Start a Site Inventory You Can Be Proud Of

Site Inventory Series Logo for the California Supplemental Exam (CSE) for landscape architects.Site Inventory Process

Sites are active networks that are intertwined in complex relationships between the site and its off-site environmental context.  All landscape architect candidates must be knowledgeable of the procedures used to identify existing site conditions. These conditions can be broadly divided into four major categories:

Natural conditions
Cultural conditions
Site features
Existing infrastructure

There are three major categories of site features and elements that must be observed and recorded during the site inventory process.

  • On-Site Elements
  • Man-Made Support Systems
  • Off-Site Conditions

First, there are the natural on-site elements, such as, geologic substrate, surface and sub-surface hydrology, topography, soil types, vegetation and plant communities, wildlife populations, and microclimates.

Second, on-site man-made support systems provide life-sustaining utilities and services to the site. These support services are sub-divided into two categories: gravity flow systems and pressure systems.

Third, off-site influences must be observed and recorded for analyzing in the future. Some off-site observation to make include land use, views and visual quality, transportation systems and options, and regulatory constraints.

Most observations during the site inventory phase of a project fall under one of these three broad categories.

The following items should be included when inventorying existing site conditions. There are several categories of information that should be observed and recorded during the site inventory.

Some areas examined during the site inventory process include:

  • Location
  • Neighborhood Context
  • Site Dimensions and Zoning Requirements
  • Legal Context
  • Regulatory Context
  • Natural Physical Features
  • Man-Made Physical Features
  • Circulation
  • Utilities and Infrastructure
  • Climate
  • Sensory


Each site has a specific location bound by physical limits and relationships. When performing an initial site inventory, identify some of the following location information.

  1. Record the location of the site and record the city or municipality that has jurisdiction over the site.
  2. Note relationships with major roads, freeways, and interstate highways.
  3. Locate the site’s neighborhood in relation to the larger city context. See how the site fits in with the existing neighborhood location and structure.
  4. Identify distances and travel times between the site and other places related to the site function in the local area/city.

Neighborhood Context

  1. Map the neighborhood’s existing and projected property zoning.
  2. Note exiting and projected building uses and functions in the existing neighborhood. If future building locations and uses are know, record them as well.
  3. Identify the approximate age and condition of existing properties in the area. Note the quality of landscaping and maintenance.
  4. Identify present and future uses of existing exterior spaces in the neighborhood.
  5. Map major vehicular and pedestrian circulation patterns in the neighborhood. Identify which functions generate the most circulation in the area.
  6. Note existing and projected vehicular circulation patterns. identify major and minor streets, service traffic routes (i.e. delivery trucks), mass transit routes and stations/ bus stops.
  7. Identify solid and void spaces relationships.
  8. Map street light patterns.  Are all streets illuminated at night?
  9. Identify architectural and landscape patterns in the neighborhood.
  10. Notate what kinds of architectural and landscape materials are used in the community.
  11. What colors and forms used in the buildings and landscapes in the surrounding are?
  12. What kind of parking is available in the area? What kinds of parking lot screening strategies are used?
  13. What is the relationship of landscape to the street? Are most buildings on a zero lot line or are their consistent or varied setbacks?
  14. Building height and density should be observed and notated. Are buildings tall enough to cast long shadows on your client’s site? What kind of building and population density exists in the area?
  15. Note any special neighborhood classification status that might have additional design guidelines or restrictions associated with the classifications (i.e. historic district).
  16. What significant buildings or landscapes are located nearby (if any)?
  17. Notate sun and shade patterns at different times throughout the year caused by existing conditions.
  18. Identify major topography and drainage patterns in the neighborhood or larger regional context.

Site and Zoning

Your client’s site has physical and regulatory limits that determine what can be built. During the site inventory phase, landscape architects identify the site’s physical and legal limits in order to spur further analysis and design development. Here are some topics that should be included during the site inventory.

  1. Locate and note the dimensions of the site boundaries. A survey plat is the most reliable source for this information.
  2. Dimensions of the street rights-of-way on the site.
  3. Dimensions and locations of easements on the site.
  4. Present zoning classification of the site.
  5. Front, rear, and side setbacks. (Check the zoning classification for setback requirements.)
  6. Calculate the square feet of buildable area inside the setbacks if structures are part of the design scope.
  7. Identify building height restriction within the right-of-way and setbacks.
  8. Identify how many parking spaces will be required for the site. You can probably find a formula for determining the total number of parking spaces (including handicapped spaces) required in the zoning requirements. If you know the building area and can calculate the number of parking spaces, record this number in your inventory notes.
  9. Identify any conflicts proposed site uses and zoning regulations.
  10. Identify any zoning classifications that need to be changed to accommodate the planned function of the site.
  11. Note any projected changes that would alter the dimensional characteristics of the site (i.e. street widening).

