From Garbage Mound to Grassy Hills: The Creation of Fresh Kills Park


Guided kayak tours are held in the creeks of Fresh Kills Park. The 2,200-acre park is being built out over the next 30 years on the site of what was once the world’s largest landfill. Image credit: Daniel Avila, courtesy of the City of New York

Manhattan can be seen in the distance from the hills of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Park. Image credit: Daniel Avila, courtesy of the City of New York

Fresh Kills Park is among the parks highlighted in Garbage to Green: 10 Landfills Turned into Nature Preserves. Image credit: Daniel Avila, courtesy of the City of New York


In urban areas and their surrounding suburbs, new parks are emerging from once-noxious landfill sites. Mounds of trash that have been capped are reshaped as rolling hills with hiking trails, sports fields, and picnic areas. These transformations are beneficial not only from an environmental standpoint but also because they increase land values and attract new residents and businesses to the surrounding areas. They also affect perceptions and realities of place – turning landfill-adjacent neighborhoods that were previously shunned into attractive and desirable open-space adjacent properties.

Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill, formerly the world’s largest landfill, is being turned into a new urban park. The landfill opened in 1948 on a wetland along the Arthur Kill, the narrow body of water that separates Staten Island from New Jersey. Parks Commissioner Robert Moses spearheaded the project and envisioned that the site would remain active for three years before being redeveloped for residential, recreational, and industrial uses. In actuality, landfilling continued for 50 more years; by the early 1990s, Staten Island hosted the dumping ground for all of New York City’s trash. The site grew to 3,000 acres, and at the peak of its operations in the 1980s, it was receiving as many as 29,000 tons of trash per day and employing 680 people. After much political pressure, Fresh Kills was closed and the last barge of garbage arrived on March 22, 2001. On September 12, 2011, the landfill was temporarily reopened to house, sort, and examine materials from the World Trade Center.

Today, efforts to transform the landfill into a park are well underway. The New York City Parks Department is spearheading the project, in concert with the landscape architecture firm of James Corner Field Operations. Corner, founder and principal, calls his work “a totally new landscape of leisure.” His master plan calls for recreation, ecological restoration, and cultural and educational programming. The project is expected to take nearly 30 years to complete, but once finished, Fresh Kills Park will be three times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park.

The park is currently open for sneak previews that provide visitors the opportunity to hike the new trails, view site-specific artwork, and kayak through wetlands. When completed, Fresh Kills Park will have fields for soccer, baseball, and other sports, and will also be a venue for horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking. And the park will provide habitat for wildlife, birds, and plants.

Other places around the country have also been returning landfills to nature and giving them new life as recreational areas. Boston residents enjoy spectacular views of the city’s skyline from atop the 100-acre Millennium Park, a landfill site that closed in 1994; Berkeley, California residents experience the waterfront at Cesar Chavez Park, a garbage dump until 1969; and Virginia Beach residents and tourists picnic at Mount Trashmore, once a solid-waste landfill.

In the late 1990s, the Merrick dump in the Town of Hempstead on Long Island was reclaimed as a public park – a first for the region. While more Long Island landfills have since been transformed into parks, the region still has numerous active and inactive landfills. What might be the future for these sites, as well as other mounds of trash in suburbs around the nation?