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Freshkills Park: the history of the former landfill-turned-green space

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Staten Island’s biggest dump is on its way to becoming one of NYC’s biggest parks

Photo by Cole Wilson

Freshkills Park, once the world’s largest landfill, is now being transformed into a massive public park that will be almost three times bigger than Central Park when it is complete sometime in the late 2030s. Since 2006, when a master plan for the onetime dump on Staten Island was approved, the city’s Park Departments has been gradually shepherding the conversion.

The Park is being created in five sections: the Confluence, South Park, East Park, West Park, and North Park. Each of these sections will have a distinct character and different types of programming, including canoe rides, an equestrian facility, and catch-and-release fishing, among others.

Several sections of Freshkills have already opened—more on that later—and next up is construction on the North Park. That particular sliver of green space will have a two-mile, multi-use pathway that will connect people to the center of the park, which offers great views of the hills and waterways. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, which is in charge of managing the Park project, works with the Freshkills Park Alliance to offer a series of opportunities to explore the park including photography tours, kayaking, and bike tours.

A rendering of North Park.
NYC Parks.

But how did this massive garbage heap become one of the city’s most ambitious public projects? To understand how Freshkills went from hated landfill to anticipated parkland, check these six points in its history.

1948: Fresh Kills Landfill opens

An aerial view of the landfill site from 1943.
NYC Parks

The site of what became the world’s largest landfill was once mostly tidal creeks and coastal marshland. The landfill was planned by none other than Robert Moses, whose initial plan was to open it for only three years. In case you’re curious, “Fresh Kills” comes from the Middle Dutch word, “kille,” which means “riverbed,” or “water channel.”

In the 1950s, Moses along with the city issued a proposal to develop the site into parks, residential buildings, and an industrial section—that, however, never came to pass.

1961: The landfill grows to 1,200 acres

The landfill in the 1960s.
DSNY

Instead, the landfill ballooned in size—it achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the world’s largest landfill by 1955, and by 1961, it had grown to 1,284 acres. By that point, Staten Island had become primary dumping ground for the city’s household garbage. Instead of cutting back, the city decided to keep on pushing forward and announced that it would use the landfill for at least the next 15 years.

1991: Fresh Kills begins accepting all of the city’s garbage

The landfill in the 1990s.
DSNY

But the 15-year timeline came and went, and the city’s trash continued to pile up on Fresh Kills. The Edgemere Landfill in Queens closed in 1991, and Fresh Kills became the sole dumping ground for the entire city. It now spanned 2,200 acres and received 29,000 tons of trash each day.

Finally, in the 1990s, Staten Island decided to take action: In 1996, borough president Guy Molinari, filed a lawsuit against the mayor, along with several city and state agencies, alleging that Fresh Kills was in violation of the Clean Air Act.

2001: Fresh Kills closes—and temporarily reopens

Michael Falco

After Molinari’s lawsuit, the state legislature passed a law that required the landfill to close by the end of 2001. The last barge with household trash arrived at Fresh Kills on March 22, 2001. But it would reopen several months later in the wake of a terrible tragedy: The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 led to the resumption of operations at Fresh Kills, as part of the recovery effort. Over the course of nearly a year, rescue workers sifted through 1.2 million tons of materials that came from the World Trade Center site.

This is how the Parks Department describes what happened afterward:

After the FBI, NYPD, and Office of Emergency Management determined the process of retrieval had been exhaustive and complete, the screened and sifted WTC materials remaining at Fresh Kills were placed in a 48–acre area immediately adjacent to the recovery site on the West Mound at Fresh Kills. A layer of clean soil at least 1 foot deep was placed in this area prior to placement of the screened materials; afterward it was covered with additional clean soil to protect the site.

2003: Design competition and winner announced

NYC DCP

Decades after Robert Moses initially proposed putting parkland on the landfill, the idea started to gain traction once again. A host of city agencies collaborated on an international design competition to find a use for this massive piece of land. Though the design competition got underway in 2001, the winner wasn’t announced until 2003, when James Corner Field Operations’s vision won the city’s approval. The firm’s master plan was adopted in 2006, and work officially got underway in 2008.

NYC Parks

2012: The first sections of the park open

The first section, Schmul Park, opened in 2012 on the northern edge of the overall parkland. That section was renovated to include new basketball and handball courts, a new walkway, and colorful shaped surfaces to mimic the topography of the larger park. The second section—Owl Hollow Soccer Fields, opened the following year, and has four turf synthetic soccer fields. Two years later, an off-street bike and pedestrian path that stretches three miles and runs along the eastern edge of the park opened.