The former site of the world’s largest landfill now teems with wildlife — and soon, New Yorkers.
On Sunday, about 1,000 people visited Freshkills Park in Staten Island, where they were allowed to hike, bike, kayak and stroll across 700 normally closed acres for what NYC Parks calls "Discovery Day." It was a rare glimpse of what is to come to the 2,200-acre swatch of green land.
"It was thrilling [to see people enjoying the park] because I spend most of my time pushing the project ahead through the bureaucracy and to be out and have people come up to you to tell you how it’s so great is why we do what we do," said Eloise Hirsh, the Freshkills Park administrator. "It’s a space unlike any other space in New York City — it’s huge, almost three times the size of Central Park."
The park holds these Discovery Days twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, to keep the interest up among New Yorkers, Hirsh says.
"It’s tricky to sustain public interest in a park that is closed," she said. "Freshkills Park lets people experience an expanse and a bigness and being in nature that you can’t get anywhere else in the city."
By the end of 2020, Phase 1 of North Park, the first of five sections to open, will have 21 grassy acres of trails for walking and hiking, a bicycle path, a hilltop picnic area, an eco-education center, a tower and overlook, a seed farm and a kayak and canoe launch.
The entire park is planned to be open by 2036 with four other pieces within it still being planned, including:
- South Park — plans include ballfields, an equestrian facility and horseback trails, a mountain biking venue and a park;
- East Park — which could have parkland meadows, biking paths, large-scale art installations and a golf course;
- West Park — plans include a major earthwork monument memorializing those lost on 9/11 (10 months after the tragedy, 16,000 investigators and recovery workers screened and sifted 1.2 million tons of debris from the World Trade Center to search for traces of the missing);
- and the Confluence — which will act as a meeting point between all parks with water access, parking, and where big concerts, performances and other crowded activities will take place. Within it, there will be what is called The Point, 50 acres that could possibly hold a promenade along the water’s edge with restaurants, an open-air market, a floating garden and more.
The city has already redesigned space along the periphery of the area with Schmul Park in 2012, the restoration of the Main Creek Wetland and the newly added Owl Hollow Fields in 2013 and the New Springville Greenway in 2015. But North Park will be the first interior section of the park to open over complex environmental management systems. A multilayered “cap” of different types of soils and synthetic materials works to help separate the landfilled waste from the environment.
The Fresh Kills Landfill operated from the late 1940s through its closure in 2001. The city now ships its waste to various sites in New Jersey, Virginia and South Carolina, according to the 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan. The change has allowed cricket sparrows, ospreys and eagles to return and grasses to grow wildly.
"The development of the park is a testimony to very smart, cutting-edge engineering that made the closing of the landfill possible and the strength and resiliency of nature to heal itself," Hirsch said. "The first time I saw the park, I saw two pheasants doing a mating call dance and I thought ‘Where am I? Could I possibly be in the city of New York? I was overwhelmed and in awe of the power of nature. It’s quite magical when you’re there."
IF YOU GO: The next Discovery Day will be in the spring of 2020, but check out freshkillspark.org to find out about events going on around the park’s periphery.