New York’s Fresh Kills Landfill Gets an Epic Facelift

The biggest garbage dump on the planet once contained 150 million tons of reeking trash. No more.

Mark Hauber doesn’t fit the classic field-biologist archetype. A professor of animal behavior and conservation at New York City’s Hunter College, Hauber has been collecting data at his study site for five years. Yet his clothes aren’t wrinkled, stained, or moldy (they’re actually crisp and black); he’s not covered in scratches or insect bites; his face is clean-shaven and his haircut fresh. He lacks the thousand-yard stare that marks longtime researchers toiling in remote locales.

But then his site isn’t exactly the norm either—it’s a former city dump. And though the 2,200 acres of meadows, woodlands, and marsh that comprise the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island’s western shore can look deceptively bucolic, there’s no escaping the fact that approximately 150 million tons of garbage—everything from dirty diapers and televisions to Big Wheels and greasy takeout containers—lie beneath.

On a storybook-glorious June morning, fields abloom with purple and yellow flowers, Hauber is wading through knee-high grasses toward a wooden nest box at Fresh Kills, a notebook and a dental mirror in hand. Using a battery-powered drill, he unscrews the front of the box and notes, based on the presence of either sticks or straw, whether a tree swallow or house wren is responsible for the elaborate architecture inside. He checks for nestlings against the back wall with the mirror (he finds none), then turns his face to the sky and blindly feels inside with his fingertips for eggs (he counts four). “Touch is best if you don’t see anything,” he says. “I used to study juncos, which have really small eggs.” Hauber enters this data in his notebook, quickly replaces the front of the box, and moves on to make stops at 69 other stations similarly situated among mounds of garbage.

You can’t see any of this detritus, of course— it’s buried under more than two feet of soil and multiple underground barriers, including a thick, impermeable layer of plastic sheeting. But its presence is palpable in the four grassy monadnocks rising up to 225 feet tall, in the intermittent exhalations of landfill gases from passive vents, in the 386,000 gallons of leachate that daily ooze from the mounds into an on-site treatment plant, and in the hundreds of protruding gas wellheads and monitoring pipes.

This level of environmental control isn’t unusual for a closed landfill, but Fresh Kills has more reason than most to put on a pretty face. The planet’s most notorious dump is slowly morphing into New York City’s largest and most biologically diverse urban oasis-—a playground two and a half times the size of Central Park. In fact, when eventually completed, Freshkills Park (yes, it’s one word now) will be the largest dump-turned-park in the world.

Roughly 17,000 years ago the Wisconsin ice sheet retreated from Staten Island, setting the stage for what would eventually become the Fresh Kills wetlands complex—a diverse marshland, teeming with life. American eels and Atlantic silversides flashed through creeks; bitterns, herons, and harriers carved the air. Native Americans, followed by colonists, sustained themselves on the area’s ducks, clams, crabs, mushrooms, wild grapes, and watercress. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Staten Islanders drained and ditched the meadows and cut salt hay for their livestock. They cultivated corn and wheat in the uplands and processed grain in a tidal mill at the head of Fresh Kills Creek. The muskrat trapping was reportedly excellent.

But a shadow would soon fall upon this arcadia. In 1917 the Metropolitan By-Products Company built a reduction plant at Fresh Kills that converted the city’s festering dregs—mostly food waste and dead animals—into fertilizers. Politics closed the plant after just a year, but Staten Islanders continued to tip their rubbish at Fresh Kills into pits that had been excavated for brick making, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still dumped atop the marshes the spoils it dredged from the rapidly industrializing Arthur Kill, on the wetlands’ western edge.

Still, the volume of waste was penny-ante compared with what was to come. In the post-WWII years, New Yorkers were buying—and trashing—ever more stuff. Landfills in the other boroughs were maxing out, ocean dumping was banned, and no one wanted an incinerator in his or her backyard. Fresh Kills, primed by years of local dumping, was ripe for further exploitation.

