LEED in your backyard: Sustainable summer vacation destinations in the U.S.

LEED in your backyard: Sustainable summer vacation destinations in the U.S.


Summer 2019 | Written by Calvin Hennick

Sustainable Destinations

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Summertime is vacation time. And for people looking to make sustainable choices when traveling, there are plenty of diverse, cost-efficient, and eco-friendly places to visit.

Terms like “sustainable travel” (and its close cousin “ecotourism”) were once mostly reserved for trips to the Costa Rican cloud forest and other back-to-nature destinations. But the growing emphasis on green building and sustainability across industries means that more vacation spots than ever are embracing environmentally friendly practices. Today, it’s not uncommon to find Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) plaques—alongside other evidence of sustainable operating methods—in zoos, museums, theatres, and even ballparks. And these popular destinations may be in your own backyard.

Sustainable travel is all about making simple vacation choices to lessen the impact of travel on the planet, and sometimes this means visiting places closer to home. Each person makes only a small difference on his or her own, but the collective impact of travel choices can be enormous. And while it’s impossible to personally control the carbon emissions of planes, the chemicals used by hotels, or the plastics used in the souvenirs sold at gift shops, travelers can choose more eco-friendly “staycation” destinations, transportation options, hotels, and activities.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

Cincinnati, Ohio

Around 1.8 million visitors annually flock to Cincinnati to what is often cited as “The Greenest Zoo in America.” And many come to see animals like Fiona, who zoo director Thane Maynard calls “the world’s most famous hippo.”

This description is likely accurate. Fiona was born six weeks premature in January 2017—the first hippopotamus to be born at the zoo in 75 years, and the first hippo ever to be scanned in the womb with ultrasound.

At 29 pounds (a third of the size of a typical full-term Nile hippo), Fiona is the smallest ever of the species to survive birth. The zoo staff hand-milked her mother, and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., helped to develop a special baby formula for her. For a time, she had to be fed via IV (with help from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital), and she rapidly gained weight, tipping the scale at 275 pounds when she was introduced to the media four months after her birth. By the end of 2018, she weighed more than 1,000 pounds.
The zoo has documented the hippo’s journey with a seven-part web series called “The Fiona Show,” and the first episode has been viewed more than 4.6 million times.

“Fiona lives in rainwater that was captured underground,” Maynard notes. “So do our penguins, polar bears, and sea lions.”

Although it’s grown considerably in recent years, with polar bears and penguins and swans swimming and splashing in thousands upon thousands of gallons of man-made pools and pond water, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden uses an astounding 80 percent less tap water than it did in 2006.

Photos: An animal celebrity, Fiona is the first Nile hippo to be born at the Cincinnati Zoo in 75 years. She lives in rainwater that was captured underground, as do the zoo’s penguins, polar bears, and sea lions. The Cincinnati Zoo is an international leader in the protection and propagation of endangered animals and plants around the world. Photos: Lisa Hubbard

Part of the reduction is due to fixing broken pipes that were, unbeknownst to zoo officials, wasting millions of gallons of water each year—a financial boon for the zoo, in addition to a conservation win. But also, the zoo has aggressively fixed leaks in exhibit pools, installed low-flow faucets and fixtures, and upgraded filtration systems. As a result, the zoo has saved more than 1 billion gallons of water (enough to cover the yearly indoor and outdoor water use of 10,000 households) in a bit more than a decade.

“People say, ‘I can’t afford to update that system,’ but getting rid of the waste and fixing old equipment is 100 percent cost-effective,” says Maynard. “We went from 220 million gallons of tap water to less than 40 million, and the zoo is substantially bigger now. Water has been a big money saver.”

In general, Maynard says, animal babies tend to attract a lot of attention at the zoo, especially in the spring and early summer. Other zoo highlights include the Cheetah Encounter, Gorilla World, and a show called Blakely’s Barnyard Bonanza, which features a trained goat and the opportunity for young visitors to race against chickens. The Cheetah Encounter is one of the few places in the world where people can watch a cheetah run at full tilt (the record for the fastest animal speed ever recorded was set in 2012 by a Cincinnati Zoo cheetah named Sarah, who hit 61 miles per hour—compared to Usain Bolt’s top speed of 28 miles per hour).

