Lang student checks out a ventilator at the Fresh Kills dump. Photographed by Sam Lewis.
By Ben Kelly
The perspective from Staten Island's Fresh Kills is unparalleled. Standing on one of the four monolithic mounds in the former landfill, you have clear views of downtown Manhattan and south Brooklyn. On one side is the shimmering Arthur Kill canal that separates Staten Island from New Jersey. 2,200 undeveloped acres—a space three times the size of Central Park—spreads out in every direction. And beneath your feet, separated by 15 feet of dirt and polymers, is three hundred million tons of trash; the refuse of half a century of New Yorkers.
The landfill closed in March 2001 after pressure from Staten Island residents and the Environmental Protection Agency, although it was re-opened briefly after September 11 to accommodate debris from the World Trade Center site. The city had a daunting pile of trash—an almost too easy symbol of American excess—on its hands. But rather than leave Fresh Kills as a haunting reminder of the perils of unchecked consumerism, the Department of City Planning wants to throw a picnic on top of the trash graveyard.
According to the New York City Department of Planning, by 2037, Fresh Kills will be transformed from one of New York's most notorious eyesores into a sprawling public space with campgrounds, bike trails, a marina and wildlife areas. The project, designed by James Corner of the firm Field Operations, is an ambitious attempt to reclaim a wasteland and render it green.
"Fresh Kills is to the 21st century as Central Park was to the nineteenth,” Parks Commissioner Benepe told New York Magazine. “It will be the largest park built in the city in more than 100 years.”
If the project seems far-fetched, consider this: Pelham Bay Park and Flushing Meadows were both built atop mounds of garbage. In Germany, an abandoned iron mill was turned into a green "theme park." In Beirut, a bomb site is set to become a public garden.
"It's a very new science," said Lang Professor Nevin Cohen, who arranged a field trip for his Urban Studies classes to Fresh Kills last Wednesday. “But it's a very important science, since we have so much degraded land."
Cohen looked out at the huge expanse of empty land and explained that the project required cultivating an entire ecosystem. "This is an incredible laboratory," he added.
In 1949, Fresh Kills seemed an ideal spot for a landfill. A system of natural canals lead from the land to the Hudson River, allowing trash-laden barges to easily navigate a course from Manhattan. At the time, Fresh Kills was marshland and most of Staten Island was undeveloped. Robert Moses approved the landfill with the intention of it operating for three years. But the spot proved so perfect for dumping trash that it wasn't closed until 2001. Throughout those 50 years, Fresh Kills earned the dubious honor of being the bigger of the only two man-made structures visible from space (the other is the Great Wall of China) and for a time it was the tallest peak on the east coast, stacked higher than the Statue of Liberty.
Now, nearly all of that trash—which, aside from household appliances, is strictly the type associated with fish-heads, banana peels and Glad bags—has been “capped.” Construction-site debris has been dumped on top of the garbage. A sheet of durable plastic, called an “impermeable membrane,” is laid on top. Two types of environmentally sound soil are put over the plastic. Pipes are laid beneath the soil to drain the methane gas that is a byproduct of the garbage's decomposition. Studies are being conducted to find appropriate species to re-seed the land.
"Without the trucks, you'd never know it was a landfill," a Ranger from the Department of Parks and Recreation told the Lang class.
That's not exactly true. While grass grows on the mounds, it is still patchy and somewhat weedy looking. Methane drainage pipes poke out every few feet. The land is eerily quiet and lifeless.
"You can tell it's degraded land from the Phragmites," an alert student pointed out. She explained that the plant, often called the common reed, was an indicator of ecological problems. She added, "It just looks like a capped landfill."
There are a few signs of the greening of Fresh Kills, however. On the field trip, the class saw geese swimming in a rainwater pond, a red-tailed hawk and a nesting kill-deer at the top of one of the mounds.
Now that Fresh Kills has been turned into park, New York's trash is shipped to the south—to Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, states that bid for the Big Apple's trash contracts. Since it closed, two other landfills—one in California, one in India—have grown even bigger than Fresh Kills. A better solution to getting rid of our waste hasn't yet been discovered. Other options, like burning it, are usually even worse for the environment than burying it. Whether sustainable public places can be built over these areas remains to be seen, but Cohen had a different take on what to do with our trash.
"The question is," he said, "how much can we do to reduce and recycle?"
Park rangers inform students about plans for Fresh Kills. Photographed by Sam Lewis.