Fresh Kills in Staten Island was once the largest landfill in the world, the dumping ground for nearly all of New York's rubbish. But slowly it is being decontaminated and High Line architect James Corner is turning it into a unique landscape of meadows, giant earthworks, creeks and grasslands – an urban wilderness three times the size of Central Park.
I'm standing on 150 million tonnes of rubbish. Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, New York City, fills 2,200 acres and, for many years, was the largest tip in the world. For half a century New York, the capital of consumption, threw all its garbage into its own backyard. The mounds of decomposing trash rose to nearly 70m, 25m higher than the Statue of Liberty. This rat-and-seagull-strewn expanse, a time capsule of the metropolis' detritus, heaped into piles by huge industrial diggers, was apparently visible from space with the naked eye.
Now, James Corner, the Mancunian behind the hugely successful High Line park (Icon 074) that snakes through the west side of Manhattan, is transforming Fresh Kills into a public park. Corner, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and a specialist in reclaiming abandoned post-industrial sites, won the commission in 2003, when his fledgling firm had only three employees, and reclamation work began in October 2009. "One of the biggest challenges is just the scale of the place," he tells me when we meet in his voluminous office just north of the High Line terminus. "You get this amazing sense of being in a reserve. It's been said that Fresh Kills is the best thing that's happened to Staten Island because if you hadn't had a dump here, you would now have shopping malls and development."
Renders show an Arcadian paradise in place of the dump – a grassy wilderness punctuated by picnic piers, kayak launches, bird hides, ball parks and playing fields, cycle paths, eco-looking concession stands and trash barges transformed into floating gardens. Small gateway projects on the periphery of the site – playgrounds and sports facilities, public relations exercises to get neighbouring residents on side – are due to open later this year. "It was always a bit of a joke if you came from Staten Island because that was where the dump was," Corner explains. "They lived with the trash trucks and barges coming and going each day. They've lived with the smell and the seagulls. To them, this is a nuclear bombsite. To be able to communicate to them a certain hopefulness, an optimism that you could build a beautiful landscape that would be clean and healthy, is something they're very sceptical about." It is hoped that South Park, which covers 425 acres of the site, will be safe for visitors by 2014. But the entire project is expected to take three decades. When it is finished it will be three times the size of Frederick Law Olmsted's Central Park.
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Visiting Fresh Kills this summer with Eloise Hirsch, administrator of the new park, and Tatiana Choulika, associate partner at James Corner Field Operations, our New York City Parks Department jeep struggles to get up the rutted road that led to Fresh Kills's highest peak. "You can see Oz," Hirsch says when we finally reach the summit, gesturing towards the dramatic skyline 14 miles away, a mirage that rises above bright blue tidal inlets and the emerald forest of the Staten Island green belt. "It's the most incredible view of Manhattan, and we're still in New York City." To the east you can see the towers of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the fountain-like tip of Coney Island's famous parachute jump. To the west is the heavily industrialised New Jersey shore. "That's where we're going to plant all the trees, to screen it off," Choulika jokes. To the south is a suburban housing development, closer to the former stench than you would have thought possible.
An adjacent mound is in the process of being capped, as this one has been, serviced by a procession of trucks. In its layered cross-section, you can clearly see the hidden engineering that goes into the rustication of the site: a layer of clay and an impermeable plastic membrane seals in the rubbish; this is covered with gravel, then two feet of pre-sod and six inches of topsoil, on which grass is seeded. There is also a liner under the garbage to create a closed drainage system. A gutter at the foot of the mound catches the leachate – the liquid gunge that is a byproduct of decomposition – so that it can be purified before it pollutes the estuary and waterways. The hill is dotted with wellheads to vent the methane that the bacteria consuming the garbage produce and which fills the vinyl membrane like a balloon ($1 million of gas is sold to the National Grid each month). The pipes hiss like kettles coming to the boil.
Engineers have to constantly monitor the mounds, which collapse like giant soufflés as they rot, so that there are no landslides, and they must continually crown the peaks with fresh soil so that no fetid lakes form there. "There's an amazing contrast," Corner says of this unique geography, "between the geometrically engineered, industrialised series of huge earthworks sitting upon a very sponge-like, dynamic, natural landscape of meadows, wetlands, tidal flats and creeks. There is something a little odd about the scenery – it's obviously not pastoral and natural. There is a slight melancholic feel to the place that I think is very charming and distinctive. It's not like anywhere else."
