Fresh Kills Park Project: Landfill as Utopia?


The Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island has a dubious claim to fame, that is, a volume equivalent to The Great Wall of China. And, up until recently, it was slated to be one big, fenced off toxic nowhere land. But now it’s poised to become nothing short of a state-of-the-art green zone. Seriously….Here’s my newest piece for Planet Green-

Re-Imagining The Wasteland: Freshkills Landfill As “Beacon On The Hill”

Bear with me, folks, this one has a happy ending….

For me, nothing manifests our culture’s excesses and shortsightedness better than waste-landfills. Drive past one and suddenly the all the flaws of a throwaway culture become pungently apparent. As a kid growing up in northeast New Jersey, nothing saddened me as much as the sight of stately Great Blue Herons wading in the oily murk of the once vital Meadowlands rushing by the family wagon’s windows. Where once vast majorities of the Atlantic Ocean’s fish and bird life had come to breed and live, now only putrid waters, rotting trash and the thick stands of resilient cattails remained. In some areas, landfill from years earlier burned day and night beneath the ground, sending a pall of grey smoke over the very same, vast estuary that had for centuries given life to huge shoals of fish and sky-darkening flocks of migratory birds. Wetland ecosystems, we figured out in the 20th Century, are the wellsprings for a very large percentage of the living things we rely so much upon, however, wetlands like the Meadowlands have always been battlegrounds.

As communities expand and land in urban areas becomes scarce, wetlands are often perceived as both dumps and potential real estate. Sometimes the creation of the latter is made possible by the creation of the former. It’s almost genius when you think about it: garbage becomes real estate, and nature takes a back seat to “progress”. Unfortunately, here at the start of the 21st Century, we’ve seen just how ill advised this notion can be, like in New Orleans, where the once vast drainage provided by wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi and along Lake Pontchartrain acted as a buffer for the hurricanes common to the region. Wetlands provide more than just life and beauty, as it turns out, they also provide safety and we remove them at our own peril. But remove them we do, as more and more people consume goods and seek land, the demand for landfills marches on.

Not far from the Meadowlands, on the Arthur Kill River, at the west side Staten Island, The Fresh Kills Landfill was long considered one of the great landfill dilemmas of our time. A success story in one sense, the Fresh Kills Landfill holds more volume than the Great Wall of China. This, it could be argued, makes Fresh Kills one of the great wonders of the world. And though its creators back in 1948 had hoped this epic fill would some day provide a footing for development, fate had other plans, and after a 50-year stint as landfill, Fresh Kills became a public nuisance. Eventually local outcry lead to State action, and Fresh Kills landfill was shut down in 2001, and only briefly re-opened after 9-11.

And so begins our story:

Just what do you do with a 4.6 square mile landfill when it’s full? In 1999, in an inspired effort to answer this question, the Municipal Art’s Society and the New York Department of City Planning launched the “International Design Competition”, and in 2001 the FreshKills Park Project was born. Public Outreach Program Manager Carrie Grassi describes the Freshkills Park Project as the “the park project of our time”, and a “locus for education, recreation and research, using the newest, most sustainable technologies and ideas”. The 2200-acre site (that’s three times the size of Central Park, folks) will take advantage of the most current ecological restoration techniques available to create a setting for recreation, public art, sports programs and even landfill research and design. In short, The Freshkills Park Project will be a living, breathing, inter-active referendum on waste management, sustainability and the enlightened use of all-too-rare open spaces in urban areas. Using the language of William McDonough, FreshKills will dare to become a “cradle-to-cradle” project, where what once was waste will become not just a recreational area, but resource, educational tool and, yes, wetland once again.

