According to the Master Plan, 45 percent of future park area consists of garbage/landfill mounds. The North and South mounds are currently capped to prevent leaking of gases and toxic leachate from decomposing garbage. Capping of the East should be finished by the end of the year, when the process will begin at the Western mound. Our tour started on the South Mound, which overlooks nearby neighborhoods, all five bridges connecting to Staten Island, and the skylines of Manhattan, Jersey City, and Coney Island in the distance.
When complete, the South Park will spread over 425 acres with a maximum elevation of 140 feet, and be home to active recreation areas such as soccer fields, low impact mountain biking routes, and an equestrian course, in addition to the reinstatement of local habitats. For now, vegetation composed of upland grass fields grows along the slopes of the hill, showing healthy regrowth of native species.
Our next stop, North Mound, provides a panoramic view of the New York City skyline, framed by a foreground of grassy knolls, meandering creeks and wetlands, and expansive skies. The second mound to be capped, this location has been home to some experiments to determine the viability of renewable energy sources on site. An anemometer recently compiled wind data from atop the hill, determining ideal wind conditions to harness wind power. However, soil conditions do not permit the installation of large turbines, so designers and advocates are exploring other options.
North Mound will host less active recreational activities than its Southern counterpart, with programs for fishing, bird-watching, hiking, and other outdoor activities in the works. The 233 acre section will top out at 150 feet of elevation, explaining the expansive views experienced on tour. With such and emphasis on biodiversity and wildlife activities, it is no coincidence that we encountered hints of animal life on and around this hill. Prior to our ascent, a flock of geese and an osprey nest were spotted, and butterflies and dragonflies fluttered at the mound’s peak; there are even reports of recent bald eagle sightings!
Capping is currently underway at the East Mound, where soil is being compacted atop an impermeable plastic membrane. This gives visitors a peek at the process, which is designed to prevent leakage of toxic gases and leachate, a sludge byproduct of decomposing trash and water, into the new environment.
Atop compressed garbage of an indeterminate depth, a soil barrier layer and gas vent (gravel) layer are laid out. These layers allow for the gradual transmission of gas to a vacuum system of gas wells, composed of perforated intake pipes, valves, and transmission lines. Methane gas is extracted from other vapors created by the decomposing trash at on-site purification facilities, and sold by the local utility to power and heat over 20,000 Staten Island homes. When repairs must be made to the system, gas is routed to a flare station, and burned in a controlled manner. In the future, minimal amounts of gas will not be useful, so a system of goose neck pipes will passively release the gas to prevent dangerous buildup underground.
Above the impermeable membrane, a drainage layer directs stormwater to reduce runoff and prevents breaks in the plastic. On top of that, a barrier protection material 2 feet in thickness provides additional protection for the membrane, and atop that minimum of 6 inches of planting soil, used to shape the mounds and provide an organic base for vegetation. A natural plastic clay layer, originally seen as a benefit for landfill use, prevents leachate leaks into groundwater, and walls of manufactured impermeable material complete the seal. Because of high toxicity of present materials, Sanitation will continue to monitor each mound for 30 years after each cap, and then reexamine risk factors.
Freshkills Park designers and organizers plan on utilizing every bit of infrastructure left to them by the Department of Sanitation, including buildings, treatment facilities, and even landfill vehicles. Massive excavators present one of the most innovative uses of these obsolete machines. One of these imposing contraptions will be positioned by a highway cutting through the site, supporting a billboard advertising the opening of the park. Others may be positioned as urban furniture along a promenade. Landfill barges used to transport trash into Staten Island will be transformed into floating gardens docked at the main creek in the Confluence zone.
The reconstruction of nature in a place so ravaged by the byproducts of modern society takes decades of effort and numerous contamination risks. Freshkills Park is and will be an inspiring testament to man’s power to remediate his effects on the environment. But unless we begin to monitor our consumption, specifically disposable goods and packaging, there will be the need for more Freshkills, and more reconstructed, instead of preserved, environments.
All images © Leonel Lima Ponce for Inhabitat, except where noted.