By Kiley Jacques
By elevating the value of landscapes to include ecological and social benefits, the SITES Rating System promotes sustainable design and resiliency on the University of Texas at El Paso campus.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center wetland pond is home to native Texas aquatic plants and animals, featuring plants that can only grow in water or soil that is permanently saturated with water.
Uniquely situated at the U.S.–Mexico border, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) serves over 23,000 students per year. It also figures prominently in the greater Paso del Norte community. So when the decision was made to transform the asphalt-laden, car-centric core of the campus into an inviting living landscape, both communities benefitted.
As prime consultant on UTEP’s Campus Transformation Project (CTP), Ten Eyck Landscape Architects Inc. set out to strengthen the connection between the city, the campus, and the land. Project principal Christine Ten Eyck explains the design concept in terms of the school’s location: “The campus sits in a bowl of desert mountains and foothills. The planting was directly influenced by where water would have historically run through the site [via arroyos].”
As Kent Sundberg, project manager, explains: “One of the main goals we had was to [reconstruct] the arroyos—they had been filled in and [asphalted] over as the campus was built up over the last hundred years.” Stormwater infiltration was a major consideration, given the way in which rain events had impacted the campus prior to CTP. “When El Paso does get rain, it comes in torrents,” notes Ten Eyck. Roads used to flood with three to four feet of water, facilities were damaged, and much effort went into getting water offsite. “It was all about catching the water, creating a sponge, and watering the plants,” says Ten Eyck.
With the redesign, stormwater is collected from upper portions of the watershed and moved slowly across the landscape in a series of vegetated arroyo bioswales (main waterways that gather runoff from the mountain and rooftops), acequia bioswales (smaller bioswales that run along walkways), and detention basins. The arroyos and acequias were designed to traverse the site, making visible the ephemeral flow of water, thereby connecting students, faculty, and visitors with the region’s Chihuahuan Desert habitat. Native and drought-tolerant vegetation has been planted in stone-strewn gardens, which were also designed to absorb and channel stormwater. Today, the total capacity for stormwater retention is in the 95th percentile, and the formally pedestrian-hostile campus has been transformed thanks, in large part, to the way in which water is handled.
Left: The CTP provides 641 quiet outdoor spaces for mental restoration, as well as 1,884 seats for social interaction where students, professors, and staff can connect with peers and experience the benefits of nature. Right: A Roman-styled aqueduct frames the entrance and is part of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s rainwater harvesting system.
For the project, a SITES sustainability consultant worked with the contractor to develop a Waste Management Plan for demolition and construction. Recycled materials included 5,000 tons of concrete and rock, 3,000 tons of asphalt, 500 tons of vegetation, and 4.5 tons of steel. In total, the project diverted 99 percent of demolition materials from the landfill. An example of the ways in which site materials were used: Excavated andesite was repurposed to line the arroyos and to form the retaining walls for terraced campus spaces. Similarly, concrete salvaged from old campus sidewalks was used in the building of Centennial Plaza, a major component of the new landscape.
Centennial Plaza was designed to be an area that promotes community. Flanked by two brimming troughs of water, where students gather to cool their feet, the plaza is a central, drought-tolerant, hybrid Bermuda, oval green space surrounded by a generous crushed gravel paseo shaded by a double row of native mesquite trees. The plaza takes the softer form of the oval out into University Mall with its curved bands of permeable jointed salvaged concrete and cast concrete. A foot bridge—hemmed with fragrant native flowering species that attract pollinators and birds—passes over a water-harvesting arroyo, linking the Geology building’s green to Centennial Plaza; the green itself is nestled into a grove of desert willows and native grasses.
New malls are lined with acequias and formal plantings of desert shade trees—the combination of textured salvaged concrete and stabilized granite gives the sensory experience of walking in the desert. To further that experience, existing terraces were redesigned to hover over salvaged-boulder desert gardens with views to Centennial Plaza below. Stabilized decomposed granite paving, fire pits, and desert trees combine to create a gathering space that overlooks the activity at the heart of the campus. The addition of over 700 xeric shade trees mitigates the hot El Paso sun, while irrigation-fed water features in the form of a seeping seat wall, fountain troughs, and stone tinajas “provide physical and psychological cooling.”
