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Feature Article - September 2012

Trash To Treasure

Transforming Brownfields Into Playing Fields and Parks

By Kelli Anderson


Brown is apparently the new green. From world-class parks like Millennium Park in Chicago to Freshkills Park in New York, such venues formed from former landfills, quarries and waste-contaminated industrial sites, have become spectacular recreational spaces for the communities that once shunned them.

Brownfields (areas once utilized for commercial or industrial use that have redevelopment potential) that have been transformed into parkland is actually nothing new. One of the earliest parks to find its humble beginnings as a landfill dates back to 1916 when Rainier Playfield in Seattle was created from Rainier Dump.

But a lot has changed since the early days of repurposing these derelict spaces in terms of techniques and regulations to rehabilitate them, ways to pay for their cleanup, and the realization that they can revitalize a limping community, boost a local economy and make the environment and its people healthier in the process. No wonder public support to convert brownfields into playing fields is at an all-time high. Or that park districts can't seem to sign up fast enough to acquire them and make use of them, with some estimates suggesting that transformed landfills-to-parks now run in the tens of thousands of acres.

Economic Gains

One such brownfield project, nearing completion slated for December 2013, is transforming 700 acres of what has been called "the dirtiest site in Canada" into a public park. When a 100-year old former steel mill and coke production plant in Sydney, Nova Scotia (one of the largest in North America), closed 10 years ago, it left in its wake tar ponds, acres of contaminated soil, water and waste, and left the community it founded bereft of jobs.

Today, with $400 million invested in cleanup by the federal government, and in cooperation with the province, many environmental organizations and local citizens, this site is once again breathing new economic life into the heart of the community that was originally created around it.

"The remediation process in itself has brought jobs to the community," said Gary Sorge, senior principal with Stantec, the design firm creating the yet-to-be-named park, about a cleanup process that was initially implemented by another agency. "And they (the residents) will also be involved in the construction of the new park." With property values already quadrupling in some of the most economically distressed areas of the city, it seems many anticipate the long-term benefits this will bring to Sydney and the surrounding towns.

When complete, the park will have greenways, trails, areas restored for wildlife and new plant life habitats, active and passive recreational areas, an outdoor amphitheater, sports fields, playgrounds, skating pond and spray park. Woven into its design will also be themes of origin, expressing the community's pride of place and history, telling the story of the plant that gave rise to its residents and using its relics, like an interactive, restored rail car, an enormous smelting ladle and interpretive art pieces created by local artists to pass on its story and that of the people who used to work there.

Due Diligence

But how are such sites transformed in the first place? Regardless of whether it is a pre-'80s landfill stocked with today's no-nos (like lead paint and batteries), a former chemical industrial site or a newer landfill sans toxic material, nothing ensures successful transformation like thorough planning and due diligence.

"You can always hire a committee, but do due diligence so you won't have any surprises once you get to the ground," said Chris Kastelic, senior vice president and principal with Sink Combs Dethlefs, architects who updated a former-dump-turned-community center into the LEED Gold-certified and award-winning Northside Aztlan Community Center, in Fort Collins, Colo., in 2005.

"Get good information ahead of the process, leverage your resources to make smart decisions and talk to the right people. (We had environmental consultants as a part of the problem-solving method.) You need to tackle it head on with hard data about the realities of the challenge rather than speaking in just general terms."

In the case of Aztlan, originally intended to be a LEED Silver-certification project, such diligence and good information combined with savvy planning and problem-solving became a budget-making Gold certification and the evidence the city later used to insist that other projects should aim for no less than Gold, as well.