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How the world's largest landfill became New York's biggest new park

On Staten Island, 50 years of garbage has been transformed into a bucolic landscape

As more rooftops start to double as farms and towers become artificial forests, it's clear that hybrid objects, those that are part manmade and part natural, are a hallmark of 21st century design. Engineered Nature, a five-part series by Karrie Jacobs, explores the emergence of this new hybrid world, from a sensor-packed hill in the New York Harbor to manmade rivers in East Texas.

One of my favorite spots on earth is Point Reyes, a peninsula in Marin County just north of San Francisco. Separated from the rest of California by the San Andreas Fault, it’s always felt to me like its own continent, a dreamy cascade of coastal meadows that roll gently down to the Pacific.

So I am surprised to notice, on my first visit to Freshkills, a 2,200-acre park currently under construction in Staten Island, that the scenery—luscious green hills rippling with wild grasses and long vistas leading to a network of creeks and tidal straits—makes me feel as though I’m in Northern California. "We’re standing on top of 50 years of NYC’s garbage," says Megan Moriarty, a programming associate for the park, reminding me that I am thousands of miles off, geographically and conceptually.

The bucolic rolling meadows of Freshkills conceal a topography that's made entirely of garbage.

Indeed, the hill I’m standing on in East Park, one of five areas that will make up the completed park, is composed entirely of garbage, the municipal solid waste generated by the people of New York City for 53 years, from 1948 to 2001. With my yogurt containers, my paper towels, and my Baggies—and the help of eight million fellow New Yorkers—I built this hill.

Fresh Kills ("Kill" comes from a Dutch word for waterway), by the time it was finally closed in 2001, was New York City’s last functioning landfill. We now bury our garbage in neighboring states and haul some of it to a plant in New Jersey that burns it to generate power.

With my yogurt containers and my Baggies—and the help of eight million fellow New Yorkers—I built this hill.

While Freshkills (the park is one word, not two) won’t be completed until about 2036, the section where I’m standing will be done much sooner. According to Freshkills administrator Eloise Hirsh, who has been running the project since 2006, the Freshkills Park Alliance is currently bidding out work on amenities like benches and restrooms for East Park, and anticipate that it will open in 2019.

We move on to another hilltop, a section called North Park. From there I can see the arch of the Bayonne Bridge and the petrochemical landscapes of Carteret and Perth Amboy, New Jersey, across the Arthur Kill. Way off in the distance is the Manhattan skyline, which looks as if it would fit neatly on a platter. All around are yellow butterflies.

Also conspicuous is a feature that sets this place apart from Point Reyes, and pretty much every other natural environment. There are gas wells, submerged vaults topped with an exotic arrangement of pipes, valves, and tubes. These are part of a vast system designed to harvest the methane formed by decomposing trash, purify it, and pipe it to National Grid, the power company that then sells the gas to approximately 25,000 Staten Island households, earning the city some $12 million a year.

As the world's largest landfill becomes New York City's second-biggest park, it's still being used as a transfer station where Staten Island's garbage is sent out-of-state.

Ted Nabavi, the director of waste management engineering for New York City’s Department of Sanitation, has been, for 25 years, overseeing the closure and reinvention of Fresh Kills. He is one of those guys who actually does the day-to-day work of running the city. He’s got a classic New York accent and compliments his reflective construction vest with a densely patterned tie. "We’re probably the only facility in the United States where the gas is purified and goes directly to consumers," he tells me. "There’s no landfill anywhere that has such high-quality methane."

Maybe this is because New Yorkers produce high quality garbage, but it probably has more to do with the wetland setting and the climate. "The amount of moisture and temperature are significant in controlling methane generation," Nabavi explains. "We’re lucky where New York City landfill’s located on latitude and longitude, the rainfall we get and the temperature is ideal."

Freshkills, I come to realize, fits into a theory I have about New York City: Any time you run into a major anomaly in the landscape, a place that feels weirdly divorced from the urban fabric, you’re usually looking at something shaped by the legendary urban planner and power broker Robert Moses. For instance, the way First Avenue becomes exceptionally wide in front of the United Nations is attributable to an idea Moses had about giving the institution breathing room. Similarly, the weird soullessness of much of the seaside acreage in the Rockaways is the result of a Moses-driven road construction project that swept away all existing honky-tonks. Therefore it’s no surprise that the west shore of Staten Island became trash-filled no-man’s land because, in 1948, Robert Moses determined that it would be a good idea to sop up the swamps with a little garbage.

"It was his idea to do a landfill here," Hirsh tells me. "And he said to the citizens of Staten Island, we’re going to fill it in, we’re going to make it good, solid land, and then we will come back in three to five years, and we will build a residential community on one side of the highway and light industry on the other side of the highway, and it’ll be great. You’ll see."

At the time, the conventional wisdom was that landfill was a way of turning sodden wasteland into developable real estate. A 1951 planning map of the area shows residential subdivisions and industrial areas along the Arthur Kill and the various creeks. Garbage would fill in the wet parts, and ashes or dirt would be piled on top and et voila. Instead, the garbage took on a life of its own. By 1955, Fresh Kills was the world’s largest landfill.

At one time, the city had a whole collection of landfills, including what F. Scott Fitzgerald famously described in The Great Gatsby as the "valley of ashes," miles of Queens marshland where, for some reason, Brooklyn burned its garbage. Later it became Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs (again, Moses).

Ted Nabavi, director of waste management engineering for the New York City Department of Sanitation, at the spot where he goes to relax.

