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What It Takes to Turn a Massive Staten Island Landfill Into a Park

In the final talk of the “Beyond the High Line” series, we turn to a 2,200-acre closed landfill on the western shore of Staten Island.

For generations, Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill was a dump, the receptacle for solid waste from all over New York City. From the time it opened in 1947 until closing in 2001, Fresh Kills was synonymous with its stench, a sad reminder of how our society is drowning in its own refuse. It was a place to avoid, the butt of a thousand jokes.

Today, Freshkills Park — the reengineered 2,200-acre site on the western shore of Staten Island — is well on its way to becoming one of the most innovative urban parks in the nation.

“It’s the largest landfill-to-park transformation in the world at the moment,” says Eloise Hirsh of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Hirsh serves as the administrator of Freshkills, a position she has held since 2006.

Hirsh will be one of the speakers at the final talk in the “Beyond the High Line” series on September 23. Along with landscape architect and urban designer James Corner of James Corner Field Operations, lead designer on the Freshkills Park project (and High Line Park), Hirsh will present “Transforming Fresh Kills, Staten Island.”

The process of creating Freshkills Park is not a quick fix, and capping the massive piles of garbage — which give off both gas and liquid waste as they decompose — will pose a significant engineering challenge. (The city’s Sanitation Department is already harvesting the methane gas and selling it to a local utility. It’s enough to heat 22,000 homes and nets the city about $12 million in annual revenue, a sum that will decrease as the process of decomposition winds down.)

In 2006, the parks department assumed responsibility for implementing the Field Operations master plan. It expects construction to continue through 2030. The park will open in phases over that time.

The vision for the park’s future is a grand one. It includes a wide variety of uses — a partial list includes structured play spaces, open lawns, event venues, wildlife habitats, kayak launches, mountain bike trails and floating gardens. So far, the only portion to stay open on a regular basis is the Schmul Playground, an environmentally sensitive redesign of a traditional asphalt playground at the park’s periphery.

Hirsh says that part of her mission is to showcase the developing park in as many ways as possible. On September 29, her department will host its annual Sneak Peak at Freshkills Park, opening the gates for a daylong series of events and activities that allow the public to preview a park that, when complete, will be nearly three times the size of Central Park.

“We want to allow people to experience the site in some kind of focused way,” Hirsh says. “It allows the park to become real before it actually becomes a park.” School groups have visited and scientists have used the site to study bats, turtles and birds. Education and scientific research are a main component of the park’s mission. “These things will grow,” Hirsh says.

Already, Freshkills is proving its worth. With its wetlands under restoration and its mounds of refuse now becoming hills integrated into the landscape, the park took the hit of Hurricane Sandy and diffused the storm surge, protecting inland neighborhoods and suffering very little damage itself. “Freshkills Park is a very good example of what resilience should look like,” Hirsh says.

Even before the park’s completion, she says, it can serve as a model for combining the reclamation of an environmentally damaged landscape with public recreation. “It’s a project that a lot of people look to for ideas about what to do,” Hirsh says. “Everybody has landfill, and everybody wants to do something with it.”

Beyond the High Line: Transforming Fresh Kills, Staten Island. Monday, September 23, 6:30pm, on the High Line at West 14th Street.

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Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.

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Tags: new york cityparkssponsoredhurricane sandyhigh line

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