From Garbage to Greenspace: How Dumps are Converted Back into Nature

Old garbage dumps around the country are getting a makeover. Cities like Charlotte, Colorado Springs, and Portland are taking toxic waste lands, cleaning them up, and turning them into city parks and nature preserves. The first landfill to be converted to a park was in Seattle in 1916, and since then, the EPA estimates that around 3,500 dumps have made the transition. Of course, it would be great if all landfills could be closed and reconverted back into sustainable and natural settings, but with the ever growing amount of garbage produced, the number of landfills is actually growing. So why are landfills closing down at all? The first explanation is cost. Dumps are usually located in the parts of town where they go unseen by the large majority of people; especially middle class and upper class residents. This land is cheap, and there is little risk of upsetting the types of people who would protest living near a dump. This usually leaves minorities and lower classes with the burden of living near toxic waste sites, and with little power to do anything about it. When these areas start to become gentrified, the cost of land goes up, and the poor, as well as the dumps, must move to the outer parts of the cities and towns once again.

Whitaker Ponds Nature Park Educational Class

One example has been Whitaker Ponds Nature Park in Portland, Oregon which was previously a junk yard of old cars, thousands of tires, and scrap metal. As part of the Metropolitan Greenspaces program in May of 1995, the city purchased several of the parcels of land that now comprise the park.  The Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) also purchased two tax lots to increase public ownership around the newly cleaned up ponds. Over the last ten years, the city replanted and restored the native species of plants, and encouraged wildlife to return to the area.  Restoration was a collaborative effort with a variety of groups and schools that operated under the Whitaker Ponds Management Committee. The park is now being used primarily for environmental education programs sponsored by the Bureau of Environmental Services, the Columbia Slough Watershed Council (CSWC), and Portland Parks and Recreation.

But what about the other landfills, the big dumps that hold millions of tons of garbage and are growing every day? Can these be converted too, and if so, where will we put all the garbage that keeps getting generated? Is it possible to create a sustainable garbage system that would allow cities to take back the land and make a more sustainable living space for us all?

To learn more about Whitaker Ponds Nature Park, visit The Center for Columbia River History's Website  for information on the Whitaker Ponds transition.