Strolling along the riverwalk at Oyster Shell Park in South Norwalk Tuesday, the native plants and trees swayed in the wind that blew constantly, sometimes gently, other times more fiercely.
One could picture windmills someday dotting this former landfill, utilizing the power of the wind.
While that may be a long way off for the 25-acre park, it is much closer to becoming a sustainable landscape.
On May 25, The Sustainable SITES Initiative, a national undertaking, chose the park as one of the first landscapes to participate in a new program testing the United States' first rating system for green landscape design, construction and maintenance.
And Oyster Shell Park is in good company.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History & Culture, New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward Sustainable Infrastructure Project and the Indianapolis Super Bowl Village join Oyster Shell Park and more than 150 other SITES pilot projects that include educational centers, transportation corridors, industrial complexes and private residences in employing guidelines and performance benchmarks outlined in the SITES Rating System, released in November 2009.
"We are very excited. I think that everyone was like, `this is pretty exciting,' because we were up against a competitive group of several hundred projects all over the country," said Susan Sweitzer, senior project manager, Norwalk Redevelopment Agency.
"I think it's a real interesting situation for the community. Most of the old time community members and a lot of people who live in surrounding communities who have been there a while remember that Oyster Shell Park was a landfill and that it was pretty disgusting. And now to have dealt with that, capped that, and to have come up with a development plan that is not just ok, it's really creative...."
Sweitzer explained the evolution of the Oyster Shell Park development and design plan that garnered the attention of SITES when she submitted an application for the SITE Pilot Project.
Like most New England waterfront cities, Norwalk traditionally dumped its garbage in landfill sites along the waterfront. This was the case at the Oyster Shell Park site adjacent to I-95 on the south side along the River, until 1979, when the landfill was abandoned. In 1988, the State of Connecticut, taking a cue from a successful Massachusetts program for showcasing urban heritage, undertook a broad study to establish candidate communities for a series of six heritage parks, according to Sweitzer.
Norwalk was among one of the first selected largely due to its rich maritime history and the celebration of coastal ecology evidenced by the new Maritime Center at Norwalk. The initial concept proposed was a riverwalk along the Norwalk River from Washington Street to a new Oyster Shell Park at the landfill site.
Master Planning for the Norwalk Heritage State Park began in 1990. Enhancing waterfront access and recapturing the landfill site were principal goals while creating a linear linkage between South Norwalk and Mathews Park for pedestrians and bicycling. The landfill site offered a large open space with views down the river from the raised hill area suitable for passive recreation, wildflower meadows and small fishing piers.
In this first phase, the landfill capping was largely completed, the riverwalk was completed, the Oyster Shell Park walkway system was constructed and landscape amenities were installed. Project funding sources included the State of Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development and the State of Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
"A lot of people already use the walkway. On any given day you can see people running or biking. There is no other space like that in that neighborhood. The view there is lovely," Sweitzer said.
Fast forward to using Oyster Shell Park to try and fulfill the open space needs of the developing Reed Putnam Neighborhood. A grant from the state to make infrastructure improvements in the plan area included a second phase of improvements to Oyster Shell Park.
The new master plan was completed in 2006 and looks specifically to a program of improvements that celebrate public art, education and the environment. The program development proposes using renewable energy technologies for park lighting, storm water reclamation, biofiltration of I-95 runoff, tidal estuary restoration for bird habitats, site landscape improvements and waterfront access through a system of public gathering spaces. The design plan was created by BSC Group of Glastonbury and Tavella Design Group of Orange.
Sweitzer said the key theme of the latest phase of the 25-acre Oyster Shell Park will be sustainable water use and renewable energy technologies, making it a perfect SITES Pilot Project
"I think the key theme of this is managing on-site water. That will be done through retainage, filtration," she said.
"There's a rain garden in the design plan. Basically it takes runoff from I-95 and water that accumulates on site and provides a filtration system for that water so that when it ultimately goes into the river, which it will, its cleaner. The landscaping materials that have been specified for the site are all native and require very little maintenance. The hard surfaces, plaza area, are all to be constructed of recycled materials....
"Ultimately down the road what we'd liked to look at is a lighting system that could run off photovoltaic cells so the site would be totally sustainable and not even on the grid, and experimental use of wind turbines up there because the wind is pretty substantial. These are not in this phase because of funding," Sweitzer said.
"The design is so green that it really limits the amount of maintenance we have as far as landscaping. The design really takes into consideration existing manpower levels," added Mike Mocciae, director of Parks and Recreation.
"We can't wait for the next several phases--the solar generation of power as well as wind possibly....For now this phase really starts to put finishing touches on the park. Being chosen as a SITES Pilot Project gets us really motivated to finish this next portion and go on to the next phase."
The SITES Rating System includes 15 prerequisites and 51 different credits covering areas such as the initial site selection, water, soil, vegetation, materials, human health and well-being, construction and maintenance -- adding up to a 250 point scale. The rating system recognizes levels of achievement by obtaining 40, 50, 60 or 80 percent of available points with one through four stars, respectively. Based on achieving all 15 of the prerequisites and at least 100 credit points, a pilot project will become Pilot Certified. SITES will receive feedback from the pilot projects until June 2012 to revise the final rating system and reference guide for release in 2013.
"SITES wants to set itself up as the rating system for developing open spaces similar to the LEED Green Building rating system for buildings. If we have a certification behind us as a sustainable site, it will enable us to be much more competitive in going after funding," Swetizer said. "In the future, we'd like to find other funding sources, potentially some federal sources but also some private sources, folks who have an interest in advancing their own product line for sustainable sites, etc..... We are better off with this designation than if we did not have it."
"Obtaining points will begin as early as the bidding process," Sweitzer explained. "For example we have specified in the bid materials that all plant materials have to come from a sustainable nursery. The contractors will know what of these items they have to fulfill. We are currently finalizing bid documents. I'd like to see us going out to bid by the end of June. That way we would be able to start the site work in the fall."
Her hope is to have people enjoying Oyster Shell's sustainable landscape design next summer.
"They will be looking for feedback from us, since they developed this point system in an abstract," Sweitzer said. "They will be looking for feedback saying "this was not a realistic goal or this doesn't matter.' They want to refine their point system. That is the purpose of having these PILOT projects."
SITES is a partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden. SITES was launched in 2005 to fill a critical gap in green design, construction and maintenance by creating voluntary guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable landscapes of all kinds, with or without buildings.
"It's exciting that many of these pilot projects -- eight in every 10 -- will revitalize previously built landscapes," said Susan Rieff, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, in a statement. "We can address the serious environmental challenges the world faces in its existing communities by consciously redeveloping these spaces for ecological health as well as beauty."
"Testing the rating system is critical to ensuring the validity and breadth of these guidelines and performance benchmarks, which have undergone four years of rigorous development," added Holly H. Shimizu, executive director of the United States Botanic Garden. "The true value of this endeavor is that it offers improved landscape development practices so that we can maximize the essential benefits supplied by the natural world."
For information about SITES, visit www.sustainablesites.org.