Legal Context

The legal context that your site exists in is just as real (if less tangible) as the physical context. During the site inventory process, the landscape architect uncovers any legal restrictions that relate to the site. It is important to determine what you can and cannot propose in the context of the law prior to conducting analysis and developing a preliminary design. The last thing you want to do is to present an idea to your client for development that cannot be built due to information that you could have discovered during the site inventory phase.

These are some items to investigate during the legal context site inventory:

  1. Legal description of the site. You can generally get this from the project’s surveyor or the property owner.
  2. CC&R’s – Codes, covenants, and restrictions. These may be included in a planned unit development (PUD) design guidelines package or listed in homeowner’s association documents. Some items regulated by CC&R’s include (but not limited to):
  1. Site area allowed to be used for development
  2. Screening requirements for mechanical (HVAC) and irrigation equipment
  3. Architectural or landscape architectural character permitted in the design
  4. Design requirements and guidelines for use in historic districts or other special neighborhood regulations and requirements.
  • Name of the property owner (if not your client).
  • Name of municipalities or government agencies that have jurisdiction and regulatory oversight for the site.
  • Any projected or proposed changes to any of the information listed above.
  • Natural Physical Site Features

    All sites have some existing natural features that can be observed and documented during the design inventory phase. The number and quality of site features documented, to a large extent, is determined by the size and character of a site. A relatively featureless urban infill site may have considerably less information to document during this phase than a large regional park in a topographically diverse part of the state.

    There are some basic physical conditions to keep in mind when conducting the site inventory.

    • Topographic contours
    • Major topographic features
    • High points
    • Low points
    • Ridges and valleys
    • Slopes
    • Minimally sloped areas

    Drainage Pattern on the Site

    Water damage and drainage issues are one of the key elements of many law suits involving landscape architects today. You can minimize your risks as a designer and protect your client by conducting a thorough site inventory of all hydrological phenomena affecting the site.

    Consider the following when conducting a site inventory:

    1. What are the directions of surface drainage that exist on the site? This information comes in handy when conducting site analysis and preliminary design because you may be able to tie proposed drainage systems into existing natural drainage patterns.
    2. Where are the major and minor water collection arteries on site (i.e. ditches, riverbeds, creeks, arroyos, etc.)? What looks like a dry stream bed in the summer could cause devastating flooding during the winter rainy season.
    3. Identify drainage patterns from neighboring sites if they affect your site. Not if proposed activity on sites that drain to yours could have a negative drainage impact.
    4. Does the site have access to storm sewers and any other drainage structures?
    5. Identify if any part of the site lies within the 100-year flood hazard area as mapped on a federal Flood Hazard Boundary or Flood Insurance Rate Map or other flood hazard delineation map. You can find this information on the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) website.
    6. Identify existing natural features worthy of preservation
    7. Identify what features that should be retained and what features can be removed or altered during the design process. Review regulations that affect the site to verify that you can legally modify natural features (i.e. rock formations near a scenic highway).
    8. Note easy of difficulty in removing existing site features (i.e. rock outcroppings, trees, riparian areas, topographic features, on-site water features, stable and unstable slopes, degraded areas, etc.)
    9. Identify the site’s soil type(s) and changes in soil types throughout the site. Keep in mind the following soil characteristics.
    1. Bearing capacity
    2. Infiltration rate
  • Notate poorly-drained areas
  • Earthquake rupture zone
  • Potential for seismic-related ground failure (i.e. liquefaction)
  • Is the soil on site classified as an expansive soil?
  • Is the soil suitable for septic tanks?
  • Are their known mineral sources of economic value on the site?
  • Man-Made Features

    Note the existing man-made features on a site during the site inventory. Man-made features can include any of the following:

    1. Identify the size, shape, location, and height of any existing buildings on the site.
    2. Note the locations of retaining walls, walls and fences, ramadas, terraces, etc.
    3. Note the location, size, characteristics of existing active recreation areas, courts, patios, plazas, drives, walks, or service areas on the site.
    4. Record condition of existing paving and paving patterns.
    5. Note the locate and size of existing curb cuts onto the site.
    6. Locate existing utility poles
    7. Identify existing and proposed fire hydrants
    8. Notate the location of existing bus/transit stops or shelters on the site.
    9. Observe existing buildings and landscapes in the area and record their architectural character, color, building materials, style, and details of buildings in the neighborhood.
    10. Examine open space and record landscaping materials, patterns, paving and construction materials used, details, accessories, site furnishings, exterior lighting, etc.


