Fresh Kills began life as a salt-marsh. In 1947, Robert Moses proposed making it into a park, beginning with filling in the ponds with trash. The park never materialized and Fresh Kills instead became a massive landfill composed of four huge mounds. According to Phil Gleason (quoted in New York Magazine), Fresh Kills landfill was as big as Manhattan below 23rd street. The landfill was closed in 1999 and, in 2003, Bloomberg proposed turning it into a park. The landscape architecture company won the ensuing contest for plans to convert the massive landfill into a park.
New York Magazine reports that "Field Operations settled on a philosophy that has guided all of their planning for the site: They would not build a new park on top of an old dump. Instead, they would make the old dump a part of the new park, by acknowledging it, reclaiming it, recycling it on behalf of a modern metropolis. [Designer James] Corner did not see Fresh Kills as a painting, in other words; he saw it as a palimpsest, a collaboration between a landscape architect and his landfill." Standing on top of one of the mounds, seeing lower Manhattan in the distance, and being surrounded by pumps that gather methane produced by the decaying garbage beneath the now-green mounds makes the consequences of this philosophy clear - and it is marvelous. What struck me about Fresh Kills as it is today is that it is at once beautiful and dystopian, scenic and a product of breathtaking human artifice. It is, in fact, impressive in all of the ways that the city itself is. Field Operations made no attempt to conceal the fact that the park is built on top of a landfill, and, rather than detracting from the majesty of the project, this decision makes the park what it is. It is astounding that humans can produce so much garbage and it is equally as astounding that other humans (or, perhaps, some of the same humans) can transform that trash into a calming, green space with the best view of Manhattan I've seen anywhere besides an airplane.
Corner's genius is in blurring these lines between artifice and nature, between park and landfill. "At Field Operations, he is attempting to expand the idea of ecology to include not just rivers and streams but also subway lines, movements of capital, and weekend traffic. “To me, a city is an ecology—it’s an ecology of money, an ecology of infrastructure, an ecology of people,” he says. “Everyone thinks ecology is about nature, and it is, but there are so many other systems.”" (NY Magazine) Fresh Kills is supposed to be a lesson in sustainability. By refusing to hide the garbage dump history of the park it reminds park-goers that New York still ships its waste to South Carolina and Pennsylvania. It certainly accomplishes that goal, but the process of building a park out of a garbage dump has an implicit notion of sustainability that goes far beyond identifying individual ecological problems.
Fresh Kills seems to chart a course outside of what appears to me to be deadlocks in Green theory. The scale of the park and the amount of time that will be required to finish it put to shame the idea that ecological problems will take care of themselves. On the other hand, Fresh Kills challenges elements of Green theory that identify an anthropocentric mindset, industrial technology, or scientific reason as the cause of ecological destruction and unsustainable living. These theories have an advantage in pointing out the severity of our collective ecological situation, but they can't account for Fresh Kills which will, through collective action and the application of modern technology, reclaim as livable a space that would otherwise be lost. Fresh Kills is a monument to what the human powers to transform and appropriate nature can do if they are applied with sustainability and livability in mind, and that is its significance for me.