This newly thriving ecosystem may become a model for other places that have been irrevocably changed by human interference
The Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island was once the worldâ€™s largest dumping site, receiving around 30,000 tns of waste every day! Opened in 1947 in an area that used to be tidal wetlands, the initial plan was for it to only be used temporarily, and then to be developed as a multiuse area with residential, recreational, and industrial components. However, due to the increasing needs of the growing city, it remained open. In fact in 2001, it was estimated that if it continued to operate, the landfill would eventually become the highest point on the East Coast. So, almost after 60 years of use (the last shipment of garbage came in 2001: one million tons of debris from the fallen World Trade Center towers), its transformation started in October 2008. Some 150 million tons of New York City waste lie under it, immobilized, covered, and capped with tiers of thick soil, impermeable plastic, and gas-containment pipes, while native grasses grow on the top.
Freshkills Park is expected to become a 2,200-acre (8.9 km2) public space, the largest park created in New York City since the 19th century. When fully developed by 2035-37, it will be the second-largest park in New York City and 2.7 times the size of Central Park in Manhattan. The area used to be home to wading birds, blue crabs, terrapins, and diverse flowering herbs and now, this human-engineered grasslands environment is already hosting hundreds of species of plants and animals. Even though fifty-plus years of landfilling mean that this earth will never return to what it once was, experts hope that with gentle shepherding, and not too much interference, Freshkills will live again as a newly thriving ecosystem. â€œWe donâ€™t know what will happen, as far as wildlife returning and what will come, because we donâ€™t have a time-point weâ€™re trying to â€˜restoreâ€™ toâ€, says Cait Field, the parksâ€™s research program manager. If the effort succeeds, it may also become a model for other places that have been irrevocably changed by human interference.
Although the city will let the park develop for another 20 years before opening it to the public, ecologists are skeptical about some proposed uses and activities in the park. On the other hand, Tatiana Choulika, the principal designer of the Freshkills project for James Corner Field Operations, has a different point of view: â€œWhole neighborhoods suffered here for 50 years. How do you reconcile that? Whatever ecologistsâ€™ concerns are, this space is never going to be closed to the public. Thatâ€™s not the point of a big city park like this.â€
View of Freshkills Park in 2010 / Image Source: Wikipedia
A Parks Department graphic explains the landfill capping process. (New York City Parks Department)