Solar Composting Toilets Highlight Green Changes to NYC Park

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Typically, the opening of a public restroom doesn’t merit a lot of hoopla. But then again, most public restrooms aren’t as green and carbon neutral as the facilities that are being planned for Riverside Park in New York City. The restrooms in the park overlooking the Hudson River will use solar power and compost sewage to fertilize park greenery. The new restroom complex is being designed so that it will not create any carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to global warming. Plus, in addition to producing fertilizer (instead of sewage), the composting toilets will use little to no water. (By comparison, conventional toilets use about 3.5 gallons of water per flush.)

“These toilets are vital,” says Mark McIntyre, executive director of the Riverside Clay Tennis Association. He says that much of the Hudson River Greenway, where the park is located, is built on a landfill along areas that are not connected to New York City’s sewer system. Even if they were able to connect to the existing sewer system, that system is already aging and stressed.

“Tens of thousands of people are now using this riverfront pathway, and there are not enough [bathrooms] to accommodate the need,” McIntyre says. The opening of the Hudson Riverwalk has increased bike and pedestrian traffic by the thousands, and presently portable toilets are the only option for park visitors.

“If we are to build the necessary amenities, we want to do it in an environmentally responsible way and one that is economically feasible,” he says.

Going Off the Grid

The solution is a $6 million project called Green Outlook that includes not just the public restrooms, but a green, solar-powered park maintenance building. The asphalt parking lot will be transformed into parkland, and a new entrance plaza will be built for the public tennis courts nearby. Green Outlook is a partnership between the Riverside Park Conservancy and the Riverside Clay Tennis Association.

The project, which has already secured $1.2 million in funding from outgoing city council member Gale Brewer, recently got a boost from Green Mountain Energy, which contributed a $50,000 grant that will cover the costs of more than 90 percent of the solar panels needed for the facility.

McIntyre says that making the project environmentally friendly was a priority from the beginning.

“Once we decided on an off-grid project, we thought, why not go one step further?” he says. In addition to being off the sewer grid, they decided to take it off the electric grid and make it independent of city power. “We might even be able to collect sufficient rainwater to get off the water system grid,” he says.

A User-Friendly Design

Composting toilets don’t look any different than their conventional counterparts, McIntyre says; the only difference is in how the waste is treated and where it goes. Under the Green Outlook plant, the waste will be treated on-site and then safely used as fertilizer for nearby landscaped areas of the park.

“In fact, a part of this project will transform what is currently an abandoned parking lot into new, landscaped parkland,” he says.

Other sustainable design features include:

Planted rooftops. Native plant species will be planted on the rooftops, minimizing storm water runoff. Any water used on-site will be treated with a greywater system so it can be reused for irrigation of the green roofs and other planted areas.

 Sustainable materials. All the buildings and landscaping elements will use sustainable materials, including recycled and local items such as a driftwood slat screen.

• Recycled aggregate concrete. Recycled materials (like glass) will be used as aggregate; cement for structural concrete and hardscape elements will be replaced with blast furnace slag, which reduces CO2 emissions created during cement manufacturing.

Although the original plan was to have the facility completed by 2012, a sluggish economy has hampered fundraising efforts. McIntyre says the project is a public/private partnership and they hope to raise enough money to break ground in 2014. The current plan is for COOK + FOX Architects, which is designing the project, to begin the design work in the summer and for ground to be broken in the fall.

McIntyre knows that building such a green complex could be a game-changer for the way other cities approach their green spaces.

“We want people to see that our parks can always be greener, and that sustainability works,” he says. “We want to show them that with new technologies we can combine sunshine and our own waste products to safely create more parkland.”

Feature photo courtesy of COOK + FOX Architects

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