The first garbage scows arrived in 1948, and within seven years Fresh Kills had become the largest landfill on the planet—sprawling over more than 2,600 acres. By the early 1970s it was annually receiving enough waste to fill both towers of the World Trade Center. The once-resplendent tidal marshes had taken on a nightmare quality. Machinery dripping with garbage juice clanked and roared over roads made of trash. On windy days, so much airborne litter collected on chicken-wire fences that it could topple their wooden supports.

Although the landfill’s original plan called for filling and flattening the marsh—the better to create a platform for building—engineers were by now mounding the waste, aiming for a height of about 600 feet. They layered garbage with soil in an attempt to tame the stench and the scavenging birds, dogs, and rats. Still, residents of Travis, on the landfill’s north side, kept their windows shut in the summer, and shoppers held their noses while bolting from parking lots into the Staten Island Mall, on the landfill’s eastern flank.

By 1991 the volume entombed at Fresh Kills exceeded that of the Great Wall of China. Six days a week, between 8 a.m. and midnight, the landfill accepted the equivalent of more than 2,800 garbage trucks of residential waste: stained mattresses, torn sheets, moldy carpeting, paint thinner, roach spray, mercury thermometers, and, it was rumored, the Mob’s dead bodies.

The transfer of waste groaned on until March 2001, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sent what was meant to be the city’s last barge of garbage across New York Harbor. Staten Islanders rejoiced. In early September the City of New York announced the start of an international design competition to transform the heaps of trash into a world-class park. Just one week later the city reopened the dump to absorb 1.2 million tons of debris, including human remains, from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Processing this material continued until July 2002; by then 48 design proposals had been winnowed to six teams, and then three.

Not surprisingly, all three designs emphasized active recreational opportunities and major ecological restoration. They also employed soaring rhetoric, played with themes of regeneration and reuse, and advocated the eradication of invasive phragmites, a perennial grass introduced from Asia. Some ideas were more quixotic than others. One group, RIOS Associates, imagined moving visitors around on amphibious buses powered with biogas generated by the digestion of landfill plants. Its design also called for a corn maze; a rodeo in which sanitation workers would race to lift eggs off traffic cones with bulldozer buckets; and 100 acres of solar collectors that resembled tree crowns on metal poles. JMP Landscape and John McAslan + Partners called for the construction of ecospheres with tropical, subarctic, and temperate climate zones.

In June 2003 the Department of City Planning announced the winner: Field Operations, the design studio behind Manhattan’s rabidly successful High Line Park. Critics praised the plan’s embrace of flux and indeterminacy over so-called “architectural heroics.” In the group’s “Lifescape,” the long march of time would eventually shape vast swaths of landfill into scenic landscapes. When completed, the park would undulate over more than 2,000 acres of lawns and grasslands rising to four distinct (garbage-filled) humps. Bands of hardwoods and pine-oak barrens would cast welcome shadows, and three saltwater creeks would nourish extensive tidal wetlands. Meanwhile, spaces closer to roadways and ferry landings would be developed for recreational and cultural activities that have since been hashed out in public meetings. In addition to esplanades, promenades, and panoramic viewpoints, the master plan now calls for more than 40 miles of multi-use trails, an amphitheater, horseback riding, kayaking, ball fields, restaurants, picnic bosques, bioswales, composting toilets, a native-seed farm, and an allée for playing bocce, badminton, and chess. Should the winters bring snow, expect sledding and cross-country skiing. (Back in the day, sanitation workers used to careen down the mounds on improvised sleds and saucers.)

Fourteen years after the competition announcement, an official completion date for Freshkills Park is still unknown. The effort is in its larval stages, mired in red tape and delayed by, among other things, a lawsuit filed by 9/11 families wanting to remove human remains from the West Mound. (A federal judge recently ruled that the remains will stay; a memorial will mark the site.) Today there are ball fields and a 3.3-mile greenway open on the park perimeter, but most of the interior is accessible to the public only on tours offered periodically throughout the year. 

