Unlikely Landscape

This was once the world's largest landfill. Now it's a park.

by Christopher Hann

Welcome to Staten Island.

In the annals of solid waste management, no place quite compares to Fresh Kills Landfill. In its prime, if that’s the right word, the gargantuan garbage dump encompassed some 3,000 acres on the western shore of Staten Island, the final depository for up to 29,000 tons of trash collected each day from New York City’s five boroughs. By 1955, just seven years after opening, Fresh Kills was the largest landfill on the planet, known as much for its unwieldy girth as for its ungodly stench. By the time the landfill closed in 2001, its four dumping sites, or mounds, were estimated to contain a combined 150 million tons of residential trash.

That was then.

Today the former garbage dump is in the midst of a remarkable reinvention. Over the past dozen years this most defiled landscape has been remade into a pastoral scene worthy of a Frederic Church canvas, with rounded hills, grassy meadows, meandering streams, and abundant wildlife. Under the supervision of Eloise Hirsh ’67, Fresh Kills Landfill is being transformed into Freshkills Park, which is blossoming, quite literally, atop its former self. When fully developed, Freshkills Park will spread across 2,200 acres—more than two and a half times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park.

The full reclamation of the erstwhile landfill is expected to take another quartercentury to complete. The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation plans to gradually open Freshkills over the next decade— 20 acres here, 300 acres there. Already, on land adjoining local neighborhoods, small sections containing a playground and soccer fields have been opened, and this fall construction will begin on a 3.3-mile greenway along the park’s eastern edge. Besides recreational pursuits—biking, birding, kayaking, even cross-country skiing—the park will offer environmental and cultural programs, such as the performance that SLC dance teacher Kathy Westwater MFA ’01 choreographed last year atop one of the mounds. “The goal for the next 10 years,” Hirsh says, “is to make the park seem inevitable.”

The Administrator

Eloise Hirsh“I never knew a damn thing about landfill engineering,” Hirsh says of her career path. “Now I know a lot about landfill engineering.”

Hirsh grew up in St. Louis, the child of professors at Washington University, which her father liked to call “the Harvard of the Midwest.” At Sarah Lawrence, she studied political science, protested the Vietnam War, got elected student government president, and aspired to become a broadcast journalist. “I knew generally,” she says, “that what I wanted to do was make the world a better place.”

Hirsh has written speeches for New York Mayor John Lindsay, organized seminars for John D. Rockefeller, managed New York’s parks and Pittsburgh’s city planning, and taught at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and NYU. In the spring of 2005, when she and her husband returned to Manhattan after 18 years in Pittsburgh, she had no intention of seeking another full-time job. Then the phone rang. “I just wanted to do one project, work maybe three days a week,” Hirsh says. “But this one project, even though it was clear it would be more than full time, was just too compelling to turn down.” At Freshkills, Hirsh oversees a staff of four people—and “millions of dollars’ worth of consultants”—who are executing an elaborately engineered system for capping the landfill and removing the naturally occurring buildup of landfill gas and leachate. “One of things that’s so terrific,” she says, “is working with engineers who have designed the system and really thought creatively and wonderfully how you design a sustainable system that basically lies underneath a gorgeous landscape.”

What Lies Beneath

PumpHundreds of wellheads sprout from the soil at Freshkills Park, collecting gas released by the trash and carrying it to an on-site processing plant. The plant extracts methane, a greenhouse gas, which the city then sells to a local utility, generating enough energy to heat the equivalent of 22,000 homes per year.

What sets Freshkills apart from similar projects, Hirsh says, is not simply its size but also the strict environmental regulations to which it must adhere. “There are quite a few landfill-to-park projects around the country that were done before the state-of-the-art infrastructure that we have was required,” Hirsh says. “Everybody has landfills, and people really want to know what to do with them.”

Today, as much as 30 feet of soil, stone, and gravel separate the landfill from the park. This is capped with an impermeable plastic liner, which itself is topped with another two-and-a-half feet of residential-grade soil. Massive gabions deliver storm water from the four mounds to a series of retention basins. Another piping system removes leachate, the liquid ooze that occurs naturally from decomposing trash, and carries it to an onsite treatment plant.

Hirsh estimates that the parks department has planted as many as 1,000 acres of grasses across Freshkills’ four mounds. For all the landscaping and engineering wizardry that has come to define the park, a visitor can’t help but notice what’s no longer there. Stand atop one of the mounds of the buried landfill and take a deep breath. All you can smell are grasses and flowers and trees.

Wildlife Returns

Box turtleHirsh is behind the wheel of her Jeep Cherokee, giving a tour of the park, when she comes to a sudden stop. She points to the manmade osprey nest atop a nearby utility pole, where a mama osprey is feeding he young. Moments later, perhaps startled by a passing dump truck, the osprey takes flight, her wings spread wide, a graceful symbol of the rebirth of this landfill-turned-park.

Since March 22, 2001, the day the landfill received its final barge of residential garbage, the property has become habitat for more than 200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Seagulls, which once flapped and squawked and foraged by the thousands atop the mounds of trash, are hardly in sight anymore. In their place have been seen American kestrel, great blue heron, ring-necked pheasant, red-winged blackbird, white-tailed deer, cotton-tailed rabbit, and box turtles.

“The basic seed mix that has been planted is supplemented by the wonderful work of birds and dragonflies and bees as the site naturalizes and all this wildlife comes back,” Hirsh says. “It really is an incredible testament to the strength of nature.”

Giant Relics

BulldozersOnce upon a time these giant excavators greeted the daily flotilla of garbage barges at the nearby dock, scooping up the incoming trash and depositing it into an area from which smaller equipment would carry it into the landfill. Today they serve mostly as super-sized reminders of what was for decades one of the most revered and reviled institutions within New York City government.

“Fresh Kills is a pretty big place in the whole lore of the Sanitation Department,” Hirsh says. “It’s a feat of engineering and a feat of public works, and they’re very proud of it.”

Hirsh says Staten Islanders, who lobbied for decades to close the landfill, have for the most part embraced its more verdant existence. There’s some skepticism, she concedes, rooted largely in Staten Island’s long-held view of itself as the forgotten borough. “That’s why we are very focused on doing events that get people out to the park,” Hirsh says, “so they can see how beautiful the place is and imagine the future and then advocate for its continued support.”

For now, however, the excavators sit idle in an area known as the Confluence, where Richmond Creek empties into Main Creek. The area contains the only bulkhead in the park, and Hirsh envisions a day when visitors from Manhattan will arrive here by the boatload. “This is where there will be a ferry landing,” she says. “Someday.”

Christopher Hann is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of journalism at Rutgers University. He still remembers the odoriferous experience of driving along Route 440, which bisected the old Fresh Kills Landfill.

Andrew Lichtenstein ’88 is a photographer and a journalist. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.