Landfills: From Beast to Beauty

What happens when landfills have had their fill can say a lot about a municipality’s commitment to the local environment and approach to handling trash.

In Great Kills, NY the 132-acre Brookfield landfill, an eyesore if ever there one on Staten Island, is undergoing a remarkable transformation. Phase one of a major remediation is complete and a second is underway, with  residents providing input into what will eventually be a community park scheduled to open in 2017. The remediation process is set for completion in 2013.

John McLaughlin, the ecologist managing the restoration for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, quoted in a recent Grist article, says that when completed, Brookfield will be one of the largest chunks of natural landscape in the city, and the first landfill in the United States to be converted into an “ecologically functional wetland park.”

Turning Brookfield into a natural wetland habitat could become a unique chapter in the history of landfill projects, and a major turnaround from the dumping scandal and subsequent lawsuit that residents filed against the city with assistance from Earth Justice in 2007. There are many examples of successful landfill remediation, including another in Staten Island, Fresh Kills. But many of those involve covering the old landfill with grass, not creating a new habitat.

Landfills are among the most notorious pieces of real estate around. Even cities and communities with comprehensive recycling programs in place produce trash that will find its way to a landfill.  It’s called modern life.

“In theory, turning a landfill into a park transforms a noxious liability into an attractive asset,” said Peter Harnik, Michael Taylor and Ben Welle in “From Dumps to Destinations: The Conversion of Landfills” to Parks, a case study in the December 2006 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine. “As a “sustainable’ recycling of urban assets, in many cases it works beautifully.”

The case study continues that “landfill parks go back to at least 1916 (many years before the word ‘landfill’ was coined), when Seattle created Rainier Playfield from its former Rainier Dump.

“In 1935 another conversion transformed Seattle’s 62-acre Miller Street Dump into a portion of the Washington Park Arboretum. The following year, New York closed the putrid Corona Dumps—famously called the ‘Valley of Ashes’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby—and began preparing the land for construction of the 1939 World’s Fair.”

So landfills have a somewhat storied history and can even become tourist attractions, such as the niftily-named Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Mount Trashmore is made out of compacted trash that is covered with clean soil. The site includes recreation areas such as a basketball court, skate park and picnic area. Trashmore is not a nature preserve as Brookfield will be or the 263-acre bird sanctuary in Tifft, Buffalo. However, Trashmore’s design and its almost completely self-sustaining, low-water garden are recognized for their ingenuity. It’s an attraction for resort-goers and Fourth of July fireworks.

Landfills don’t have to remain steaming heaps of odorous and dangerous rubbish. Community partnership and involvement in turning trash into something more, something useful and beautiful, is a far superior and fruitful endeavor than waste-dumping scandals and citizen lawsuits against cities.

[Image credit: Scenery at Mount Trashmore Park by visualazn via Flickr cc]

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