An ancient Roman landfill offers ideas about how our old dumps could be more useful than we realize.

There were about 8,000 active municipal solid waste landfills in the U.S. in 1980. In 2009 that number was down to just about 1,900. So, assuming there hasn't been some miraculous evaporation of decades worth of municipal waste, more than 6,000 landfills across the country are now sitting inactive.

That may be fine for most; garbage dumps are full of stuff we wanted to get rid of, after all. But as this recent article from Places shows, simply leaving these landfills to rot quietly out of our sight ignores the potential they carry – both on top and within.

Architect Michael Ezban spent a few months as a visiting scholar in Rome and became interested in a centuries-old landfill, Monte Testaccio, and his article tours through its history and, most interestingly, its current state as a living part of the city. Now towering as one of the eight hills in the city, Monte Testaccio grew to a height of more than 100 feet as a dumping ground for millions of clay vessels used over the centuries to transport olive oil into the city. Unlike modern-day dumps, this now-inactive landfill has become an active and useful part of the urban landscape.

As landfills in the U.S. meet and exceed their capacity and fall out of use, they face a fairly uniform future of being capped with clay and left alone to slowly decompose from the inside. Ezban argues that Monte Testaccio is a good example of a way we might be able to rethink these sealed landfills.

Monte Testaccio has hosted a range of marginalized populations for most of its existence, but now the constituency is evolving as socio-economic changes bring a greater diversity of activity to the area. The new annex of MACRO, Rome’s museum of contemporary art, is located in the slaughterhouse just yards away from the horse stalls and carriage storage. Adventurous foodies trek to Testaccio for traditional cuisine. Auto mechanics rebuild old Fiats at the base of the landfill as archaeologists piece together amphorae at the top. Ravers dance in the 17th-century caves until early Sunday morning, followed by Catholics attending mass in the chapel next door. Can waste management agencies, municipal parks departments, landscape architects and urban designers work to enable this kind of cultural mosaic on the slopes of contemporary landfills?

Ezban points to a few modern-day examples where this idea is starting to take shape. Freshkills Park in Staten Island, New York, is re-animating more than 2,200 acres of what at one time was the largest landfill in the world. The park will feature a number of activities, as well as an intricate system for sequestering and capturing the gaseous results of 150 million decaying tons of New York City garbage. Another dump makeover is underway in Tel Aviv, Israel, where the Hiriya Garbage Mound has been re-engineered and renamed as Ariel Sharon Eco Park. Closed after more than 40 years in 1998, the dump is being turned into a 2,000-acre park space and will feature a lake and a 50,000-seat amphitheater. Another dump-to-park conversion is Byxbee Park in Palo Alto, California, where more than 60 vertical feet of garbage have been capped with a bayside regional park. The Trust for Public Lands estimates that about 4,500 acres of landfill in U.S. cities have been converted into similar public spaces.

Freshkills Park, with the Manhattan skyline in the distance. (Flickr/Kristine Paulus)

But landfills don't only have to serve as mounded earth for park space. Ezban argues that too many of these projects choose to ignore what's beneath the cap. He says the composition of the landfill itself, as in Monte Testaccio, may offer its own benefits. Due to its unique composition of ancient clay, Monte Testaccio has proven to be an incredibly cool place in the city. Wine cellars have been dug into its sides and restaurants use their adjoining edges as a huge air conditioner.

Not all landfills – especially modern ones filled with unspeakable amounts of toxic and hazardous materials – can play such a role. But Ezban argues that they can offer some benefits. For example, some landfills are being mined for waste-to-energy projects. He suggests that others could soon turn into mines as the electronics market boosts demand for precious metals.

And while dead landfills can be beautifully reborn as parks, Ezban argues that they should also be thought of as serving other social and infrastructural purposes for urban dwellers. The trash of the past isn't going anywhere – not fast, at least. We'd be wise to think of new ways to integrate these spaces of waste back into our landscape as more than just dumps, but also as usable and beneficial public spaces.

Top image: Flickr/TyB

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