A Fresher Freshkills Park

March 11th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

A large landfill is reborn as a multi-use park and source of renewable energy.

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The Responsibility Project

Staten Island’s Freshkills landfill used to be the kind of place most people didn’t want to be downwind of on a steamy day. But over the past decade, New York’s smelliest waste-management site has slowly been transformed into the beginnings of a beautiful, multi-use space that will be three times the size of Central Park.

During its continued build-out over the next 30 years, the park will offer ecological restoration and cultural and educational programs, renewable energy that will power much of its surroundings, and even the chance to stand atop a transformed landfill mound for a breathtaking view of lower Manhattan.

And as the first phase is set to open in just a couple of months, new pictures of the park have emerged in the March issue of Dwell, where author Marc Kristal takes a tour with Carrie Grassi, the park’s land-use and outreach manager. “Three creeks flow through the 2,200-acre park, leading the eye to the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge and the Staten Island Greenbelt just beyond. The South Mound, one of four in the park, is wild, edged with tall beds of phragmites,” he writes. “Only the sight of the nearby East Mound’s cap—a patchwork of geotextile fabric, impermeable membrane, pre-sod, soil, and grass designed to seal off its contents—reminds me that I’m standing atop the world’s largest landfill: roughly 150 million tons of garbage.”

Once capped, the master plan of landscape architect James Corner can’t be built upon, so mounds will be limited to walking, biking, and horseback riding trails and wildlife habitat. A quarter of the park, including wetlands, will be protected areas exempt from development. Other areas will become ball fields, concession stands, and (sustainable) businesses. You can keep track of what’s open via the newsletter.

Freshkills landfill (which comes from the Dutch word “kille,” for riverbed) was never meant to be a landfill for more than a few years. Robert Moses conceived of the idea in 1948, but as other New York landfills shut down, Freshkills became the city’s sole dump by the mid-1980s. At its peak, Freshkills received as much as 29,000 tons of trash per day. As Grassi says in the Dwell story, “If you lived in New York before 2001, your garbage is here—you helped to build this site.” It finally closed midway through 2001 and temporarily reopened when World Trade Center material was brought to the West Mound for analysis. Now Parks Department literature emphasizes that the onetime symbol of wastefulness is becoming emblematic of a newfound mission to restore balance to the environment.

More interesting than its beauty, however, is the park’s plan to harvest energy. An intricate capping system traps all the methane gas rising from the decomposing rubbish, channeling it into a landfill gas collection system (see the video here). The methane is sold to National Grid to heat close to 22,000 homes on Staten Island and will generate close to $11 million annually in income for the city. Other plans in the pipeline include solar panels, wind turbines, solar thermal cells and geothermal heating and cooling systems.

And while some people might bemoan the idea that the entire park isn’t set to open in their lifetime, Freshkills is already putting together packages for this month such as a bird tour, and you can also follow the park’s progress on the former junk pile’s Facebook page. Think you’ll become a landfills tourist? Love the idea of a city running on its own waste? Weigh in here.