While visitors come to the zoo to interact with and learn about the institution’s 700 species of animals (rather than, say, its water conservation efforts), Maynard says he hopes that visitors also walk away with a better understanding of sustainability issues. “You’re not preaching to the choir at the zoo,” he says. “Everybody comes to the zoo. So it’s an opportunity to say, ‘Here’s what it’s going to take to live sustainably and protect wildlife.’ That’s a good thing.”

Sustainability Highlights

plant house

Nine buildings at the zoo are participating in LEED with another three projects underway. These include the LEED Platinum Hippo Cove habitat, a LEED Gold project phase of the zoo’s Africa habitat, and the LEED Platinum Gorilla World.

rain cloud

More than 30,000 square feet of pervious pavement allows thousands of gallons of storm-water to be stored at a time.

solar panel

Solar and wind power provide up to 25 percent of the energy needed to operate the Harold C. Schott Education Center and more than a third of the electricity needed to power the Membership and Ticketing Building. The latest solar project, a 1.56-megawatt array with 6,400 panels installed on a parking lot canopy structure, is the largest urban, publicly accessible array in the nation.

no straws

The zoo has completely eliminated plastic bags and plastic straws.

electrical cord

The zoo has a goal of being net zero for energy, water, and waste by 2025.

cell phone

In 2011, the zoo began an initiative to collect old cell phones to protect gorilla habitats in Africa, where a mineral used to make cell phones is mined. A collection bin is located at Gorilla World, where visitors can see the endangered species that will benefit from their donation. Through this program, the zoo has recycled more than 100,000 phones.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington, D.C.

The exhibit “Game Changers” spotlights the people, events, and institutions that have forced the sports world and larger society to alter its practices, belief systems, or racial politics. Photos: Alan Karchmer

When it opened in 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) provided a long overdue window into an often-overlooked thread of American history. But in addition to casting its gaze on the past, the institution is looking toward the future with design elements that some say have “set the bar” for sustainability in architecture.

Last year, the museum building was officially awarded LEED Gold certification—an impressive achievement considering the size of the building and the special challenges of providing archival conditions. “In a museum you have environmental standards that have to be met for humidity and temperature because of artifacts and organic material that could degrade if you’re not controlling [those factors] precisely,” lead architect Phil Freelon told Smithsonian magazine at the time of the announcement.

Through the glass doors of the museum’s elevators, visitors watch the years written on the walls descend as they travel back in time to the 1400s. At the bottom level of the museum, visitors learn about slavery and the path to freedom, viewing artifacts like slave shackles, Nat Turner’s Bible, and Harriet Tubman’s shawl. Traveling upward, exhibits cover segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, followed by a level dedicated to “A Changing America,” which covers the time from the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. through the second election of Barack Obama.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened on September 24, 2016, is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photos: Alan Karchmer

The “Spirit of Tuskegee” is an aircraft of the Tuskegee Airmen, a pioneering group of African Americans whose contributions were central to the war effort during World War II. Photos: Alan Karchmer

Sustainability Highlights

building height

Partly due to Washington, D.C.’s restrictions on building heights, 60 percent of the museum is underground. But that design choice also has a sustainability impact, with the earth acting as insulation for the below ground galleries.


An underground dual-cistern system allows the museum to collect and filter rainwater and groundwater, then reuse that water to flush toilets and irrigate the museum grounds—saving an estimated 8 million gallons of water per year.

solar panel

The museum’s flat roof features an array of solar panels.

temperature control

The building was intentionally designed with a compact, boxy shape to limit energy use for heating and cooling.

LEED cert

The museum offers a self-guided tour highlighting the sustainable features that led to its LEED certification.


A large overhang, dubbed “the porch,” shields the museum’s transparent entrance from sun, while also evoking the welcoming entrance of an African-American home in the South. “In the African-American culture, we’re used to making something out of nothing and doing more with less, whether it’s the food we eat or the materials we use in construction,” Freelon told Smithsonian, explaining the passive design choice. “So this building is expressive of that.”