    Circulation is an important element that can either make or break a project. During the site inventory, identify what existing patterns of pedestrian and vehicular circulation exist on, around, or through a site. During the site analysis phase, you can determine if these are positive and need to be encouraged, or negative and should be rerouted or discouraged. Examine the following circulation-related items during the site inventory:

    1. Record on-site pedestrian circulation patterns. Record the users, purposes, and schedule of users over time.
    2. Note off-site pedestrian activity patterns.
    3. Identify if pedestrian patterns are desirable and note if pedestrian circulation should be reinforced or discouraged During the analysis process.
    4. Observe and record on-site and adjacent vehicular circulation patterns. Note the following:
    1. Traffic pattern
    2. Origin and destination
    3. Traffic volume and peak load
  • Note conditions or activities that may occasionally impact on-site and adjacent traffic flows (including parades, festivals, concerts, fire service access, service truck access, etc.)
  • Note off-site vehicular circulation patterns. Are there adjacent off-site parking possibilities? Is there easy access to public transportation?
  • Identify possible locations for optimum site access for vehicles and pedestrians (and other circulation methods if applicable).
  • Record walking times and distances if pedestrian circulation between site areas is important for your project.
  • Sensory

    1. Map views from the site. Note where views are open or where views could be opened up to look off the site.
    2. Map views to points of interest and axial views within the site and off-site. Note if the views are positive and attractive or offensive or unattractive.
    3. Record Views to the site from outside the site.
    4. Note the following view locations:
    1. Views from streets
    2. Views from walks and paths
  • Note if views will become blocked over time.
  • Locations and sources of noises on and off-site.
  • Locations and sources of odors, smoke, or airborne pollution on and off-site.
  • Climate

    1. Note the average and maximum high and low temperatures for the site. Also, note if there are any factors that would affect microclimates in a significant manner (i.e. proximity to large bodies of water.)
    2. Record average humidity and note any season extremes.
    3. Note the average annual rainfall an monthly averages.
    4. Is there significant snowfall on the site. If so, how many inches occur in typical and average snow events.
    5. What is the evapotranspiration for the site? Use the WUCOLS guide or CIMIS website to determine the average ETo.
    6. Determine the prevailing wind direction and average wind speed.
    7. Identify sun angles at different times and seasons. This will help you determine what areas are sun-drenched or shady.
    8. Determine what natural disasters are likely on your site.
    9. What is the potential (both on-site and off-site) for wild fires?
    10. What is the earthquake potential for the site?
    11. Does part of the sit lie in a flood plain?
    12. Assess the likely risks associated with these and possibly other hazards

    Cultural Conditions

    Candidates must demonstrate an ability to identify existing cultural conditions during the site inventory process.

    Human and cultural context (activities, human relationships, patterns of human characteristics):

    1. What is the median population age and age distribution?
    2. What ethnic patterns exist in the area?
    3. Describe the average density.
    4. How would you describe the employment patterns near the site?
    5. What values are held by adjacent residents or the site’s community?
    6. What is the local area’s income and family structure?
    7. What sort of informal activities take place in and around the site?
    8. Are there festivals held on or near the site at certain times of the year?
    9. Are there occasional parades, street fairs, or craft fairs held nearby?
    10. What are the local vandalism & crime patterns?
    11. Are there recreation facilities and parks in the area?

    Existing Infrastructure

    During the site inventory process, landscape architects are expected to identify existing infrastructure on a site. The CSE tests your ability to identify what types of infrastructure need to be identified during the site inventory phase of a project.

    Identify the if some of the following utilities and infrastructure exist on a site. Note the location, capacity, and the type of pipe or conveyance for the following utilities:

    1. Electricity
    2. Natural Gas
    3. Potable water
    4. Reclaimed water
    5. Well water
    6. Sanitary sewer
    7. Storm water
    8. Telephone lines
    9. Data, cable TV, and fiber optic lines
    10. Note if utilities are located above of below grade.
    11. If utilities are located on adjacent sites, note their location, capacity, and distance from your site’s property lines.

     Related Articles:


    John is a landscape architect who is currently preparing to take the California Supplemental Exam to become licensed in California. He is currently a licensed professional landscape architect in Georgia and Florida. John graduated from California State University, Pomona with a BSLA degree in landscape architecture in 1997 and has extensive practice experience in residential and commercial landscape design.

    Posted in Site Inventory

    Do You Want to Pass the CSE?

    You are in the right place. Learn what you need to pass the California Supplemental Exam for landscape architects the first time. This site is dedicated to aspiring landscape architects who want to get a California landscape architect license. I'll share my research for the CSE as I prepare for the exam.

    Feel free to submit a question and I'll do my best to answer it here.

    Good luck,

    Ask Me A Question

    Your message was successfully sent.
    Thank You!