Eternally green: Bala Cynwyd cemetery achieves SITES certification for sustainable landscape design

Eternally green: Bala Cynwyd cemetery achieves SITES certification for sustainable landscape design

Fall 2018 | Written by Catherine Shannon

After a week of unrelenting rain in June of 2018, Dave Witek wasn’t expecting West Laurel Hill’s Nature Sanctuary to look very pretty. “The day before my visit, there was another huge rainstorm, and I was expecting to arrive to a lot of mud,” says Witek, who, in addition to overseeing finances and operations for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), is also the program lead for SITES certification. But when he walked onto the 0.68-acre plot, nestled in the 187-acre West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, bordering the western edge of Philadelphia, he was pleasantly surprised. The wildflowers were in bloom, a comfortable breeze blew through, the air smelled of spring. “It looked like not a drop had ever come down there. I had to ask someone if it had,” he says. “But then again, because the site had been developed to withstand a 95th percentile storm with native plants, a rain garden, and pathways with natural filtration, I should’ve known better.”

West Laurel Hill Cemetery’s Nature Sanctuary is perhaps one of the most unique projects to achieve SITES Gold (developed by the Sustainable SITES Initiative). SITES project types typically include public parks and gardens, trail and bike paths, streetscape designs, commercial and educational campuses, and more. And like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–certified projects, not only is the final space functional in regard to climate regulation, carbon storage, and flood mitigation, but it’s also beautiful and enhances the well-being of those who frequent it.

But West Laurel Hill Nature Sanctuary is not, at least at first glance, your typical SITES project. While most may assume this is solely a public park (as indicated by the “nature sanctuary” part of its title), it’s actually, first and foremost, a green cemetery—the first of its kind to receive a SITES designation in the country. Which begs the question: Why apply green infrastructure strategies to a cemetery?

Above: As the first cemetery to ever achieve SITES certification, Alta Planning + Design’s primary design objectives for this project included creating a green cemetery that was going to be an ecological system designed to care for and manage itself, restore the damaged site, and transform the space into an ecologically diverse native habitat.

Above: Alta Planning + Design was the lead landscape architect on West Laurel Hill. The goal was to restore the landscape to a sustainable and thriving ecosystem. The project began by removing invasive plant species and then amending the soil.

Above: West Laurel Hill achieved Sites Gold. Site remediation included amending soil so it could support native plants again.

“Because of the nature of what a cemetery is—a final and forever resting place—it calls for perpetual eternal care,” says Adam Supplee, lead landscape architect on the project and principal at Alta Planning + Design, a firm with more than 30 offices across North America that specializes in planning, design, and building of public outdoor spaces. “That involves lawnmowers, weed whackers, chemicals to keep invasive plants at bay. That’s the opposite of a self-sustaining, healthy space.”

Established in 2008, after years of functioning as an urban dump site for the larger cemetery, the sanctuary’s goal was precisely that. In addition to offering a green burial option for the community (intended to minimize the environmental impacts of death), West Laurel Hill was looking to restore the landscape to a sustainable, thriving ecosystem by assisting the space in an ecological succession—beginning as a meadow, advancing to a successional forest, and eventually becoming a full-formed woodland. After managing the project themselves, West Laurel Hill brought in Alta Planning + Design in 2013 to take a look at what they were doing.

“We really wanted to do it right,” says Nancy Goldenberg, president and CEO at Laurel Hill Cemetery and West Laurel Hill Cemetery and Funeral Home, “because we wanted this cemetery to become an area for learning more about sustainability and nature. The team at Alta really got that.”

Alta Planning + Design completed the majority of the construction between 2015 and 2016, and wrapped everything up in 2017. The project started with removing invasive plant species with the help of a herd of goats brought in to graze (which still live on site to perform natural weeding maintenance in place of fuel-guzzling lawnmowers). Next came amending the soil to bring it back to a state where it would once again be able to support native plants. That did not require hauling anything away, but simply removing the topsoil, screening it, adding organic compost from a nearby municipality, and returning it to the site all by hand.

Above: Adam Supplee is a principal at Alta Planning + Design.

Above: The sanctuary has also proven to be a place that promotes health and wellness for visiting families.

As for materials, most came right from the site, reducing the amount of overall items purchased and transported, as well as ensuring as little as possible went to the dump. “All the stone we excavated served as our edging along the pathways, as well as the freestanding wall (engraved with the names of those resting on the grounds) that frames the site,” says Supplee. “Even the current rough-hewn benches—which will eventually be phased out because they won’t last forever—will be replaced with benches made from on-site boulders cut with a site saw.” Crushed concrete served as a base for the path system.

Perhaps the most important component of the project, as Witek personally witnessed himself, is how they handled rainwater. In addition to native plantings, which allow water to more effectively soak into the ground, a beautiful rain garden was placed just on the edge of the sanctuary’s hill, preventing runoff from flowing into a nearby rail trail. The rain garden can accept up to 5,700 cubic feet of water in a 24-hour storm period. No irrigation required.

“We never had any intention of going for SITES,” explains Supplee. “Just to simply follow the guidelines and push the envelope in terms of what we could do.” But as they progressed and checked off more and more boxes on the SITES scorecard, they realized they were potentially a qualified candidate for the certification.

The result isn’t just a SITES-certified site, nor a restored one, nor an ecological system designed to largely care for and manage itself. It’s that and more: an environmental oasis of a native meadow—the first phase of succession—that offers loved ones a place to take a meditative stroll or quietly reflect.

“In addition to hitting all the checkboxes SITES requires in terms of water, soil and plants, and materials, there’s also a box for human health and well-being,” notes Witek. “That means improved human health and increased outdoor recreation opportunities. Indeed, this is a place to gather and go find mindfulness.”

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