The Old Globe

San Diego

The Old Globe Theatre at Balboa Park in San Diego is modeled after Shakespeare’s Old Globe in London. The LEED Silver 108,000-square-foot complex features three theatres, administrative offices, and an outdoor plaza. Photos: Mike Hausberg

As Shakespeare famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage.”

Maybe so, and The Old Globe in San Diego is dedicated to sustaining both the world and the stage, long into the future.

“I think patrons are interested in the notion of The Old Globe being a good citizen,” says Tim Shields, managing director of the theatre. “And it’s important for us to pursue these things just because we believe in them, as well. Theatre people tend to be people who care. We come at our jobs with a passion for what we do. And we approach environmental causes with that same passion, because we believe in them.”

The Old Globe Theatre, modeled after Shakespeare’s Old Globe in London, was built in 1935 for the performance of abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays as part of the California Pacific International Exposition. Two years later, a non-profit community theatre company leased the facility. The theatre was destroyed by fire in 1978 and rebuilt, the organization was eventually rebranded The Old Globe, and the facility came to include two additional theatres.

The Old Globe’s LEED Silver 108,000-square-foot complex features three theatres, administrative offices, and an outdoor plaza.

Each season, The Old Globe puts on 15 to 16 productions, attracting more than 250,000 people per year. That includes at least two Shakespeare plays each summer as part of an annual festival, but the theatre presents a broad range of productions, including family-friendly fare like “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” Twenty-five plays and musicals that began their runs at The Old Globe have gone on to Broadway.

“Shakespeare has been a hallmark at this theatre since it was founded in 1935,” Shields says. “But we’re also renowned for modern interpretations of classic plays, world premiere plays, and both established and new musicals.”

While theatre is, of course, the top draw at The Old Globe, the organization also puts on programming for people who can’t make it to (or aren’t interested in) the shows. “We try to activate our facility and the plaza outside with activities that support the play itself,” Shields says. “We have events where the public can come in and talk to an actor or an author, and other events where people can come on in and see the type of work we do. The Old Globe exists for all the citizens of San Diego. We want everybody here to feel that we have programs that speak to them and that they have access to. For some people, that means sitting center orchestra on Saturday night. Other people just want to be on the plaza to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, or the Day of the Dead. Every year, when we do ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’ we have a tree lighting and put on a couple of numbers from the show, and that event draws 3,500 people every year.”

The Old Globe is located in Balboa Park, which houses a number of other attractions, including the San Diego Zoo.

Above: Timothy J. Shields, left, is the managing director of The Old Globe and Barry Edelstein is a stage director, producer, author, and educator there. Photos: Mike Hausberg

Sustainability Highlights


Low-flow fixtures and aerators at the facility have reduced overall water usage by 32 percent.

LED lightbulb

Through LED retrofits and the installation of timers, The Old Globe has achieved an energy savings of 14,000 kilowatt hours per year.

recycle bin

The Old Globe participated in a waste stream audit, identifying and then implementing diversion opportunities that resulted in a 65 percent reduction in waste diverted from landfills.


Twenty-five percent of The Old Globe’s staff commutes with some alternative to a single-passenger vehicle.

Suncadia Resort

Cle Elum, Washington

This spread: Suncadia Resort’s Glade Spring Spa focuses on providing an environment that takes guests on a personalized journey of relaxation, rejuvenation, and renewal. Having achieved LEED Silver, the Resort is driven to maintain an exceptional level of environmental awareness, embodied by their Destination Earth commitment to sustainability.

What’s more relaxing than getting a deep tissue massage or a detox mud wrap? The peace of mind that comes with relaxing and detoxing in a LEED-certified spa.

But then, the LEED Silver Glade Spring Spa is just one of the many places to relax at Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum, Washington. The destination covers more than 6,000 acres of nature, including meadows, rivers, and forested mountains, with many miles of hiking and biking trails and 36 holes of mountain golf.
Eighty percent of Suncadia Resort’s 6,400 acres has been dedicated to open space in perpetuity. Additionally, all streetlights and lit signage at the resort have been converted to LED lighting.

