Public parks don’t tend to be cash cows, not unless they get advertising or become, well, private. But the park that sits on top of the old Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island is different. It won’t initially open for at least another three years, and its full opening won’t be until around 2030. But it’s already making the City of New York a cool $12 million a year.
It’s a gas. Methane to be exact. By harvesting the stuff that’s slowly belching out of what was once the largest garbage dump in history, the Sanitation Department is producing enough energy to heat approximately 22,000 homes. That energy will be sold to National Grid until the gas has been depleted, at which point it will be burned off at flare stations across the park.
We’ve drawn energy from the land for millennia. But these days, that land is often far away – coal mountains, nuclear plants, offshore turbines. And it’s usually not the kind of land that we like to luxuriate on. Freshkills is the opposite: it’s a place for playing, for hiking and birdwatching and biking and horseback riding. Kayaking even. And also for producing energy.
Old days, new days
That’s because underneath the new grass and the soil and the “impermeable plastic liner” is 50 years of trash produced by five boroughs. Everything from paper pizza plates and “Thank You Come Again” cups to encyclopedias and orange peels decays into methane, and the park, which is three times the size of Central Park, has plenty of it: the mound of trash stretches across 2,200 acres, rises as high as 150 feet, or as high as a 15-story building. This is ecological regeneration at its finest, and strangest.
Turning landfills into parks isn’t new. Thanks to a 1930 decision by legendary Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the giant salt marsh turned ash dump in Flushing, Queens that was immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald as The Great Gatsby‘s “Valley of Ashes” is now Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, home to a sprawling public park that hosted the World’s Fair of 1939, a UFO crash landing site in Men in Black, and today, the New York Hall of Science.
The Parks Department is sincere about transforming a symbol of ecological devastation into an example of environmental redemption. Even three years before its initial public debut, the park – designed by the landscape architect James Corner and his firm Field Operations – is exuberantly bucolic, with its generous vistas, scenic walking paths and a bird watching tower atop a swath of wetlands, where dragonflies and swallows and perhaps, still, the occasional pigeon, can be seen amidst the trees and tall grasses. There’s a new international competition for land art (“Renewable energy can be beautiful” is the tagline for the Land Art Generator Initiative).
And in a subtle bit of rebranding, Fresh Kills has been renamed “Freshkills.” “‘Kills’ is a Dutch word for stream or estuary, but the specific words "Fresh Kills" were maybe a little harsh sounding,” says Raj Kottamasu, former community coordinator for the Parks Department. Apart from the Sanitation depots around the site and the occasional truck, there’s little indication of the hulking trash heap below.
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