Designing for Health: How SITES Improves Quality of Life

by Sonja Trierweiler

image: photo by Jennifer Birdie Shawker on Unsplash

Only 11 percent of people associate terms like “green space” and “green building” with creating an environment in which people live longer and healthier lives. Improved air quality is proven to increase cognitive function and decision-making skills, and connection to nature and natural materials promotes human health and wellbeing—yet only 11 percent of people see and understand this link.

This number came from research conducted as part of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Living Standard campaign, which was launched at Greenbuild Chicago in November 2018. Living Standard aims to promote healthier, safer, more equitable, and more sustainable spaces through research, storytelling, and listening to those both inside and outside of our communities.

The Living Standard Report, Volume I, found that only 11 percent of people surveyed associated terms like “green space” and “green building” as strongly related to creating a healthy environment. The graph above shows different words and phrases associated with the environment and being green. Survey takers were asked: which THREE words or phrases are MOST STRONGLY / LEAST related to creating an environment that lets you live a longer and healthier life? / image: The Living Standard Report, Volume I

Our research has found that there are a number of ways we can help people connect the dots, including relating green spaces back to health and safety outcomes, future generations, and environmental stakes. But ultimately, it boils down to storytelling and localization.

During Greenbuild last month, Atlanta BeltLine leaders hosted a guided walking tour of the BeltLine. If you’re not already familiar, the Atlanta BeltLine is a sustainable development project that is now one of the most comprehensive urban design efforts under way in the United States. Its sustainability guidelines require compliance with the SITES rating system, which ensures that the Atlanta BeltLine corridor will be built using best practices in green design and construction.

And what’s particularly exciting is that the Atlanta BeltLine will require all designed parks to achieve SITES Silver or Gold certifications—making the Atlanta BeltLine the first municipal agency in the world to require SITES.

“In this day and age, we focus too often on the here and now. What Atlanta BeltLine seeks to do is, at its core, create a legacy project that will serve the residents and visitors to Atlanta for the coming decades and beyond,” explains Kevin Burke, FASLA, Director of Design for the Atlanta BeltLine. “That is why we adopted SITES for the Atlanta BeltLine. SITES ensures we optimize the parks for the community providing both short and long term benefits.”

SITES ensures that from planning through development and management, the outdoor spaces we create and interact with are sustainable and actively contribute to a higher quality of life. And for the BeltLine, this is critical as it hopes to sustain this rigorous standard for generations to come.

The Atlanta BeltLine requires that all designed parks achieve SITES Silver or Gold certifications, making it the first municipal agency in the world to require SITES. The BeltLine’s Eastside Trail affords users opportunity for a safer mobility option due to its grade separated alignment, and opportunities for healthier lifestyles. / image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

When we tell our stories, we help make tangible the human benefits of green spaces and the practices and effort that go into them. By sharing our experiences—why you got into sustainability in the first place, why you’re working toward a more equitable future, what daily actions you take to benefit the planet or people—we can inspire others to take action in ways that they may not have previously considered.

The story of the West Laurel Hill Cemetery’s Nature Sanctuary in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania is another remarkable one. While the majority of SITES project types typically include public parks and gardens, trail and bike paths, streetscape designs, and commercial and educational campuses, the West Laurel Hill Nature Sanctuary is, first and foremost, a green cemetery—the first of its kind to receive a SITES designation in the world.

In addition to meeting SITES requirements associated with water, soil and plants, and materials, it also places a huge emphasis on human health and well-being, as well as increased educational opportunities. As a beautiful grounds where visitors can find peace and calm, it not only benefits the environment, but promotes mindfulness in a healthy and sustainable space.

The West Laurel Hill Cemetery is the first cemetery to ever achieve SITES certification. / image: U.S. Green Building Council

Sustainable spaces like the Atlanta BeltLine and the West Laurel Hill Cemetery are more than beautiful designs; they’re more than their carbon offsets; they’re more than reductions in water consumption—at the heart of SITES and other sustainability certifications is a rigorous standard that is designed to benefit human beings. And when we actively work to make that connection by sharing our stories, we open up a world where those who interact with these spaces understand why the standard was pursued and maintained, and that it was designed for them.

Share your story at and help create a better world.

For more information on SITES, visit

Sonja Trierweiler is the Director of Living Standard and Digital Marketing for U.S. Green Building Council.

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