But permit-carrying scientists like bird researcher Mark Hauber can visit whenever they like. He is one of at least a half dozen researchers wading through Fresh Kills’ weeds in pursuit of knowledge. Richard Veit, a biologist who teaches at the College of Staten Island (CSI), is working with students to capture and band big brown, little brown, and red bats in the park. The U.S. Forest Service is collecting and breeding birches and willows, hoping to identify a cultivar that will best withstand the landfill’s unique climate. Then there’s Seth Wollney, a doctoral student at CSI, who’s studying, among other wildlife, native and invasive turtles and how they colonize and use the park’s retention ponds. Much of the work is basic science: What species are present, and in what numbers? Are animals passing through, or are they taking up residence and raising young? Is the wildlife healthy?

Each of these researchers was invited to embark on his or her Freshkills studies by park administrator Eloise Hirsh, a cherub-faced woman with gentle waves of silvery brown hair. Though Hirsh served as the first deputy commissioner of the city’s Parks Department from 1978 to 1981, she had never been to the dump. But she knew plenty about it; her husband had been the commissioner of the city’s Sanitation Department in the early 1970s. In 1988, on a hiatus from New York, the civic-minded couple moved to Pittsburgh, where Hirsh spent seven years directing the Office of City Planning, specializing in transforming industrial dead zones into assets like parks and so-called new-urbanist communities.

When Hirsh returned to New York in 2005, she learned about the plans for Fresh Kills from the city’s latest parks commissioner. She vividly remembers that spring morning when she visited for the first time. “It was misty. We were driving up these hills, and everything was very green. I saw two pheasants doing their mating dance, and I just fell in love.” Hirsh was named park administrator in September 2006 and, as a direct counterpoint to the landfill’s stigma, immediately began to organize public tours and events that would attract people from the community. “Staten Island has been dumped on for 50 years,” Hirsh says, “and you’re not going to get over that because the City of New York declares that they’re doing this nice project.”

Now when Hirsh brings Staten Islanders onto the mounds, many of them burst into tears, she says, incredulous at its beauty. But the landfill’s history is long, and there is still plenty of anger, skepticism, and mistrust. Former residents remember their homes being taken by eminent domain in the 1950s—for a park, some were told. They recall how quickly their marshes and meandering streams were filled and then piled with trash. The dump would soon close, the politicians repeatedly promised. They lied. To this day, many older residents insist the landfill contains toxic material, illicitly buried; they blame the dump for their poor health. (Although Fresh Kills accepted only residential waste, it still contains plenty of household heavy metals, solvents, acids, and pesticides.) Now they wonder if their suggestions, offered at all those public meetings, will be heeded. Will the park actually come to fruition? Will it be safe?

It was partially in response to this last concern that Hirsh opened the park to scientists. “I want people to see that the natural health of the place is being restored,” she says. “I want people to see that Freshkills is worthy of study, and that it’s safe for people to be here.” Perhaps most important, she says, “I want the site to exist as something other than a dump.”

Mark Hauber was the first researcher Hirsh invited to Fresh Kills. Here, and in three other study sites around the city and state, Hauber is documenting the age, sex, and health of nest-box occupants and tracking whether they successfully fledge their young. He’s also testing the minus-cule feathers of baby birds for toxins. Swallows (and occasionally wrens) eat insects that have an aquatic phase, Hauber explains, which means they could potentially pick up contaminants that leach from the garbage piles into the park’s various wetlands. Since the park plan calls for catch-and-release fishing and kayaking areas, water quality is of great interest to its administrators (as is the health of the soil and air).

With a more complete understanding of how birds use Freshkills, Hauber hopes eventually to make the park more suitable as a stopover site for migrants. All coastal migrants must fly past New York City, he notes, and “this new stopover, which is elevationally unique and diverse, will be critical for increasing available sites for feeding, resting, and hiding from predators.”

