Picture New York’s Central Park with rubbish piled 20 stories high. Now multiply that by three. That’s how ghastly the Staten Island garbage dump used to be.
Once upon a time, as they say in fairy tales, the Fresh Kills dump on Staten Island was one of the world’s great eyesores. By the late 1970s, an estimated 28,000 tons of trash arrived at Fresh Kills every day. But where there once was a giant dump just 20 years ago, a massive green park now sits where flora and fauna flourish.
Fresh Kills is possibly the least likely poster child for urban ecological restoration in the world, and it is radical not just for the way it works - by encouraging flora and fauna do as they please - but for its sheer size. It is almost unbelievable that New York City would set aside a parcel of land as big as Lower Manhattan south of 23rd Street - and just let it go to seed.
For all of us, it's a wonderful example of the resilience of nature and the power of smart urban design. So, how did they do it?
After the dump was shut down in 2001 by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New York City gave the park to James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architects responsible for the famous High Line. The idea was not just to build a park, but to reimagine the idea of the park. If Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park was the work of a static, pastoral painter, then Mr. Corner and his team were less artists than restoration biologists, jump-starting a framework and leaving the ecology of the site itself to finish things up.
The core problem was adapting the site to deal with 150 million tons of garbage. The trash was slowly covered with millions of tons of clean soils, and planted with native grasses. The four garbage mountains were transformed into four soft green hills straddling the convergence of creeks.
Tree planting (started by arborists, accelerated by seed-carrying birds) occurred in coordination with the careful engineering of what you might call the dump’s natural excretions: the methane, and the leachate. The site is now home to the largest colony of grasshopper sparrows in New York State.
Over the course of 20 years, the parks and sanitation departments worked together with Field Operations to restore tidal wetlands, generate forests, and grow scrublands and wide-open fields of grasses. The Sanitation Department even refines the methane and pipes it to Staten Island homes for cooking and heat.
A few kayaks were permitted in the waterways in 2011. Goats were brought in for their ecological restoration skills in 2012. (They eat phragmites, a common reed that tends to take over.) An art gallery popped up in 2018. A first section of the park will open to the public in spring 2021. The rest will debut by 2036.
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