Suncadia visitors have a wealth of options for accommodations. The Inn at Suncadia is an intimate lodge with golf course views, while The Lodge at Suncadia offers panoramic river and mountain views along with the amenities of a full-service luxury hotel and conference center. Vacation rental homes are also available—an especially attractive choice for larger groups.

The resort also features an outdoor concert and cinema series, nature programs, fine dining, swimming, and a fitness center.

Sustainability Highlights

leaf hands

Suncadia Resort is managed by Destination Hotels, the country’s fourth-largest hospitality management company. In 2008, the company launched its Destination Earth program, which has grown to more than 100 environmental initiatives.

Environmental people

The company runs a Green Meetings program throughout all its properties, aiming to maximize waste diversion from meetings and conferences and increase environmental awareness among guests.

Environmental award

Suncadia was awarded the Environmental Achievement Award by the Pacific Northwest Section of the Air and Waste Management Association in 2009.

Georgia Aquarium


In Tropical Diver, one of the largest living reef exhibits of any aquarium in the world, living corals and thousands of colorful fish are presented in a faithful re-creation of a tropical Pacific coral reef.

For a reminder of what’s at stake in sustainability efforts, head to the largest aquarium in the Western Hemisphere and immerse yourself in ecosystems like a tropical coral reef, a riverbank, and the cold waters of the open ocean.

The Georgia Aquarium not only provides visitors with a window into the planet’s biodiversity, but also makes efforts to house and display that biodiversity with minimal impact on the environment. For instance, the facility uses patented technology that helps to reduce water use—a major win for an attraction that measures water by the millions of gallons.

“Patented sulfur denitrification units allow the aquarium to retain and reuse water in its habitats, helping to reduce overall water use,” says John Masson, director of life support systems for the Georgia Aquarium. “The aquarium filters over 250 million gallons of water per day, and 99.8 percent of the 10.2 million gallons of water in the aquarium’s exhibits is retained and recycled through on-site recovery systems.”

The aquarium’s “Aquanaut Adventure” exhibit tests visitors’ science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills as they navigate one of seven different adventures and meet species like poison dart frogs, horseshoe crabs, and American alligators along the way. In “Cold Water Quest,” visitors crawl through acrylic tunnels and peek through pop-up windows to get up-close looks at beluga whales, harbor seals, and African penguins. And the 164,000-gallon “Tropical Diver” exhibit (viewable via a live web stream, for those who can’t make the journey to Atlanta) replicates the Indo-Pacific Barrier Reef. The gallery, one of the largest living reef exhibits in the world, gives visitors the chance to spot colorful fish species like the bicolor angelfish, the lemonpeel angelfish, the pyramid butterfly-fish, and “Nemo” himself—the clown anemonefish.

Premium experiences allow visitors to get even closer to the deep-sea action. In addition to personal encounters with dolphins, penguins, seals, and other aquatic animals, the aquarium offers a “Journey with Gentle Giants” experience, where visitors can actually swim or dive with manta rays and whale sharks.

At the Georgia Aquarium’s Aquanaut Adventure, visitors explore fresh-water and marine habitats, learn how animals thrive in extreme environments, and get a sense of what it take to build a career in the aquatic and marine sciences.

Sustainability Highlights

recycle symbol

The Georgia Aquarium recycles all scrap metals from sources like old motors. The aquarium also recycles bulbs, ballast, cardboard, and even batteries and Styrofoam.

wavelength illustration

All of the aquarium’s horsepower motors are on variable frequency drives (VFDs) to reduce power consumption and increase efficiency.

Water cooler

Water bottle filling stations at the aquarium have diverted more than 85,000 plastic bottles from landfills.


Upcoming projects include the retrocommissioning of the aquarium’s HVAC system and the installation of LED lighting, which together will reduce overall energy usage.

Fenway Park


Boston’s Fenway Park is the oldest stadium in Major League Baseball, dating to 1912—seven years before the Red Sox infamously “cursed” themselves by trading all-time great Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

The curse has since been lifted several times over, with the Sox bringing a championship trophy to Boston in 2004 after an 86-year drought—and then again in 2007, 2013, and 2018.