It’s hard to over-state the uniqueness of this vision. Almost no-where else in the world can there be found a project of such magnitude being undertaken in such a densely populated urban setting. The area is so vast that the park could really be considered 5 parks in one; with each sector having it’s own special emphasis. “Field Operations” , the landscape architects who won the International Design Competition, working with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, have envisioned a rich network of paths, walkways, playing fields and wild spaces replete with ecosystems restored with native plants. The possibilities are nothing short of profound. As the Freshkills website says, “The site is large enough to support many sports and programs that are unusual in the city, possibilities of which include horseback riding, mountain biking, nature trails and large-scale public art”. Unusual indeed. Field Operations point person, Ellen Neises, said simply, “the Fresh Kills Park Project changes the way we think about the hand of man on the landscape”. “ Imagine”, she said, “pulling up in your car and setting out on a 2-hour kayak trip through a pristine wetland, teeming with native species long since lost to the area, then paddling up to a waterside restaurant and finally ending the evening with an open-air film screening”. Or damn near getting lost on horseback during your lunch break, or exhausting yourself on a mountain bike ride right before dinner in Tribeca. Talk about exploding notions of what’s possible. There is no other landfill reclamation like it. Anywhere. While many landfills have been converted to playing fields, or hiking areas, none have ever managed to do all those things and more, while at the same time promoting a model of landfill design that will challenge all who seek to build them in the future. Add to this the fact that FreshKills Park Project is so vast, that the trees being planted and the wetlands being restored will have actual, quantifiable effects on air and water health for the Tri-Sate area, and you’ve got a game-changing approach to not only landfill treatment, but urban design overall.

Preparing the site takes some work. Over the years, landfill safety methods have evolved radically, and while the specifics are, quite frankly, way over my head, the basics go something like this:
A while back, Fresh Kills Landfill was retrofitted by the Department of Sanitation with a system to deal with both landfill gas (methane) and a toxic brew called, “leachate”. This system allows the most toxic elements borne from household waste to be contained and corralled. New landfills are built this way from the start, but back in 1948, no such technologies existed. The methane is routed through a series of pipes, refined, and actually sold by the city to the energy company as fuel. At its current rate of production, the methane processed from Freshkills is enough to heat about 10,000 homes annually. This figure will decrease over time as the now fixed amount of waste breaks down. As for the leachate, that toxic brew is contained by cement walls and, where possible, drawn off via a network of pipes and ditches. The leachate is then “scrubbed” (a process of removing toxins from the water) and the remaining, solid toxin is called a “leachate cake”, which I don’t recommend eating at all. So, via this process, the most dangerous aspects of the waste are neutralized, and the execution of the vision can get underway.

Overall restoration of the Park is slated to take nearly 30 years, beginning with Phase 1, which will focus on getting the park’s infrastructure in place and setting in motion all the projects to be completed during all 3 phases. Road construction and the critical processes of “capping mounds” (rendering waste hills inert) are underway, as is the very critical process of mapping the sprawling site.

The rest of the development is outlined online, in the Freshkill Park Project website:

“Phase 2 concentrates on enhancing program settings and ecology.

Phase 3 expands the acreage open to the public and converts landfill infrastructure to support new uses (including)… continued habitat restoration.”

And so it will go. Fingers crossed. Because if the Freshkills Park Project can succeed in a region as heavily impacted as New York City, then there’s truly no limit on what can be achieved throughout the rest of the world, and our notions of wild spaces and urban spaces might just become as antiquated as our one time belief in a flat world.


  1. The Shoreline Park, in Mountain View, California, is a similar park on a much smaller scale. It’s at the far south reach of San Francisco Bay.

    _Mountain_View” rel=”nofollow”>…

    I used to walk there a lot when I worked at Sun Microsystems, which used to be headquartered directly adjacent to the park.

  2. As I said, the extraordinary thing about FreshKills Park Project is the scope. Smaller is easy. 3 Central Parks, remember. In an urban area. With a site as vast as FreshKills, they have been able to re-imagine the landscape in ways never before approached. Trees will be planted a safe distance from the possible treads of bike tires, native species will be planted in quantities enough to combat Tri-State area traffic, and wetlands will be restored in acreage enough to purify vast amounts of water.

    Also, the entire area will take advantage of renewable energies and even attempt to supply those energies back into the grid. In short, this vast site will actually prove to be vital to the future health of the region. One Giant Leap for Landfill-kind.

    I recommend visiting the website to get a full sense of the scope of this project. It is, truly, inspiring.


Comments are closed