Corner compares working on a site that already has so much personality to plastic surgery. "Fresh Kills has a strange, sad beauty," he says. "We want to try and amplify that and build upon it rather than replace it with a conventional idea of what a park should look like, which is essentially the pastoral tradition of Central Park. There are so many other types of landscape expression and experience." Instead of coming up with a finished masterplan, Corner conceived of Fresh Kills as a time-based project. Rather than importing millions of tonnes of topsoil from faraway virgin sites, Corner proposed growing the park, planting organically rich grasses and ploughing them back into the ground every six months to manufacture enough new soil to allow a more bio-diverse range of plants to be grown. "We didn't design geometries and forms but rather a methodology for this big complicated landscape to come into a new sense of being," he says. "The idea was that we were going to be able to install a large range of meadows, woodlands and grasslands in what is now an ecologically bereft landscape. There's not a lot there."
The Fresh Kills wetlands first became a dump in 1948 when Robert Moses – the city parks commissioner who transformed New York more than any other (the press nicknamed him "Big Bob the Builder"), crisscrossing it with expressways and bridges and dotting it with parks – wanted to build a link over the Arthur Kill, a narrow stretch of water that separates Staten Island from New Jersey. Fresh Kills (Kill derives from the Dutch word for creek) seemed the ideal site to build the foundations. Irate residents were assured that it would only take three years to fill the land. In 1951, Moses requested more time, claiming the project was "at once practical and idealistic". It was, he said hyperbolically, the greatest land reclamation project ever attempted – he now hoped that it would house an industrial zone to the west with parks and housing to the east.
The site swelled; by 1954 it covered 669 acres; by 1966 it consumed 1,584 acres. By the early 1970s, when other landfills and incinerators in the city closed, it was receiving half the city's refuse.By the mid-1980s barges brought in nearly all New Yorkers' garbage: 650 tonnes in each load and 29,000 tonnes every day. The city employed 650 full-time workers to dispose of it. Massive powder-blue diggers at the waterfront piled the trash into huge wagons that were pulled by caterpillar trucks up to the landfill's active bank, or tipping point. "The smell was overwhelming," Eloise Hirsch remembers. "There were seagulls all over the place. But it was a really well-organised industrial operation."
In 1995, to thank the conservative-voting borough that had secured him the New York mayoralty (the first time a Republican had won in 30 years), Rudolph Giuliani agreed to close the site at the end of March 2001. He kept his word and the city's rubbish is now exported to other states, to an incinerator in Newark, New Jersey and landfill sites in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina. "The poor get it," Choulika says. "It costs us a lot more to ship it away than to dump it in our own backyard." (The New York City Department of Sanitation's budget is $2.2 billion dollars a year, nearly $400 million of which is spent on exporting waste.)
However, the day after 9/11, Fresh Kills opened again, when trucks and barges brought over the wreckage of the World Trade Centre. Construction workers nicknamed Ground Zero "The Pit", and Fresh Kills' West Mound, where 1.4 million tonnes of bent I-beams, crushed cars and other debris were deposited, was renamed "The Hill". FBI agents in white protective suits and masks sifted the remnants, looking for evidence and proof of identity (the debris was sifted down to a quarter of an inch). More than 4,200 human remains were found and they managed to identify 300 victims. On 31 July 2002, Fresh Kills closed for good.
"There are families who did not recover any body part of a family member and they believe that their blood, their DNA, their bones are here," Corner says. "To them it's an atrocity that these should be mingled in with a trash mound. So, politically, it's a very charged landscape." Eleven such families took their battle to have the World Trade Centre debris moved from the landfill to a cemetery all the way to the Supreme Court, where their appeal was turned down. They were not appeased by the suggestion that a park, containing a monument to the recovery effort, would rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes.
Corner, who is friends with Olafur Eliasson and, he says, takes inspiration from art that "elevates experience to the level of the extraordinary", has proposed a massive earthwork as a reminder of 9/11; a splayed evocation of the towers, as if they had toppled over rather than been crushed under the weight of their collapsing floors. Visitors would be able to walk the length of the two buildings, which would form a V and tilt up gently so that they aligned with the view of Ground Zero.
"They're very gentle grass slopes," Corner says, pointing to a site plan. "It's through walking up these buildings, which will take the average person about 20 minutes, that you get a sense of how big scale they really were. At the same time, when you stand back, you'll have a very empty horizon: no planting, no trees, just a massive geometrical line and a big sky. It's a pretty radical style that has nothing to do with the sentimental idea of pastoralism, on the one hand, or of memorialisation on the other. It has to do with inducing the sense of respect and reflection through movement and though emptiness."
This funerary moundwill be the last to be capped. By the time visitors are ableto walk Corner's massive work of land art, in about three decades time, the park will have completely opened. I watch a truck, spouting exhaust fumes, ascend its steep slope as a hawk circles carefully above.
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