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From Dumps to Destinations: Converting Landfills to Parks

New parks can be fashioned out of old garbage dumps. It's not as bad as it sounds.

Fresh Kills Park, New York. The soon-to-open park will be New York's largest city park at 2,200 acres, more than double the size of Central Park. Credit: Garrett Ziegler (Flickr Feed).

Balloon Park in Albuquerque, Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, McAlpine Creek Soccer Complex in Charlotte, Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs, Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa, and hundreds of others, both famous and obscure, have been created from landfills. And in a few more years New York City's 2,200-acre Fresh Kills Landfill will have settled in to become that city's largest park.

Landfill parks go back to at least 1916 (many years before the word "landfill" was coined) when the old Rainier Dump in Seattle was turned into the Rainier Playfield. In 1935 in that same city a more momentous conversion transformed the 62-acre Miller Street Dump into a portion of the now-famous Washington Park Arboretum. The following year, New York City 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. Following World War II, as the volume of trash in America mushroomed, so did the number of landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as many as 3,500 landfills have closed since 1991; the number from earlier years is anyone's guess.

In an ideal world all trash would be recycled and there would be no landfills. But in a time of severe urban space and resource constraints, closed landfills represent excellent locales for three big reasons: size, location, and cost. A former dump is usually one of the few large, open locations within a dense metro area. There is also the opportunity to correct what may have been a longstanding environmental injustice to the surrounding residents. Finally, there's a good chance that the landfill–which may be as small as dozens of acres or as large as 1,000 or more–is free or inexpensive to buy or possibly that it even comes with its own supporting funds.

While a capped landfill is not necessarily a park director's first choice for a parcel of land, it's impressive and instructive that so many perfectly adequate–or even better than adequate–city parks started out as dumps. Communities from coast to coast have been jumping at the chance to use them. Based on a survey, the Center for City Park Excellence estimates that there may already be as many as 4,500 acres of landfill parks in major U.S. cities.

Mount Trashmore, Virginia Beach. The city's highest point and its largest non-wetland park was constructed in 1974 over an 800-foot-high mound of municipal refuse, and became the best known of the nation's early landfill parks. Credit: Backus Aerial.

In Portland, Oregon, the park department is getting a free 25-acre park. All closure and conversion costs for Cully Park were paid by the solid waste department, which built up a reserve for exactly that purpose by charging a per-ton fee on garbage disposed there. (The park department coordinates closely in habitat development and vegetation management.) In Virginia Beach, where Mount Trashmore required multiple fixes over the decades, the original 1974 capping and the 1986 recapping were paid for by the public works department; the 2003 recapping–hopefully the last–was financed by the park department through its capital improvement budget. In Fresno, California, the landfill isn't even being officially transferred over; the public utilities department will own it in perpetuity but will sign a management agreement with the parks and recreation department.

Frankly, a cheap purchase price is important because preparation costs can be significant. Depending on the age and contents of the landfill, the amount of groundwater or soil contamination, and the planned recreational use, construction costs have ranged from $500,000 for a 2-acre site to $30 million for a regional park of more than 100 acres. Expenses depend on such factors as topography, availability of materials, cover design, and much more. A calculation by the Center for City Park Excellence puts the average at around $300,000 per acre. Financial responsibility for these and other costs may lie solely with the park developer or be shared by the landfill owner/operator.

The construction of municipal solid waste landfills has been regulated since 1991 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Today an owner/operator must install a 24-inch earthen cover within six months of closure to minimize water infiltration and erosion. The cover usually also has a gas venting layer and a stone or synthetic biotic layer to keep out burrowing animals. The EPA requires groundwater monitoring and leachate collection for thirty years after the landfill is closed.

Technically, the two big challenges to using a former landfill are gas production and ground settlement. Landfill gases, including methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, are created when buried waste decomposes. Methane may be released for thirty or more years after closure, and EPA requires gas collection systems. (In parks built on pre-1991 landfills there were occasional stories of picnickers being stunned to see a column of flame surrounding a barbeque grill.) Happily, methane collected from landfills can be sold by park departments to generate revenue. In Portland, Oregon, St. Johns Landfill, a former disposal site within the 2,000-acre Smith-Bybee Wetlands Natural Area, earns more than $100,000 a year from methane that is piped 2 miles to heat the lime kiln of a cement company. The revenue helps pay for closure operations as the site transitions from landfill to park.

Settlement is a bit tougher. Like cereal in a box, municipal landfills gradually slump as much as 20 percent over a two- or three-decade period. That much settlement would cause foundations to break and sink, utility and irrigation pipes to burst, roads and paths to crack and heave, light poles to tilt, and sports fields to crumple. Obviously, if the ultimate reuse of a landfill is as a natural wild land, none of this matters. But most recreational reuses require the construction of at least trails if not fields and buildings of various types. Fortunately, waste sits only in "cells" in certain areas of a landfill, and park facilities can be safely constructed over undisturbed areas, leaving the settling sections to support grass and shrubbery. Therefore, structural foundations can be protected through detailed research and careful planning; the key is to know exactly where the waste is. At New York's Fresh Kills only about 45 percent of the land area was actually used for waste disposal.

Despite the many successful individual examples, there is not yet a seamless landfills-to-parks movement in the United States. Numerous challenges remain–technological, political, and legal–all of which drive up costs. Back when land was more easily available, the impediments were generally not worth taking on. Now in many cases they are. With a three-pronged effort to design safer waste dumps, to work more closely with community activists, and to ensure protection from legal liabilities, cities will be able to gain much new parkland from abandoned landfills.

For more information about landfill parks, read an article published in Places journal here.


A tenth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland from capped landfills.