Public parks don’t tend to make money, 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.
There’s a sustainable energy project under way, too, with plans for composting toilets, green roofs, rain gardens, and a native seed farm. The environmental ingenuity makes for fantastical New York scenes: to tackle an invasive weed, this month Parks officials called in a herd of goats to help gobble them up.
To the Sanitation Department, which is responsible for harvesting the methane under strict environmental guidelines, the biggest reasons to be green are fiscal. Without the landfill open, the costs of carting New York City’s rising pile of trash have risen from $43 a ton to $97 a ton, which has the agency spending a third of its budget on exporting waste. As budgets tighten, Sanitation, like the Corrections Department, stands to lose dozens of full time jobs next year, and to see a loss of $7 million to its annual budget in FY2013. To try to fill in the gaps, it has turned to the commodity it knows best.
With wind turbines, an artists’ rendering of 2030
The department has launched a new pilot program intended to improve trash recycling and cut the $300 million per year cost of shipping trash to landfills in other, poorer parts of the country. And recently it called for proposals for a waste-to-energy factory to be built at the edge of the park. (Sanitation recently withdrew the proposal amidst the protests of Staten Islanders, under the mistaken fear that the facility would be burning trash; in fact, it would rely either upon odorless high tech techniques like “anaerobic digestion,” thermal technologies that would heat the waste to gas, or chemical hydrolysis to produce electricity.) Parks officials, meanwhile, have also called for proposals for new solar and wind arrays and put a renewed emphasis on conservation.
Still, even without the odors and water pollution for which the Park was known by Staten Islanders, eliminating Fresh Kills has brought its own heavy carbon footprint to the rest of the city. Rather than three barges a day taking the city’s trash to Fresh Kills, today roughly 600 freight trucks leave the city every day from its thirteen garbage transfer stations. Mayor Bloomberg has tried to push garbage carting onto barges, thus eliminating 6 million miles’ worth of trips a year, but the NIMBY’s have kept containerization facilities stalled in the courts (at least in certain neighborhoods).
Parks and Recreation and Methane
In the context of park design, nature is a state of mind. Here, even on a pretty birdwatching tour, for instance, the more generous human impact on the park is beautifully evident. The infrastructure of the energy landscape isn’t invisible or even un-smellable. When I visited the park last summer on one of the handful of Parks’ public tours, we emerged from our tour bus at the top of one hill to survey an uncanny, wonderful panorama: rolling green hills and wetlands prefacing a singular view of the entire Manhattan skyline in the distance. Nearby, short white pipes – the gas tubes – popped straight out of the hill like tiny periscopes. If you sniffed enough, you could even detect the faintest bittersweet whiff of methane.
The landfill began in 1948 under the auspices of Moses, who, amidst a bout of infrastructure projects, announced that Fresh Kills would only remain open to trash for a few years. Four decades later, the landfill had become the largest on Earth. The smell that wafted off of the city’s remnants was a sobering trademark of Staten Island, a cocktail of dead and rotting things tossed on the winds and spread across the island to a constant chorus of complaints from residents. The stench was harsh on city politics: Staten Islanders made multiple calls for secession from New York City, primarily over the stink of the landfill. Over protestations from then Mayor David Dinkins, the island held a non-binding referendum in 1993 and voted two-to-one in favor of seceding from the rest of New York and forming a new independent city.
But the vote was dismissed in the state assembly, and made moot by the election of Rudy Giuliani, who had already promised to institute free ferry service to the island from Manhattan and finally close the landfill. He did both, but by the time the landfill was ready to close in 2001, Giuliani would order that it remain open for one more year to take in what would be its unlikely capstone: 200,000 tons of the World Trade Center and the wreckage of the airplane that destroyed it. (And, according to lawsuits by families of the victims, their relatives’ remains, which they claim were improperly handled by the city and should be excavated.)
After Giuliani closed it forever, the rotting smell would die off. Or rather, buried underfoot, it would transmute into something else. As blackbirds swirled nearby, that is what we smelled. Not the stench of trash but the faint, bittersweet whiff of methane.
It was a reminder of the ancient biodigestion going on underground and the futuristic reuse strategies happening above. In both processes, waste gets turned into something valuable. It’s a hopeful thing to smell. The view ain’t bad either.