Ten Eyck talks about the social value of the new campus, noting that for many of the students this is their first time having daily access to a green space. The regrading resulted in a nice mix of private and active spaces. There are terraces from which to overlook the plaza. Ten Eyck recalls standing in one such spot when a student turned to her to say: “Isn’t this the most peaceful place? I come here all the time for the peace.”
“There really aren’t many places in El Paso like this,” notes Ten Eyck. “It is a treasure for the students and the city. It has given them some pride and sense of place. The social part of it is just as gratifying as the science part of it.”
Greg McNicol, UTEP associate vice president for business affairs and facilities management, adds: “The project’s benefits go beyond sustainable landscapes. Research shows that landscapes can [improve] mental health [and] cognitive function, and [offer] stress reduction benefits, which are especially important in a collegiate setting,” McNicol said. “Through the Campus Transformation project, we hope to not only strengthen our sustainability priorities but create a community gathering space for our students and faculty.”
The team’s commitment to human comfort and connectivity, native ecology, stormwater mitigation, and progressive building practices has resulted in the largest green infrastructure project in the El Paso region. It is one of the first examples in the area where soil, vegetation, and green infrastructure were used to manage stormwater. For its effectiveness, the project recently earned a regional EPA award, in addition to placing first in the People’s Choice Award in the category of Outstanding Green Infrastructure and Low Impact Development. In July 2016, CTP received SITES Silver certification, becoming the first project certified under the new SITES v2 Rating System.
Of the completed project, UTEP President Diana Natalicio says: “All of us at UTEP consider ourselves so very fortunate to have been able to entrust our Centennial Campus Transformation to [Ten Eyck ’s] remarkable vision and determination to ‘get it right.’ Having my own set of passions about both UTEP’s campus center and the region’s ecology, I worried that we wouldn’t be able to find an architect who would do justice to our goals for our ‘new’ UTEP campus climate. [They] not only did them justice, but they took them to a far higher level than even we imagined we could . . . protecting and perfecting our beautiful UTEP campus, and preparing it to flourish for the next 100 years.”
Formally established in 2006 by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the United States Botanic Garden, and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), in collaboration with numerous stakeholders and over 70 advisors, the SITES Rating System uses green infrastructure strategies to solve environmental problems, and in so doing creates landscapes with multiple benefits and amenities. “We set out to define the criteria of a sustainable landscape with an emphasis on function, health, and resilience,” notes SITES program director at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Danielle Pieranunzi.
SITES-certified projects optimize landscapes such that they provide a range of benefits. Wildlife habitat restoration, pollution and waste reduction, climate regulation, stormwater management, air quality improvement, and public access are among those benefits. “It’s understanding that our built landscapes, even in urban areas, have the capacity to provide similar benefits that we get from nature, such as cleaning air and water, sequestering carbon, and improving human health, if they are designed with sustainability in mind from the outset,” explains Pieranunzi. “The central message of SITES,” she says, “is that any project—whether the site of a corporate campus, city park, academic institution, or residential yard—has the potential to conserve, restore, and create ecosystem services.”
Ari Novy, PhD, executive director of the United States Botanic Garden, adds: “One of the most exciting aspects of SITES is that it connects people to landscapes. SITES projects create outdoor environments that give back, providing ecosystem services, health benefits, and a sense of place. SITES helps us realize that a wise investment in the landscape is a wise investment in our own future.”
In essence, SITES is the difference between a pleasant rain garden and a fenced-off detention pond. “Like buildings, landscapes can also waste and degrade resources if you don’t design them sustainably,” says Pieranunzi. What we don’t need, she explains, are any more landscapes “on life support.” If the amount of resources and maintenance needed to support a landscape are so great as to be degenerative, it is not a sustainable system. “It’s not just about having green space, it’s about having healthy green space that has been designed and managed to provide a community with multiple benefits for the long run.” And thanks to years of peer-reviewed research conducted by technical committees comprised of landscape architects, designers, planners, engineers, architects, developers, policy makers, and ecologists, adherents to the SITES Rating System will have exactly that.