November 7, 2008
  Five Parks Grow out of One Huge Landfill on Staten Island
Field Operations puts a park for everyone on top of the nation’s biggest dump

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

How do you . . . design an extremely large park that is organized around shared topographical features that are wrapped in differing uses and contexts?

Summary: Fresh Kills Park in Staten Island is organized around capped and secured mounds of landfill trash in its five sections. Although it’s been designed for long-term flexibility, it will contain specifically programmed event spaces and wide open expanses on the scale of a national park. It will also be sustainably developed, with native plant species and on-site renewable energy features.

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to a podcast of landscape architect and author Julie Moir Messervy dicussing her book, Outside the Not So Big House: Creating the Landscape of Home, which she co-authored with Sarah Susanka, FAIA.

See what else SOLOSO has to offer for your practice.

Avant Gardeners, by Tim Richardson, Thames and Hudson, 2007.

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Visit Field Operations’ Web site.

Visit the New York City Department of Park and Recreation Fresh Kills Park Web site.

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“When you climb up to the top of any of the mounds,” says landscape architect Ellen Neises, speaking of the views to Manhattan and beyond atop six capped trash heap hills that organize the master plan for Fresh Kills Park on Staten Island, “you have a sense of great expansiveness. The topography could never occur in nature.”

Indeed, the rounded and graded mounds betray the hand of a conscious designer, or perhaps more appropriately, the waste of a distracted society made anew. Neises’ firm, Field Operations, has developed a master plan for Fresh Kills Park that will sit on top of what was recently the nation’s largest landfill. It will offer specifically programmed amenities like mountain biking, hiking, and kayaking—uses one doesn’t typically associate with parks in the nation’s largest city. But Neises says the three-and-a-half-square-mile park will still work on an expansive scale of wilderness and respite that has more in common with national parks.

Like any national park, Fresh Kills’ development will be measured in decades, and Field Operations and the New York City Parks and Recreation department are looking 30 years ahead to a park that rehabilitates the land and finds a way to profit from past waste with onsite energy generation systems. It is designed and programmed for longevity and flexibility that will allow it to growth with always dynamic definitions of recreation. “The program for a park like this really evolves over time,” Neises says. “If you’re lucky enough that your park survives for 150 years, it will be converted to a new use anyway.”

The parks
The legendary New York City planner and “master builder” Robert Moses established the Fresh Kills landfill in 1948 on the west side of Staten Island. Wreckage from the 9/11 terrorist attacks was laid into the ground at Fresh Kills, and the landfill was closed shortly thereafter, having received 150 million tons of trash. After being sculpted and graded for structural integrity, these mounds were capped with an impermeable plastic layer to isolate the waste, a drainage layer of geo-textile fabric that contains and removes excess moisture, a soil barrier protection layer to protect lower layers, and planting soil.

New York-based Field Operations won a competition to master plan the park in 2003 and submitted a final design two and a half year ago. Some park and building projects are already under way, and the master planned elements by Field Operations won’t begin construction until spring or summer of 2009.

The park will be divided into five sections, each one defined by how it uses mounds and the surrounding landforms. “One of the big design ideas was not to kill the scale of the park by distributing lots of little buildings and programs and elements throughout the entire site, but to use the topography to separate programs that might be thought of as incompatible,” Neises says.

The sections of the park (except for The Confluence) will all have this mound feature, but will wrap them in varying contexts and uses.

  • South Park will feature active, athletic uses along the faces of its mounds: biking and cross county skiing trails, sledding paths, and equestrian trails. In the valley below, there will be sports fields, recreation spaces, and indoor winter sports spaces. “The idea is to take the existing topography and harden it so that you can do things that might otherwise cause erosion,” Neises says.
  • North Park will be the most natural section of the park, and is already next to a wildlife preserve. It will house quieter, reflective uses: nature trails, picnic areas, and bird-watching towers.
  • West Park will be developed after North Park and South Park, and as such hasn’t been given as detailed a programming treatment. But, Neises says, early directions for the park might put wind and solar energy generators on the face of Fresh Kill’s tallest mound, at 220 feet. A 9/11 memorial will also likely be in West Park.
  • East Park might include water uses and public art installations on its mound, but it also hasn’t been planned to the extent of other sections.
  • The Confluence will capitalize on its already-existing infrastructure and water features. Three creeks converge in this area, and will be used for canoe and boat launches, as well as waterfront event spaces.

Working with the landfill
Despite Fresh Kills Park project’s comprehensive scope, Neises says it won’t be a tabula rasa master plan. Field Operations will incorporate landfill infrastructure elements like gabion walls and riprap concrete rubble erosion guards into their design, detailing and hardening them for public access.

Only native plant species (oaks, pitch pines, birches, native grasses, black locust) will end up in Fresh Kills Park. Neises and her team are trying to grow plants on-site as much as possible, as opposed to expending extra effort and energy by replanting mature trees. Some trees will even be harvested to create furniture for park facilities. Other sustainability practices will be using recycled material as much as possible.

When the last two landfill mounds are capped and methane harvesting systems are installed, the park will be able to heat and fuel 25,000 homes. With the addition of other active renewable energy generation systems, Neises hopes the site will become a net energy producer. It’s more common to hear of architects turning heads with dazzling tales of their human-built creations that pay back their debt of carbon with renewable energy, but the landscape architects at Field Operations would like to see the earth they’ve worked on fulfill the same ambition.

“If it’s mixed with a lot of clever strategies for doing things that are really quite green, it could change the way we think about the potential of landfills,” Neises says.

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