That park is garbage (don't worry, it's a good thing)

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Practice Leader—public space and land art | Associate landscape architect

You've probably heard the saying one person's trash is another person's treasure in the context of perusing garage sales on a Saturday afternoon or scouring Kijiji ads during a break at work. You see the value when someone else sees nothing. 

So, have you ever attributed that line of thinking to a garbage dump? You know, that unnatural mountain slowly building up around the city limits. That same mountain when on a hot summer’s day and wind conditions are just right, a putrid smell starts to invade your work, home and yard and you can't escape it. Honestly, most people would probably say no, let alone, refer to a garbage dump as a treasure. However, a garbage dump to designers, planners and engineers is a park in the making—a future city gem that everyone can enjoy.

Now to be clear, I don’t condone the excessive production of waste in the anticipation that someday, down the road, it could be a park. But really we should all do our due diligence in reducing daily consumption and waste. In 2013, a report by the Conference Board of Canada revealed that Canadians "produce more garbage per capita than any other country on Earth," producing 777 kilograms of garbage per citizen. According to Len Coad, the board's director of energy, environment and technology policy, our dismal performance has a lot to do with the "inefficient use of our resources," referring to our country’s inability to “promote economic growth without further degrading the environment.” 

Yet, even while we work towards sustainable solutions that could drastically reduce our impact on the environment, it’s still hard to ignore that we, as humans, are wilfully wasteful and have been since the beginning of time. We have and continue to consume and contaminate massive amounts of land to dispose of it. The only small glimmer of light to this darkness is that in the last century or so there has been a slow movement to reclaim some of this land to create public parks, small and large. I believe it's essential to recognize the value park developments bring in regards to education concerning waste management, biodiversity, engineering, history, and environmental stewardship.  

In Staten Island, NY, Freshkills Park has become one of the most well-known landfill to park conversions to begin development in the last decade. While the Freshkills Park Alliance (a group of Government Partners and Contributing Agencies) estimate that the park will take over 30 years to complete, once its fully realized, it’s predicted to be the second largest park in New York City (triple the size of Central Park). In an area of the world where land is scarce and expensive, the addition of a new public park is of immeasurable value. The Freshkills Park Alliance recognizes this and is devoted to its ongoing development and furthering its public education agenda. Furthermore, at no time does it ever deny or ignore the roots of its beginnings because even though the park rests on a foundation of decades of human waste, it does not taint the parks picturesque notions. Instead, it adds to the intricate beauty of the park’s story, showcasing how history, innovation, and renewal can come together to create a productive landscape that harvests and distributes energy back into the power grid while providing a cultural destination for the public to enjoy for generations.

However this type of advocacy, recognition and landfill education is rare. Much landfill to park conversions go undetected and are unknown to the general public. I recently became aware that there are currently 17 parks in Winnipeg that used to be former landfills. We can attribute this acknowledgement shortfall to the lack of resources available for conversions. It takes a lot of people and funding to create something comparable to the Freshkills Park Alliance and most landfill to park conversations are more modest in comparison. They do exist though. They live in the form of the quaint neighbourhood park where you play baseball, that grassy field where you let your dog run free, or the hill you take your family to go tobogganing on in the winter. The authenticity of these spaces doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be as simple as informing the people through conversation, education and public intervention.  

One of the primary objections we've seen is the idea that we can't mix garbage and public space because it's repulsive. Recently, I walked with a city councillor around a park we designed in Winnipeg in preparation for the park's naming ceremony. Unlike the quaint parks I previously mentioned, this park is substantial in size. It’s 50-acres, half of which is a decommissioned landfill. Its amenities include a soccer pitch, a beach volleyball court, basketball court, children’s playground, open recreational fields, picnic shelter and approximately five kilometres of pathways and trails. When I mentioned to the councillor that the unique topography is the result of a landfill for which considerable amounts of engineering, planning and design took place, the councillor met me with a look of disgust and an explicit reply that they wouldn’t be mentioning that detail to the public or press at the opening. I was shocked by that response. Without informing people about the previous use of the land, we’ve missed the opportunity to bring citizen awareness to the sheer scale of the impact of waste on our planet. A park should not be used to camouflage our wasteful past, but instead, provide an opportunity to inform people that we can repurpose discarded land, and to some extent, repair contaminated land.

I understand that the idea of picnicking on a pile of garbage is not as inviting as say picnicking on land that has been shaped by history rather than human waste. No landfill reclamation project will use that image for promotion. The intent, however, is to increase public awareness of waste management, engineering, science, and design to show how we can re-establish these ignored and unsavoury sites into productive landscapes. With the right infrastructure, these decommissioned landfills can contribute back into our energy grid while providing an amenity for the public. By taking on an out of sight out of mind approach, we fail to inform the public of these concepts and hinder progressive thought.  

Fortunately, in regards to the park mentioned earlier and the resistance to publicly speak about the park's history, there is still an interpretive plaque that the City will install, detailing the effort that went into the reclaiming the land. Here’s hoping that a few people will take the time to read it and realize that just because we developed the park from a pile of garbage doesn’t mean that the park is garbage.

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