.
Prerequisites and credits in the SITES v2 Rating System are organized into 10 sections that follow typical design and construction phases. These sections demonstrate that achieving a sustainable site begins even before the design is initiated and continues through effective and appropriate operations and maintenance. Our goal as landscape architects was to use the SITES tool as the foundation for all of our design decisions so that the entire community is infused with landscape elements that improve air and water quality, reduce heat island effect, create or conserve energy, reduce waste, and reuse materials. We wanted a community where all of these ecological services were visible and understandable to the residents, to engender a sense of pride in place, but also to make this ethic intrinsic.
One of the unifying elements is a walking trail that traverses the entire neighborhood, with a central fitness cluster as a starting point and tenth-of-a-mile markers along the walk. The trail is simply a loop of the planned sidewalk system, so it is linked to daily pedestrian activity. The idea is to create an opportunity for health and fitness to become a part of the social structure of the neighborhood. That walkway is shaded by canopy trees and connects to the major parks as well. Any access to nature, whether in a park or natural area, or simply viewing green space during daily life, positively affects mental health and facilitates social connection. These effects are essential to healthy human habitat and extend to include positive physical health outcomes. The multiple recreational features included in the project will enhance the well-being of the residents which is one of the goals of SITES and will help the project achieve certification.
There are two parks in the community and these are envisioned to showcase a variety of ecological services, while creating comfortable places for people. Central Park is located at the cultural arts building and will serve as the civic heart of the community. The park features a lawn panel for open play, festivals, and performances, framed by a series of landscape structures and trees. The entry to the lawn is over a bioretention area so that visitors can see the cleansing of the runoff from the lawn as they walk on the boardwalks of recycled plastic timbers.
A pergola flanks one side of the lawn. It has a concave roof to capture rain water which is stored in an underground cistern to irrigate the lawn in summer. The pergola is also designed to support farmer’s markets, with convenient access for trucks to pull up at street side. A clocktower is a vertical icon on the other side. Its finial is a helical wind turbine, providing power for the clock and evening lighting. A trellis is proposed for the front of the cultural arts building as a front porch for social interaction. Its roof is a collection of solar panels which power lights, ceiling fans, and heat lamps, to lengthen the period of comfortable use, both daily and seasonally.
Grand Park is a residential park intended for both active and passive recreation for families. It features a playground that includes recycled materials, a play lawn, vegetable garden plots, and a small native plant garden. A picnic pavilion is at the center of the park and it is made from laminated wood timbers that were salvaged from the demolition of existing buildings on the site. The use of recycled and salvaged materials will contribute to a project’s ability to support and enhance ecosystem services on the site and wherever the material exists throughout its life-cycle, which supports SITES. The project also incorporates strategies and technologies that restore or mimic natural systems to conserve water, maximize the use of precipitation, and protect water quality. The park is well shaded by trees for comfort and reduction of heat island effect. The two ends of the park include bioretention areas to cleanse the runoff from the lawn and paved areas before entering the storm system.
We used the SITES checklist as our moral compass throughout the entire design process, mindful of every decision we made about materials, designing a vibrant place for people, and evaluating credits at every milestone to see if we were on track. The checklist caused us to be effective in material selection, as the project did not have a huge budget. It also compelled us to bundle the highest cost items in the highest impact areas, the two parks, so that people would have a vivid sense of place, driven by sustainable principles.
The public realm at Suitland demonstrates that sustainable landscapes can contribute to healthy communities, both socially and ecologically. The SITES rating system takes sustainability outside and into the landscape with the goal of conserving, restoring, and creating the foundations of healthy ecosystems that provide so many benefits. What is noteworthy about this neighborhood is that it is a working class neighborhood. What the project demonstrates is that sustainability should be for everyone, not just for the privileged, and that may be its greatest legacy.
Dennis Carmichael, FASLA, LEED AP, is President of Carmichael Associates, a firm founded in 2018. He spent 30 years with EDAW as a principal and recently was a principal at Parker Rodriguez. His work in the public realm has served as a catalyst for the revitalization of many American cities. In Louisville, the West Main Street project has generated over $300 million dollars in private investment with new museums, hotels, restaurants, and residential uses lining the street. In Atlanta, Centennial Olympic Park has spurred a new civic heart to that city with over a billion dollars in hotel, residential, commercial, and cultural uses around the park. In Boston, Wharf District Park has reconnected downtown to the harbor as the center of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and created a place for people where once only were cars.
Dennis has received over fifty design awards and his work has been published in such magazines as Landscape Architecture Magazine, Urban Land, and Architecture. In 2006, he served as President of the American Society of Landscape Architects. In 2009, he served as President of the Landscape Architecture Foundation, a national organization devoted to research and scholarship in sustainable landscapes. He has recently taught design studios at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) at Syracuse University.
Kelly Fleming, ASLA, SITES AP, is a Senior Associate and Director of Research and Design at Moody Graham. She has a Master of Landscape Architecture and a Master of Design Studies with a concentration in urbanism and ecology from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. She employs critical thinking to the various challenges in implementing green infrastructure and low impact development to combat the environmental and sustainability challenges faced by the region. Kelly seeks to integrate thoughtful design with emerging practices grounded in research and technology to support the ecosystems that support us.