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Freshkills Park: Once a Landfill, Now a Lush Landscape

By Ben Adler
July 26, 2013
Photo © Dan Avila
A common Freshkills vista: a former landfill, it is in the process of being capped and planted with native species.

Since 1947, it has been one of New York’s most notorious locations: the Freshkills landfill, in Staten Island, the city’s least populated, least renowned borough. To many, it became a sort of running joke about the borough itself. After all, how seriously can you take a place whose best-known landmark is vast mounds of garbage?

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Now Freshkills is on its way to becoming Staten Island’s claim to fame rather than notoriety. The landfill stopped accepting trash in March 2001; now, over it, a massive public park is under way. One of the first phases, Schmul Park, reopened in 2012. An adjacent and pre-existing park, it is a small finger sticking out from Freshkills into the Travis section of Staten Island, and it will serve as the entrance to the larger new park. Its redesign, by Freshkills master planner James Corner Field Operations, features playgrounds, ball fields, and basketball and handball courts, with a tree-lined walkway along one side.

New York’s most famous big parks—Central Park and Prospect Park—were meticulously landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Freshkills, in contrast, will be rugged and wild. At 2,200 acres, it is nearly three times the size of Central Park. Each of its four mounds of trash, which can be up to 150 feet tall, has been, or is in the process of being, capped, sealed, and covered with several layers of protection, including at least 2 feet of soil. Slinking around them are a series of tidal estuaries that connect to the Arthur Kill, the body of water separating Staten Island from New Jersey.

Rather than, say, draining the waters and building a traditional urban park, Field Operations, which won the Municipal Art Society–sponsored design competition in 2003, will preserve and open the natural environment to visitors. This will help protect the species that live there and preserve the area’s ability to absorb storm surges from increasingly common extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy. “It used to be an enormous and very rich wetlands,” explains Tatiana Choulika, associate partner at Field Operations and project manager for Freshkills. “Today we know wetlands are important to the ecosystem and for mitigating the rise of the seas.” The first portion to open, in 2016, will be a double path—a hard surface for biking and skating and a softer one for walking and running—along the base of the north mound that will lead to an observation deck over the Main Creek.

Reminders of the detritus created by modern society will, however, continue to abound: the trash underground creates methane, which is captured by pipes and sold to heat homes. Each mound has a gas flare available for burning it off when necessary. But the city has issued a request for proposals for wind turbines and solar installations for the top of one of the mounds. Structures will have green roofs, as the visitor center already does. Atop the west mound, there will also be an earthwork monument that will serve as a September 11 memorial, with views of the World Trade Center. (After the attacks of September 11, Freshkills served briefly as a sorting ground for debris.)

Building a park on a landfill is not as easy as drawing one on a blank canvas. You cannot build a structure on the top of trash mounds, lest the foundation pierce the caps. Tree roots pose a similar risk, so an additional 5 feet of soil must be added wherever a tree is planted. Water cannot enter the giant trash bags that hold the garbage under the mounds, so runoff is released from pipes over a tiered staircase on one side. But there will be opportunities for recreation: more ball fields and maybe a golf course.

Field Operations, the lead designer of Manhattan’s High Line park, decided to work with the historical artifacts when possible. For example, barges on the site’s western waterfront that once transported garbage will be made into floating gardens. As with the rest of Freshkills, the plan is to turn dross into gold.

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