Turning Trash Into Nature on Jamaica Bay

Will Rogers famously extolled buying land, because they weren't making any more of the stuff. Still true. But it also is true that we can restore despoiled land into places both valuable and wonderful, something made more possible with contemporary technology.

A tour last month of Brooklyn's Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue landfills, sponsored by the Friends of Penn & Fountain Parks, showcased how New York City's Department of Environmental Protection has successfully capped and closed the twin peninsulas of household and construction garbage. Rising more than 130 feet above Jamaica Bay and the rest of Gateway National Recreation Area, the two mountains once stunk up the Shore Parkway and nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods of Canarsie and East New York. Now an elaborate piping system below ground captures the methane created by the decomposing refuse. Where once was visible garbage, native little bluestem and other grasses wave in the winds off the water. Small plantings of cedars, oaks and pine trees are beginning to thrive. Osprey are nesting along the shoreline. Gravel roads circle the shoreline of the landfills and run to their summit, offering extraordinary 360-degree views of the Manhattan skyline to the Atlantic Ocean.

It is an extraordinary place, and a terrific opportunity for the new collaboration between New York City and the National Park Service.

Last fall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced an agreement to jointly manage the 10,000 acres of federal and city parkland in and around Jamaica Bay. A joint task force is working out the details. The promise is that coordinated management between the city, National Park Service and a still-to-be-created private conservancy will bring additional resources, new opportunities for private educational and cultural partners and a better experience for a greater number of visitors.

To help direct this partnership, the Park Service is now preparing a management plan for Gateway National Recreation Area. This once-in-a-generation document that will guide future investments and programs. In comments submitted last week, Regional Plan Association stressed that the plan should favor those improvements that activate and increase access to Jamaica Bay sites and engage visitors from the surrounding communities and the rest of the region. While protecting and continuing to restore Jamaica Bay's ecology and rich history is vital, it shouldn't limit access to what is arguably the nation's first urban recreation area for people who might not otherwise have access to the national park system.

In the long term, the National Park Service will be leading the redevelopment of Jamaica Bay, including the Penn and Fountain landfill sites. While the city will continue to be responsible for the integrity of the landfill closure and environmental remediation, the sites are scheduled be turned over to the Park Service for management.

Measuring 110 acres (Pennsylvania Avenue) and 297 acres (Fountain Avenue), the restored landfills offer an extraordinary opportunity to create accessible and large open spaces for communities currently cut off from the Jamaica Bay waterfront. The creation of a trail system on the existing roadways, combined with viewing platforms and other visitor amenities, could be an important early action that would open the sites to the public at modest cost. The trails could link directly to the Jamaica Bay Greenway, the 30 miles of pathways that circle the bay. Additional uses, such as an amphitheater, solar panels and ferries, might be viable, but will require market research as well as management considerations.

While important tasks remain, these projects have the potential to create spectacular open spaces for the public, helping meet Gateway's promise to be a great urban park and reminding us that while we can't make any more land, we can make it better.