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Garbage Mountains Slowly Morph Into $160 Million New York Park

Freshkills Park
The Bayonne Bridge looms in the distance in this view from the future Freshkills Park in Staten Island, New York. Construction has just begun on the first improvements that will transform one of America's largest landfills into a 2,200-acre park of pastoral, meadow-covered mounds. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Eloise Hirsh turns her well-worn Jeep off the highway onto a rutted road and past a plant that scrubs goo piped from decaying trash.

We’re in Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill, one of the largest garbage dumps in the U.S. and a blight to the eyes and nose for more than half a century -- and many years from now perhaps one of the nation’s greatest and strangest city parks.

Hirsh, the park’s administrator, says it will be almost three times the size of Central Park.

Construction is beginning to turn four mounds of trash that rise as high as 225 feet and hold 150 million tons of trash into the 2,200-acre Freshkills Park. The mounds need to settle, a slow process, and then be capped with more than 2 feet of soil. Though a small part will open in 2011, the completion of the park, part of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, may be 30 years away.

Giant dump trucks rumble across an inlet at what will become The Confluence, with restaurants, picnic piers, sports fields, a kayak launch and floating barges turned to gardens. James Corner Field Operations, the New York-based master plan landscape architect, has tucked these facilities amid the tidal creeks, marshes and lowland forests that make up more than half the park’s acreage.

The tawny, grass-covered slopes of the trash mounds rise out of the area’s blue water and lush greenery like primordial mesas. A high-tech liner under the garbage and a closed drainage system keep pollutants out of the marshes and streams, Hirsh explains. The water is clean enough that blazing white egrets alight to snack on slimy appetizers exposed by the receding tide.

Hikers, Horses Path

We bumped up the side of the South Mound along a rutted service road that will become a 2.4-mile path for hikers, bikers, horses and cross-country skiers in the 425-acre South Park by 2014. Pipes poking crookedly out of the ground are part of a system to collect methane and other gases emitted by decomposing garbage. The gas is processed onsite and sold.

“The work costs about $1 million per acre,” Hirsh says. That’s why the first-phase projects will develop only a fraction of the park acreage and take seven years. “We were promised $200 million, but only $160 million is funded due to cuts, so we’ll have to be creative about how we spend.”

We cross a land bridge that divides a freshwater wetland from a tidal one. Birds welcome this diversity, from ducks and swallows to increasingly rare meadow lovers like grasshopper sparrows and bobolinks. Grasses grow in a dozen Impressionist washes of yellow and green. They will turn brown, gold, and red as fall sets in. Turkey vultures cruise for carrion overhead.

Screeching Hawk

From a high point, I can see the arches and cable suspensions of the island’s four major bridges. Winding waterways link to a network of older surrounding parks and preserves. The screech of a marsh hawk makes the concrete canyons and skyline of Manhattan, looming to the north, seem very far away.

After 9/11, barges brought crushed vehicles and twisted steel to the West Mound. Technicians have been sifting the debris for human remains. Field Operations principal James Corner has designed a splayed earthwork evocation of the towers aligned to Lower Manhattan, but it cannot be completed for years, until the mound is capped. The landfill was closed to household waste in 2001.

Left alone, the mounds would ultimately revert to forest, but the Parks Department will curate the landscape to maintain the soft meadows growing out of the mounds’ raw geometries so that they contrast with the luxuriant greenery of the spaces in between. Corner plans to use the park’s long gestation to farm trees and shore up the meadows with grasses grown onsite.

‘Not Just Beautifying’

“It’s the way to take something that’s about waste, death, decay and stench, and turn it into something productive -- not just ‘beautifying,’” he says.

When I find my eye drawn to a lonely construction trailer interrupting the sharp ridgeline of the East Mound, I see how Corner creates a friction between the sublime beauty of natural spectacle and our fascination with ruins and emptiness. I hope Freshkills Park can retain this evocative power over its long evolution.

Visitors can see the Freshkills Park site only on guided tours in good weather. For more information:

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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