If you’re waste management geeks like us, then you may already know some of the absolutely crazy, bonkers, insane story of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill. You may know that when it opened for business in 1948, everyone thought it was going to be a relatively temporary, three-year fix, but that it stayed open, and stayed open, and stayed open, until by the 1990’s, literally the entirety of NYC’s trash flow was being directed straight into its bowels. Can you imagine all the Big Apple’s five boroughs’ worth of trash, all in one place?
[Fresh Kills Landfill, 1973]
”Basically, New York City produces so much trash that once you start something like that, it’s like a freight train,” explains Cait Field, Manager for Science and Research Development at the in-progress Freshkills Park, which sits right smack on top of the old landfill. We’ll get to that in a minute. “It’s hard to stop it. So it accepted this absolutely gigantic amount of waste. Twenty-nine thousand tons a day at its peak. That’s more than 4,000 elephants of trash a day. It’s huge, and it completely changed the landscape.”
By the time Fresh Kills Landfill was finally closed in 2001, the land, once comprised of low, naturally-occurring wetlands, had been built up to 4 large hills. Of trash. 150 million tons of trash, all told. A person could look at that change and feel hopeless or paralyzed, but Field and her colleagues are powering ahead full of hope, instead. “It’s almost this blank slate,” says Field, “and this new opportunity to do this ecological restoration. We don’t have a blueprint to follow, from what it was. So we get to make it something new.”
[“Fresh Kills Park.” Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia]
Trash to treasure
What Field and seven colleagues are making of that new landscape is revolutionary. They’re reclaiming the world’s largest landfill for public use, building over the trash to create a new 2,200 acre park. It’s being completed in stages; Schmul Park, in the Travis neighborhood, is open now, along with a new recreation area and soccer fields in Arden Heights, and the fantastic New Springville Greenway, which runs the entire east side of the park and connects a larger network of trails. Once complete, Freshkills Park will be 2 ½ times the size of Central Park.
“The plan is for it to be built from the outside in,” explains Field, “and that’s because it gives access to the surrounding communities the soonest. Those were the communities that were affected by living next to the active landfill for so long. I remember growing up and driving down the west shore expressway, which is the highway that goes right through the park, and rolling up the car windows when we went through that section of Staten Island. Now it doesn’t smell at all. But that was a pervasive, all-the-time experience for the communities that were around the site.”
Animals a-comin’ home
One of the most amazing things about the restoration of the land is that the rich, diverse wildlife that had fled the unbearable odors are coming on back home. Fish are returning to the area’s creeks. Birds are flying in. “We’ve had a huge resurgence of wildlife,” says Field. “We used to mainly have a preponderance of seagulls, basically eating all the trash; now we have over 100 bird species that we see per year.” Grasslands birds especially have been given a boost by the restoration of the land. The Grasshopper Sparrow, for example, which had seen a 95% decline in NY state over the last 20 years, and been declared a state-threatened bird), is back and thriving. Tons of other species, including vultures and red-tailed hawks, are following suit.
Tweeting bird boxes coming to Freshkills Park
Right now, Field and her colleagues are raising money via ioby for an awesome addition to the burgeoning park: bird boxes, to be placed in the northern section of the land. The boxes will be outfitted with cameras and motion sensors, so that when the park’s new avian inhabitants do anything noteworthy, followers will get a tweet to notify them. “We’ll be able to see their nesting behavior, eggs hatching, the young getting fed, building the nest – all those sorts of things that they do,” explains Field.
The tweeting bird boxes will be used in schools, as a teaching resource, and they’ll also be fully accessible to a broader audience of bird lovers, naturalists, conservationists, and everyone else. For more on the project, and to find out what species you might be able to see via the tweeting bird boxes, visit the Freshkills Park Alliance site here.
Ecological restoration in action
So why put “eyes” on the ground, before the park is complete and fully open to the public? “We think it’s more illustrative and educational for kids to actually see the process of change,” explains Field, “and not just the final result. And to realize that these things are happening in Staten Island. It’s not just something that happens out in the woods in upstate New York. The city is also a habitat for a lot of animals, and they should think about the environment right around them.”
To donate, visit the project’s ioby campaign page here. Less than $2,000 left to go; every dollar you donate will go a long way.
Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here . We’d love to help you get started today.
Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Want to get kids cooking their way OUT of food illiteracy and INTO vibrant health? Check out the Peterson Garden Project’s new kids’ programming. Is there a community garden or cooking school near you that might be interested in trying out a similar kind of initiative?