Might the park be equally hospitable to bats? “You’ve got this huge area of grasslands now,” Richard Veit says, “and it’s filled with grasshoppers and other insects.” In other words, bat food. “But there aren’t a lot of trees for bats to rest in around here.” For now. Foresters are currently clearing invasive plants (with the help of goats), restoring soils, and planting thousands of willows, poplars, oaks, maples, and hickories.

Freshkills may not have the cachet of a classical research station, but scientists are eager to work here because the park presents a novel opportunity to document rapid changes, to experiment with restoration techniques, and to influence park policy and land-use decisions, of which there are still plenty to be made. Remember: For Freshkills to succeed, it needs a great deal of constituent support. “So we have to listen to what everyone says,” Hirsh tells me. A golf course is under consideration (it would generate much-needed revenue). And so many people clamored for easier access to the Staten Island Mall that crews will soon construct a four-lane road through the park’s center.

That’s a worrisome thought for Seth Wollney, a barrel-shaped man with a scruffy beard, ponytail, and tattoos paying tribute to the Grateful Dead, Darwin, and turtles. Wollney fears that cars will crush his reptiles as they move between ponds. He’s concerned, too, about the city spraying Freshkills with larvicide to control the spread of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. Mosquitoes, of course, are a staple food for birds and bats, and turtles dine on their larvae.

“Spraying kills dragonflies, too,” Wollney says. “And since dragonflies eat mosquitoes, we could end up with more mosquitoes. Could we use tree swallows to control insects instead? What about mosquito fish?” (a nonnative fish introduced to park ponds many years ago). For their part, Veit and Hauber fret about proposals to erect 30,000 solar panels and several wind turbines in the park: How will they affect the bats and the birds of the future? It’s hard to say without knowing how those animals use this space today. “That’s why you want scientists here,” Wollney says. “To get baseline data to answer these questions.”

Researchers do know that Freshkills’ biodiversity is on the rise. In addition to the pheasants Hirsh noted in 2006, there are herds of deer (which locals hunt on the down low), red foxes, rabbits, coyotes, snakes, turtles, and more than 200 species of birds. Why so many animals at what was, until recently, a reeking sacrifice zone? There’s more open space now, of course, with fewer men and machines clanking around, and better water and air quality.

Birders are excited about Freshkills because so much marsh and grassland on Long Island, in New Jersey, and in New England has been lost to development or to the consequences of climate change. Open space is a rare commodity in dense cities; that’s why Central Park is so important to resident and migratory birds. Considering its size, and with a richer mix of habitats, Freshkills may be even more significant, ornithologically speaking.

Meanwhile, the city’s mountains of garbage continue to grow. New Yorkers are still generating enough waste daily to fill the Empire State Building, then exporting it by truck and train to landfills in Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. As ever, trash flows toward low-density, low-income communities, most of which are unlikely to hold international design competitions once their dumps max out.

But the Freshkills scientists have plenty to focus on before pondering such matters. For Richard Hallett, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, which is breeding and then planting the park’s poplars and willows, Freshkills is “a perfect place to test new ways of creating green space in urban areas, which is a focus of many cities. There are so many urban areas like this”—brownfields and other post-industrial sites—“so there’s a great need to know how they can grow forests. The methodology we’re using is portable to other cities and situations.”

Staten Island is starting to reimagine itself as a vibrant, forward-thinking place, an ecological and cultural destination. Neighborhood home prices are increasing, and two new hotels have popped up on the landfill’s perimeter. It’s fair to assume that at least a few guests have little idea of what lies beneath the windswept meadows just outside their windows.

Today the park represents different things to different people. But before long, the history—and even the mythology—of these much-maligned acres may hardly matter. For wildlife and for people, Freshkills will be an oasis in a hot and clamoring city. While we’ll likely never see the profusion of birds, fish, game, and plants that delighted Fresh Kills’ earliest human visitors, we may see, if we’re wise enough to leave most of this place alone, something of equal value: a testament to nature’s vast power to heal.

New York writer Elizabeth Royte is the author of the books Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash; Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water; and The Tapir’s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistated that Mayor Bloomberg announced the design competition; in fact, the City of New York made the announcement.