How New York’s Largest Landfill Was Transformed Into Its Largest Greenspace: Freshkills Park

September 11, 2020 Updated: September 11, 2020

When it is completed by around 2036, Freshkills Park will be New York’s largest greenspace—triple the size of an already massive Central Park.

But this new natural amenity wasn’t originally designed as such. It used to be the principal landfill for the city and once held 150 million tons of trash.

Though the rolling hills of green grass and tranquil waterways might hide the fact, Megan Moriarity, a program associate for the park project, reminded Curbed, “We’re standing on top of 50 years of NYC’s garbage.”

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The Manhattan skyline is seen in the background of tall grass at what will be New York’s new parkland at Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, New York, Oct. 25, 2006. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

The landfill began in 1948 as a temporary site on Staten Island for the trash of New York residents but quickly became the preeminent spot for the metropolis’s refuse. As New York’s last landfill, it was finally closed in 2001, with plans for repurposing it as greenspace emerging not long after.

The first order of business was securing the garbage underground so that the space above it could be used for other purposes. “When you close a landfill there are two parts to it,” Robin Geller of the New York Department of Sanitation explained to CBS. “One is that you stop taking the waste but the other is that you have to install a whole system of final cover construction.”

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(Decumanus/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The compacted garbage was covered with a plastic liner and truckloads of fresh soil were trucked in from New Jersey. Of course, there was a problem with all the gases generated by decades of decaying waste.

The team in charge of transforming Fresh Kills (“Kills” being the Dutch word meaning “waterway”) into an urban park found a creative solution for this, capturing the methane produced by the trash and reusing it. Ted Nabavi, director of waste engineering at the NY Sanitation Department, told Curbed that the gas has become an asset. “There’s no landfill anywhere that has such high-quality methane,” he told Curbed.

“We’re probably the only facility in the United States where the gas is purified and goes directly to consumers,” he added. That gas will provide for heating needs to residents across Staten Island.

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(Chester Higgins Jr./Wikipedia)

Some of the last trash the landfill took in came from the rubble left by the 9/11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the Twin Towers and damaged much of Lower Manhattan. But despite all the trash lying under the site, it didn’t take long for nature to reclaim it.

Already, by 2006, just five years after the site closed as a dump, the park’s planners were optimistic about its recovery. They stated: “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.”

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The final barge full of New York City trash arrives at the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, New York, March 22, 2001, on the final day of the landfill’s operation. (MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty Images)
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A member of the press gets a tour of what will be New York’s new parkland at Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island New York, Oct. 25, 2006. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

The steps that Fresh Kills have taken to keep trash safely underground while harvesting gases and replanting on top have become a model for other locations seeking to transform human trash into natural treasure.

Fresh Kills administrator Eloise Hirsh is optimistic about its future and what this unique space could offer to New Yorkers. “This place is—has an appeal for kind of an urban adventure,” she told CBS. “This is a place where you can imagine yourself to hike as you would in a state park, ride a bike, someday you could fish. We have kayaking, actually, on the weekends.”

Despite the happy ending for Fresh Kills, its creators and managers hope the park will create awareness about the problem of waste. “This is what’s in your kitchen and your garage, if you have one,” said administrator Eloise Hirsh. “It’s your responsibility to be mindful about what you throw away and to think about it. Be conscious.”

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