By the 1990s, there were no more landfills left. New York City sent all its trash to Staten Island, some 20 barges every day. The stench was unbearable, and the West Shore Expressway, adjacent to the dump, was lined by a fence almost entirely plastered with flyaway plastic bags. In the dump’s later years, a system was devised to siphon off "leachate," rainwater that has filtered through household waste as tap water filters through coffee grounds. This liquid is collected in a network of drains and pipes and sent to a treatment plant where it is cleaned through a variety of chemical and biological processes. The clean water is discharged into the Arthur Kill and the remaining sludge is dried, formed into cakes, and shipped to a landfill in Pennsylvania.

Staten Island did everything it could to get rid of the dump, including filing suit. In 1996, the borough president asked a federal judge to shut it down. In 2001, it finally closed (although it was temporarily reopened after 9/11 to accommodate the rubble from the destroyed World Trade Center). As the landfill was being phased out, a prominent civic organization, the Municipal Arts Society, recognized the value of the land and argued that it was New York City’s last opportunity to build a major park, one that could be three times larger than Central Park.

In cooperation with a variety of city agencies, the organization staged a competition. The winner, chosen in 2003, was a little-known landscape architect from Philadelphia, James Corner. Later, he and his company, Field Operations, became renowned as the landscapers of the High Line, but Freshkills was the firm’s first major project. A Draft Master Plan was refined in cooperation with Mayor Bloomberg’s city planners and turned over to the Parks Department in 2006. The plan described the project as "lifescape," defined as an "ecological process of environmental reclamation and renewal on a vast scale."

The Freshkills pastorale is interrupted by the occasional flare station where excess methane is burned off.

Even before restoration work had begun, nature was already taking back the closed landfill: "The Fresh Kills site today already shows signs of remarkable ecological, cultural and scenic potential," the park’s planners wrote in 2006. "Its vast scale, beautiful winding creeks and extensive wetlands, along with the surreal presence of large engineered mounds (mostly now covered in grasses and clumps of woody material) create an unusually beautiful landscape."

Lovely. But to get from the landscape that was starting to form on its own—once the garbage heaps were capped and the barges stopped arriving—to an environment safe for human recreation is a long, laborious process.

Nabavi sits down with me in a little green trailer that currently serves as the park’s visitors’ center. He walks me through the work that been completed on just one small section, the 286 acres of East Park. The process took six years and cost more than $221 million. After using general fill to cover the garbage, and shaping the hills with earth moving equipment, they covered them with an additional six layers, including something called geo-composite, which Nabavi describes as a "venting layer" for the methane, geo-textile, geo-membrane, barrier protection material, embankment fill, and finally, on top, planting soil. The idea is to keep the garbage from rising to the surface while managing the gas and water, and preventing erosion.

A display at the Freshkills Visitors' Center shows the layers separating the garbage from future park goers.

After explaining the complex process of transforming piles of waste into usable land, Nabavi drives us along a dirt road to a cul de sac, his favorite spot. It’s a bucolic oasis overlooking Richmond Creek, with tall grass and young trees that were planted by birds dropping seeds. Nabavi says he comes here "when I need to relax, two or three times a week." One minute he’s pointing out the osprey and the next a smoke stack belonging to a distant Con Edison plant.

Hirsh later insists that that Freshkills is more than a park. "Everybody all over the world has landfills, and now many more people are trying to figure out what to do with them, and we’re kind of a big lab for that," she explains. "And we actually decided to … as a piece of what our mission is, to do scientific research about what it takes when you restore a very, very disturbed site."

She adds, "But the thing that I find so, actually, incredibly moving about it is just the grace with which nature comes back."

Me too. It blows my mind that we have come this far, that we are somehow able, in the 21st century, to skillfully erase the evidence of our worst 20th century mistakes. When feeling optimistic, I also believe that one of the virtues of today’s approach to urban design is that it undoes the bad things that Robert Moses did to the city. However, I’m not convinced that the story of Freshkills is an entirely upbeat one.

The hills of Staten Island wouldn’t have needed to be engineered if it weren’t for human heedlessness.

Back in July, I documented the process of designing and building a new set of hills on Governors Island in New York Harbor. In a way, the Governors Island hills, composed of demolition rubble, pumice, and soil, are the 21st-century answer to the hills of Freshkills. Both sets of hills are entirely man-made; however, there’s a big difference.

The Governors Island hills were the result of a conscious design process, intensively thought through and modeled with the most sophisticated strategies and software. The hills of Governors Island were built on purpose. The hills of Staten Island, by contrast, wouldn’t have needed to be engineered if it weren’t for human heedlessness. They are monuments to a culture of affluence and disposability that was the post-war American way of life. Sadly, we haven’t changed all that much from one millennium to the next.

Gabions -- wire mesh baskets filled with rocks -- form a barrier against erosion.

In the late 1980s, when the United States had a widely reported "garbage crisis" because we’d run out of room to dump our trash, we were generating some 160 million tons of municipal solid waste annually, or 1,300 pounds per person. Those numbers kept growing until the country finally hit peak per capita garbage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2000. Now, the EPA says in the most recent set of statistics (2013), that we generate 254 million tons per year, or 1,600 pounds annually per person. However, because we also recycle or compost well over a third of that amount, each one of us is only sending 1,055 pounds a year to landfill or to be burned for "energy recovery." This is an improvement, but it’s far too modest.

The manmade hills of Staten Island are inarguably beautiful. They will be, when the park is completed, a cherished asset to the borough and the city. The Parks Department and the Department of Sanitation should be proud of them. On the other hand, the rest of us should be chastened by the fact that this story has no ending, happy or otherwise. Somewhere, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, or Virginia—or just about any other place you can name with the exception of New York City—we are building more hills.

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