The Boston Red Sox are one of only two teams not to build a new stadium in the past century, and along with Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Fenway is generally considered one of the last remaining “baseball cathedrals”—nearly sacred grounds where the history of the game was (and continues to be) written. But although the ballpark is a relic, the Red Sox have kept Fenway up to date, adding modern amenities, installing extra seating wherever possible, and implementing green initiatives.

“The Red Sox have always been leaders in this space,” says Jon Lister, senior director of facility management for the organization. “I started in 2012, and they were already doing a lot before I got here. In 2008, the team installed solar thermal panels to assist with the heating of hot water, which reduced natural gas consumption. And they also implemented a Green Team, which we still have today.” The Green Team is a first-of-its-kind recycling initiative, with volunteers collecting recyclables from fans during games—resulting in almost 400 tons of diverted waste each season.

The Sox also play their spring training games at the LEED Certified Jet Blue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida. The park was designed to use 26 percent less energy than a traditionally designed stadium, saving an estimated $83,000 in annual operating costs. The park also conserves an estimated 1.7 million gallons of water per year, saving another $18,000 annually. The park includes free dedicated bicycle parking, features white reflective roofs and canopies to cool the building and reduce energy use, and was built with a process that diverted 81 percent of construction waste from landfills.

The season provides more than 80 chances to catch a home game at Fenway, but the hottest tickets are usually for match-ups against the rival Yankees. One of the unique charms of attending a game at Fenway is watching the innings tick away on the hand-operated scoreboard on the “Green Monster,” the famous 37-foot wall in left field.

Sustainability Highlights

green energy

Through Green-e certified renewable energy certificates (RECs) from the club’s electricity supply partner, Engie, the Red Sox are offsetting 100 percent of Fenway’s electricity consumption over two years.


The park offers free bike valet parking for fans who cycle to games.

Rooftop Garden

In 2015, the Red Sox created a rooftop garden that grows vegetables and herbs throughout the season. The produce is used in food products prepared at the ballpark, including in the team’s EMC Club restaurant.

green lightning bolt

Since 2014, the Red Sox have reduced Fenway Park’s total energy consumption by 12 percent through energy conservation projects including lighting retrofits and high-efficiency heating equipment.

Fenway Farms, a 5,000-square-foot rooftop garden provides fresh, organically grown vegetables and fruit to Red Sox fans dining at Fenway Park’s Dell/EMC Club restaurant along with use in concessions throughout the park.

The State of Sustainable Travel

Georgia Aquarium is the only aquarium in North America to house whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, and is a leader in spreading awareness, researching, and initiating conservation efforts for this species that ranges in length from 18 to 22 feet.

Sustainable travel is on the rise! According to the 2018 Sustainable Travel Report from Booking.com, 87 percent of global travelers want to travel sustainably. What’s more, 39 percent say they often or always manage to do so.

The report also found:

For 46 percent of travelers, the term “sustainable travel” means staying in eco-friendly or green accommodations—the most common definition of the term.

The natural wonders encountered on previous trips appear to be a significant motivating factor in people’s sustainability-focused behavior. Sixty percent of travelers say that “being impressed by natural sights” such as coral reefs and rain forests inspires them to travel more sustainably. Fifty-four percent say they are motivated by the visible impact of tourism on destinations they have visited, 47 percent are inspired to travel sustainably after seeing the positive impact that sustainable tourism can have on locals, and 32 percent say they’re motivated by their own guilt over the impact their vacations have on the environment.

Cost is the biggest obstacle to sustainable travel, with 42 percent of travelers citing it as a limiting factor. Other barriers include lack of information (32 percent), lack of time (22 percent), and a desire for comfort or luxury (20 percent).

More than half (53 percent) of global travelers say they buy locally made products instead of mass-produced souvenirs—the most common sustainable vacation activity. Fifty-two percent say they take mass transit instead of taxis, 41 percent go out of their way to eat at restaurants that use locally sourced ingredients, and 30 percent seek out certified eco-friendly accommodations.

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