Feature Article - September 2012
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Trash To Treasure

Transforming Brownfields Into Playing Fields and Parks

By Kelli Anderson


Jewels in the Crown

But although there are indisputable challenges to these sites, there are also indisputable benefits. As more communities plan ahead, even creating landfills with the intention of one day turning them into a recreational space, they are able to use the landfills to pay for the future park and are even harnessing resulting methane gas, selling it or using it to offset onsite costs.

In Portland, Ore., the 2,000-acre Smith-Bybee Wetlands Natural Area earns more than $100,000 a year from methane collected from a former waste disposal site. The methane, piped to a nearby cement company, is creating revenue for the park district and is helping to pay for the costs associated with the transition from landfill to public park.

In the case of Cully Park, another example of Portland's ingenuity, land for the 25-acre park was free, with all closure and conversion costs paid for by a per-ton garbage disposal fee charged by the solid waste department. And while free land may not be typical of most brownfield-turned-park success stories, cheap land certainly is, as well as the fact that most of these sites are located in densely populated areas where large, open space is a premium.

Perhaps no greater example of this exists than in the soon-to-be opened first phase of Freshkills Park in New York City. Being called a symbol of renewal and touted as the poster child for the ultimate landfill makeover, Freshkills, once the largest landfill in the world covering more than 2,000 acres, will be transformed into five parks. The parks, each with its own distinct programming, will include wetlands, large natural settings and all kinds of active and passive recreational spaces, from horseback riding trails and soccer fields to fishing and lakeside restaurants.

The site, which will be almost three times larger than Central Park in New York City, provides an enormous amount of land squarely situated in one of the world's largest cities and will be proof positive, when completed, that landfills can become jewels in a city crown.

In addition, the methane gas produced from the site that will be phased in over the next 30 years is estimated to produce $12 million a year that will be used to furnish energy for 22,000 homes in the area.

Another benefit is access to existing infrastructure or even building materials on site, saving money in ways the average site could not.

For the creation of Three Oaks Park, previously an old quarry, the challenges of steep slopes and high erosion meant a lot of out-of-the-box thinking resulting in fire walls and rain gardens and native landscaping to maintain water quality for the park's newly formed lakes.

However, it also meant taking advantage of the sand, gravel and stone already on site from the quarry's abandoned materials, saving money in the process, as well as earning kudos and thanks from those eager to reduce our carbon footprint.

"It was a challenge but benefited us financially in being able to generate their own sand and gravel on site to use for trails and a road base and for paving the parking lot as well as creating beach areas, but from an environmental standpoint, it avoided having to use other greenfields or quarries," Konters said of the $14-million park that today provides its residents a host of activities such as boating, fishing, picnic areas, trails, beaches, a lake house with concessions, playgrounds and a spray park.

In the case of the Sydney project, even a 10-story eyesore of slag, a byproduct of the steel-making process accumulated over a century of the mill's existence, proved to be an environmental and aesthetic asset. The slag is being mined and quarried in the new construction for the lower layers of what will become landforms three and four meters high, capped with healthy topsoil to create visual year-round interest. As the slag-mountain recedes, new gardens are being formed. It's a win-win.

For some, the height of such "mount trashmores" (above-ground landfills and waste materials that become virtual mini-mountains on the landscape) becomes an asset. The planners of the future City View Park in Virginia Beach, Va., as well as members of the Milwaukee County Park commission, for example, are seriously considering turning their towering landmasses into ski ramps.

And then there is the boost to the local economy. In Crystal Lake, the economy had wreaked havoc on its prime retail corridors, with many vacant storefronts a common sign of hard times. After the park's soft opening last fall, however, the local economy is already experiencing a comeback, thanks to the attraction of more visitors and interested developers who recognize the business potential of the new recreational area.