Public Installation on the Cornell University Agriculture Quad, Fall / Winter 2015
Over the last quarter century, American municipalities have observed a collapse in the system of landfills that manage our waste. Small to mid-size landfills that once serviced local townships are, in effect, extinct: victims of ever more stringent and costly regulations, including but not limited to the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act of 19761 and the Solid Waste Management Act of 19882. Such regulations demand that waste processing facilities operate at scale to survive. As a consequence, landfills are closing and consolidating. From 1986 to 2009, the number of domestic landfills decreased from 7,683 to 1,9083. Wittingly or not, advancing regulatory norms have given rise to manufactured landforms - ersatz mountains - of unequalled scale.
How, as architects and landscape architects, might we reckon with this new geography of waste? The implications of this shift raise spatial provocations with regard to logistics - waste is now traveling farther than ever before, increasing its carbon-footprint - and form - landfill structures are often the tallest structures in their immediate environment, impossible to see all at once yet visible for miles.4
With the staggering quantity of material entering a present-day landfill - upwards of 6,000 tons daily at Seneca Meadows, New York state’s largest active waste-management facility - they are pregnant with as-yet unimagined design potential.5 The afterlife of any landfill far exceeds its active period. Yet, efficient design privileges a landfill’s comparatively brief period of construction. It is increasingly worth asking, given the heretofore unseen opportunities for earth-molding that modern landfills present, what new morphologies might emerge if landscape architects designed waste-sites from nascency? How can landscape architects reshape landfill construction to create a more culturally resonant and aesthetically-minded terrain?
Landfills posit singular design challenges: they are at once highly visible (often the most prominent topographic feature in the landscape) and completely invisible (with regard to their contents and processes); they exhibit binary time scales (human-scale in their construction, geologic-scale in their decomposition); they are burial grounds without ceremony.
Addressing the dilemmas posed by modern landfills requires that we investigate the relationship between surface and subsurface, burial and renewal, mound and monument, to assert the role of landscape architects amidst these emerging landscapes.
1. “Summary of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).” United States Environmental Protection Agency. May 22, 2015. http://www2.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-resource-conservation-and-recovery-act
2. “Local Solid Waste Management Planning (LSWMP).” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 2015. http://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/47861.html
3. “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2009 Facts and Figures.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste. December 2010.
4.”Life Near a Landfill: The Towns and People Who End Up with NYC Trash.” City Limits. May 22, 2015. citylimits.org/2015/05/22/life-near-a-landfill-the-towns-and-people-who-end-up-with-nycs-trash/
5. “Seneca Meadows Landfill Overview.” Progressive Waste Solutions. June, 2005.