From Dump to Paragon of Ecology: A First Peek

Lisa W. Foderaro New York Times 29 Sep 11;

As befits what used to be the world’s largest landfill, the future Freshkills Park on Staten Island may represent the planet’s greatest act of ecological atonement.

The 2,200-acre site, which the Department of Parks and Recreation calls a “reminder of wastefulness, excess and environmental neglect,” will, as it evolves into a park over the next 25 years, feature every environmentally correct practice known to landscape architecture.

There will be composting toilets and “rain gardens” to capture water for use in irrigation. Hundreds of acres of meadows will be sown with native grass and wildflower seeds. Goats will graze on invasive plant species like phragmites. And educational and cultural programs will emphasize sustainability. Four enormous waste mounds, built up over 53 years, will be transformed.

On Sunday, when members of the public venture into the future park for “Sneak Peak,” a program of kayaking and kite-making, they will see signs of Freshkills’ next incarnation.

Scores of wooden birdhouses have been put out to attract swallows, while a visitors’ center, soon to open, features a scruffy roof garden. Every so often, a pipe juts from the grass-covered landscape, part of a subterranean infrastructure that is harvesting methane gas produced by the decomposing waste; the gas is sold to heat homes on Staten Island.

The events on Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., will also reflect the mission of Freshkills Park. Workshops will include instruction on making sculpture from discarded materials and sewing reusable bags. Petting goats will offer a preview of the herd of goats that park officials plan to deploy to help in the wetlands restoration.

“This is the biggest recycling project imaginable,” said the park’s administrator, Eloise Hirsh, referring to the transformation. “We’re telegraphing the kinds of things we’ll do in the future with the events.”

In the past few years, the parks department has increasingly waved the banner of ecological beneficence across its 1,700 parks. It even helped produce a phonebook-size guide to environmentally sound practices in park design and management. Even within that network, however, Freshkills, which closed as a landfill in 2001, will stand out as a paragon of environmental virtue.

“In some ways, it’s to make amends for the fact that this formerly beautiful wetlands was turned into a garbage dump for the better part of five decades,” said Adrian Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner. “It’s also the responsible thing to do.”

Although the official opening of the park is years away, Ms. Hirsh said it was important to get the public into Freshkills through daylong events like Sneak Peak as well as periodic bird walks, kayaking tours and bus tours twice a week. “By opening up 300 or 400 acres of Freshkills, it lets people come in and actually experience what the place is going to be like when it’s a park,” she said.

So far this year, more than 1,100 people have gone on bus tours of the site. The first Sneak Peak, last year, drew 1,800 visitors.

The park is vast — nearly three times the size of Central Park — but it will eventually be divided into five main areas. The first area to be developed is in the 240-acre North Park, where the Sneak Peak events will take place. It will consist of 21 acres and include walking paths with views of wetlands in the middle distance, a bird observation tower, a tree nursery and a seed farm.

Budget cuts have, for now, shelved capital funding for the 425 acres of South Park, but design plans for the first 20 acres there are under way. The garbage mounds beneath North and South Parks were capped in the 1990s; this fall workers will finish capping the mound that will eventually become East Park. Capping of the final mound — the future West Park — will be finished in 2018. Collection of methane gas from the four mounds will continue for 30 years after capping.

This fall, neighbors of Freshkills will get a new playground, called Schmul Park, that will have handball courts and other play equipment and will serve as a future entrance to North Park.

Next spring, four new soccer fields will open in Owl Hollow, a 20-acre area adjacent to Freshkills Park in Arden Heights Woods. It is being built as an amenity for the neighborhood and will, like the park itself, be kind to the environment. The comfort station will feature an environmentally friendly roof, geothermal heating and cooling, and a wind turbine for generating electricity.

Even now, with capping work still active, parts of Freshkills resemble the Hudson Valley. Thigh-high grasses cover much of the landscape, and American kestrels — small falcons — hover over the meadows looking for grasshoppers. A fresh breeze carried no hint of the foul-smelling garbage that once tormented local residents.

“The ultimate test is can a kid eat the soil,” Ms. Hirsh said, “and the answer, eventually, will be yes.”