Trash to Treasure: Converting Landfills to Public Green Space

by Adam Bonislawski
Apr 25, 2017 9:05 AM ET

As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And what’s more treasured, particularly in dense urban areas, than parkland?

Changing patterns of waste disposal are making many conventional landfills obsolete, and, in turn, municipalities are repurposing these facilities as green spaces, at once removing public eyesores and adding new amenities for their residents.

The trend is widespread, with landfill-to-park projects popping up across the United States and Europe, says Charlie McCabe, director of the Center for City Park Excellence, a division of The Trust For Public Land, a nonprofit organization that creates and protects parks and other public spaces.

Perhaps the most famous of these projects is New York City’s Freshkills Park, where the first landfill in the U.S., Staten Island’s 2,200 acre Fresh Kills Landfill, has—since 2008—been in the process of converting to a city park. When complete, the park will be the largest established in New York City in more than 100 years, and will be almost three times the size of the city’s famous Central Park.

Other notable examples of landfill reuse include the aptly named Mount Trashmore Park in Virginia Beach, Va. The former landfill site was transformed into a 165-acre park, which now features a 60-foot tall man-made mountain, along with two lakes, a skate park and a network of multi-use paths.

In Hong Kong, the city’s Sai Tso Wan playground sits atop a former landfill that, at its peak, held around 1.6 million tons of waste towering as high as 65 meters. After nearly ten years of restoration, the space now hosts, among other things, the training facilities for the Hong Kong Baseball Association’s national team.

The move to convert landfills to park space has accelerated over the last few decades as cities have shifted from disposing of their waste locally to depositing it in regional facilities.

For instance, says McCabe, who is based in the Boston, Mass., area, once “almost every town in Massachusetts used to have its own landfill.”

“That, however, started changing in the 80s when they started tightening water regulations and water restrictions, and [moved] to a regional model associated with more recycling and, much later, composting,” he says.

Park space is one obvious option for reusing such land, he adds, particularly given that these sites are not always sturdy to enough to allow for more extensive construction and infrastructure development.

“It’s valuable land in that it’s in the middle of the city a lot of times. But there are a lot more challenges associated with putting any kind of commercial construction on it just because you need to think about things like [building] foundations, and if the mound of refuse you have buried there will be able to sustain developments [structurally],” McCabe says. “That’s all part of the planning process that cities go through. They consider a range of options, but a good option is always public space because the footprint is a lot lighter.”

Not that repurposing landfills as parks is without its complications, however. To be safe and successful, such projects require “really sophisticated engineering and hydrology and bioremediation,” McCabe says. “You always have to be concerned about public health and safety.”

These spaces also take some time to develop. Staten Island’s Freshkills Park, for instance, is expected to take three decades to complete.

That said, McCabe notes that he isn’t aware of any landfill-to-park conversions that have failed or been proven unacceptable from a public safety standpoint. “I think that’s because everybody knows [these projects] are a big challenge and require funding and good design.”

He adds that, as the number of these projects has grown, so has the field’s expertise.

“The world of landscape architecture has continued to mature and combine with it an understanding from the engineering side of, for instance, soil structures and rain flow rates and how to handle drainage—the whole concept of green infrastructure,” he says. “And that has really helped shape the way we look at sites like these and how we can handle them.”

It’s a whole new spin on taking out the trash.