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A “level flow spreader” at Ernst Park facilitates stormwater infiltration, reducing utility costs and promoting ecological function. Photos: Seattle Parks and Recreation
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The Carkeek Environmental Learning Center, Seattle's first LEED Gold Building, demonstrates residential-scale sustainable building and landscaping techniques.

Seattle's Parks and Recreation department has taken the principles guiding sustainable building from the vertical (building-focused) to the horizontal (landscape-focused), resulting in improved environmental performance, greater community benefits, and reduced cost of ownership.

The past five years have seen a meteoric rise in the application of green building strategies, generally believed to result in building performance improvements in areas of occupant comfort, resource consumption, waste generation, and other factors. The U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system has been embraced widely as a benchmarking tool for measuring green building performance.

In the absence of an analogue to LEED applicable to park developments, Seattle Parks and Recreation developed and implemented its own system for setting sustainable development goals, measuring and evaluating performance, and reporting on progress to a range of internal and external stakeholders.

Surge in Capital Projects

In 1999, Seattle voters authorized $36 million for the Community Centers levy to complete four new and six renovated and expanded facilities. On Feb. 14, 2000, when LEED 1.0 was just being finalized, the city of Seattle became the first city in North America to adopt a green building policy for its civic buildings—with the target of attaining LEED Silver for new buildings larger than 5000 square feet. Later that year, Seattle voters authorized another $ 198 million in park development and acquisition as part of the “ProParks” levy.

Seattle Parks superintendent Ken Bounds and development director Erin Devoto recognized both the challenges of carrying out the new City of Seattle Sustainable Building Policy with fixed budgets and the opportunity to integrate sustainable design and construction strategies in this wide range of upcoming capital investments in park facilities. Their approach was to begin by defining sustainable development—what it means for the parks department and Seattle—and then to create the tools and processes for systematic program implementation.

It was soon apparent that the definition of sustainable was in the eye of the beholder. For our facilities managers, it meant facilities that are durable and cheaper to operate. For custodial staff, it was about fewer toxins and building surfaces that resisted graffiti. For grounds crews and equipment operators, sustainable meant low-maintenance and ease of use. For gardeners, sustainable was native species and fewer pesticides. For finance folks, sustainable had better be cheaper to own for the long haul. For Seattle residents, dozens of whom serve on citizen Project Advisory Teams, sustainable sometimes meant furnaces that run on biodiesel or photovoltaic panel arrays on historic buildings.

To develop a shared set of priorities to guide our sustainability program, the parks department conducted a broad and deep stakeholder evaluation from which emerged the “triple lifecycle assessment” model that now guides the department's design and construction program. Through feedback from within and beyond Seattle Parks, we've defined sustainable development as a process for integrating design approaches, construction methods, project characteristics, technologies, and materials that concurrently promote environmental quality, enhance social benefit, and reduce the cost of ownership.

“After extensive discussions, we now understand sustainable development as design and construction practices that result in facilities that are high-performing, good for the environment, healthy, and enriching for our park visitors and building occupants,” said Bounds.

Understanding Lifecycle Assessment

Key elements of the fiscal lifecycle perspective include initial/upfront capital costs, ongoing operating and maintenance costs, and revenue-generating capacity. Lifecycle environmental elements are both upfront and ongoing. They also are both local and global: materials and resource used in construction, ecological function added or impacted (e.g. with stormwater), and resource use (energy, water).

In the social arena, the upfront life-cycle elements include which firm won the design contract (women and/or minority-owned) and which underserved groups are engaged in programming and design decisions. During the facility's life, the social impacts include the indoor environmental quality of the building, the pedestrian connectivity, the social capital enhanced through functional gathering and activity areas, and the degree to which the facility affords a feeling of safety. Later, the ease of adaptive re-use is a key factor in the total social benefits of the development.