Many cities have the desire to increase greenspace, improve the environment, and/or join separate trails and parks. With the right planning, resources, and leadership, some cities are able to mobilize the conversion of unused railroad lines and landfills into exceptional recreational spaces.
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. Landfills are hardly ideal considering their former role but offer developers one enticing trait: affordability. The low purchase prices balance the high preparation costs. According to a blog post at Smart Cities Dive, “construction costs have ranged from $500,000 for a 2-acre site to $30 million for a regional park of more than 100 acres.”
Despite the challenges, landfill and railroad conversions are breathing life into forgotten areas, connecting isolated neighborhoods, and driving economic impact.
Here are nine “rails to trails” and “landfill to parks” projects throughout the U.S.:
The former Long Island Railroad Rockaway Beach Branch line is 3.5 miles long. This trail is expected to receive 250,000 visitors from outside of Queens. These visitors are projected to spend between $7 -21 per trip, resulting in approximately $2.2 million in new local spending.
Using the land underneath the southern end of Miami’s Metrorail, this eventual 10-mile, 120-acre linear park/urban trail/public art destination completed Phase 1 of construction in February 2021. The Underline Brickell Backyard attracted over 2 million visitors, saw the installation of over 30,000 native trees and plants, hosted more than 50 free events, and unveiled three public art installations in its first year of operations.
Image courtesy of Felix Mizioznikov via Adobe Stock
The conversion of the neglected Bloomingdale Rail embankment to a 20-acre, 2.7-mile trail linking parks opened in 2015 and is ongoing. Named for the common prefix of the city’s zip code, the first phase connected four diverse neighborhoods and brought together arts, history, and design. The parks and trail complex includes the elevated Bloomingdale Trail for bikers, runners, and walkers that links four existing and two planned access parks at the ground level.
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The first quarter-mile section of the former Reading Railroad line opened in June 2018, launching a planned three-mile linear park that aims to connect 10 neighborhoods. To exemplify neighborhood connection, in 2022, the project began hosting Final Fridays, where the nonprofit Friends of the Rail Park teamed with local artists and organizations to host events on the last Friday of the month from May to August. Community members from the ten neighborhoods converged to plant swap, make zines, learn to bike, and enjoy the park. The first phase cost approximately $11 million, and the estimated cost to convert the rest of the elevated viaduct into a park is expected to be $50 million.
The Friends of the Rail Park was formed and began to raise money to help fund the project in 2013. A 2020 study found that real estate prices near Phase One of the site rose more quickly than in the rest of Philadelphia. The study estimated as much as 16 percent of the increase could be attributed to the Rail Park. The study also projected that the Rail Park project could account for more than $2 million in additional real estate tax revenue annually.
Image courtesy of Rebecca Cordes Chan, Friends of the Rail Park
The first rails-to-trails park in Oregon follows an abandoned railroad bed for 21 miles linking the towns of Banks and Vernonia. Trail highlights include 13 bridges and the 733-foot-long, 80-foot-high Buxton Trestle. The trail is most commonly used for hiking and biking but also offers exceptional spots for picnicking, birdwatching, fishing, and more.
The Trust for Public Land (TPL) believes that the conversion of landfills to parks need not wait until a landfill closes. In fact, it encourages the envisioning of parks before landfills open, promoting design features that speed the conversion when the landfill use ends.
“Even before the first truckful of garbage is disposed at a new site, careful consideration should be given by solid waste agencies, municipal park departments, and landscape architects as to how the site will be converted at the end of its expected life as a dump,” wrote Peter Harnik, Michael Taylor and Ben Welle in a paper titled From Dumps to Destinations:
The Conversion of Landfills to Parks. “For example, the solid-earth ‘walls’ between trash-filled cells could be made thick enough to later support not only underground pipes and conduits but above-ground buildings and structures. Even without such comprehensive preplanning, however, TPL believes there is great potential for phased conversions at existing landfills.”
At 2,200 acres, Freshkills Park is nearly triple the size of Central Park and is the largest park developed in New York City in more than 100 years. The area in Staten Island is the site of the former Fresh Kills Landfill, the world’s largest landfill before it closed in 2001. Layers of soil and infrastructure helped the area become a haven for wildlife, recreation, science, education, and art. Development began in 2008 and is expected to continue into the 2030s.
One of the largest landfills in the Bay Area closed in 1991 and the park opened shortly thereafter. It boasts views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Angel Island, recreation fields, a 17-acre off-leash area for dogs, and hosts the annual Berkeley Kite Festival. The park also features a sophisticated system for converting the methane gas commonly emitted at former landfills to carbon dioxide through extraction wells routed to a landfill gas flare station.
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During the 1950s and 1960s, land only three miles from downtown Buffalo was a dumpsite for city refuse. The revitalization of the site to a 264-acre nature preserve began in the 1970s, when almost 2 million cubic feet of solid waste was enclosed in clay and covered with soil excavated from another section of the area.
The effort made ponds bigger and included the planting of trees and wildflowers. Animals are drawn to Tifft’s large cattail marsh. In 1982, the Buffalo Museum of Science entered a commitment of operation for the preserve, which is a favorite of bird watchers and photographers. The Herb & Jane Darling Environmental Education Center teaches visitors about nature, conservation, and the surrounding ecosystems.
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Opened in 2000 after six years of reclamation work, this 100-acre site connects neighboring trails and parks. The park features conservation land and 25 acres of sports fields, playgrounds, and a canoe launch with access to the Charles River. There are handicapped accessible trails and exceptional views of downtown Boston.
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The 165-acre site developed in the 1970s has two man-made mountains, two lakes, two playgrounds, two volleyball courts, a 24,000-square-foot skate park and vert ramp, and multi-use paths. With a name that embraces its former usage, Mount Trashmore attracts more than a million visitors annually.
Image courtesy of sherryvsmith via Adobe Stock