Corner relates the architecture of the place to something more along the lines of forest and landscape management than typical park development. “You start with nothing, and you grow, through management, a more diverse ecology,” he says. “You take a very sterile or inert foundation and move something in. It’s like lichen. They quickly grow and die, grow and die, creating a rich soil that something else can grow onto. And that’s how ecosystems grow.”
The only way to come close to seeing a fully grown Fresh Kills, at least for the moment, is to visit Corner’s studio on the far West Side of Manhattan, where, after seven years of narrating the development with a laptop and a projector, he still manages to show a lot of excitement for the vision. (Field Operations is known for its excellent, if abstract, graphics—a partly defensive strategy, perhaps, as a certain amount of obscurity makes a target more difficult to kill.) To fast-forward to a view of Fresh Kills, say, 40 years from now, we hover over the site, looking down on the four centerpiece mounds. Bands of green and brown indicate trees that have bridged to the woods and neighborhood off-site. Sedges and spartina grass have returned to the tidal estuary, and we see muddy tidal flats, lowland swamps, and drier, prairielike fields. We see bogs, birch thicket, maple swamp forests, and Pine Barren–like woodlands. Some kayakers can be spotted in the Richmond Creek, one of the main channels, and there are hikers visible off in the woods. At the base of some mounds, we see people playing sports.
Each of the five sections of the park will have a distinctive feel. The North Park will be treated like wilderness—in fact, more than half of the park will be open land. At 233 acres, North Park will be small, about the size of the park on Randalls Island. The 425-acre South Park, near the Arden Heights neighborhood, is a smaller mound surrounded by more recreational activities—soccer fields, horse and mountain-bike trails, and, at the peak of the trash mound, views of the watery valley of the garbage dumps, now lush and green and dotted with kayaks. In the East Park, which will be a little more than half the size of Central Park, large vegetated spaces are planned, and along Richmond Avenue, which runs north-south and is parallel to the Staten Island Mall, Corner talks about nature-education stations—with boardwalks, educational wetlands, public art exhibits, and places for explicitly recreational activities like golf.
Landscape should be edifying, but it doesn’t have to be apocalyptic.
West Park, centered on the westernmost mound, will be home to the 9/11 memorial, an earthwork monument the same size and scale as the World Trade Center but laid flat in a wildflower meadow. Little streams will feed out of the park’s wild areas, and people will congregate at the so-called Confluence, where the two main creeks meet. Five times the size of Battery Park, the Confluence will attract visitors with restaurants, arcades, and parking. It will be decorated with the artifacts of the landfill operation, like cranes and trash barges converted into floating gardens.
Of course, a lot of the what-will-be questions are too specific for Corner, as they distract from his view of the place as a story unfolding, a process being modulated by elected officials not yet in office and parkgoers just graduating preschool. There are no firm dates, he emphasizes. Field Operations has built the park’s growth strategy around four very rough time periods—or park-building concepts—that together make up a “Lifescape.” First comes Moundscape, which begins immediately, thanks to the mounds. It’s the least work-intensive stage, highlighting the beauty of the place as it is: a faraway, view-rich open space where the trash is still compacting, the Sanitation Department is still processing fluids and gases, and garbage trucks are still covering the mounds. The time between the raw beginning of the long-term plan and sensorial payoff won’t be so bad. “You don’t have to wait 30 years,” says Corner. Instead, he refers to it as a “very early landscape.” In this early stage, visitors will be able to enter Schmul Park, where they will find a few roads and trails as well as a sprinkling of more-traditional parklike amenities, such as playgrounds and picnic areas in North Park, and a visit will be like going for a walk in the country, except the hills will be garbage hills.
Within a few years, the site will have grown into the Fieldscape stage. Translation: The mounds will have settled, and park employees will begin planting grass and young shrubs and trees on them; soil production will have commenced. This will brighten the park’s color palette, as the hill slopes start to look like grainfields in western Washington State. “At this scale, it could be land art,” Corner points out, “because as you are driving the expressway, you see these big bands of color.” By the time of Openscape, more and more pixeled people are entering the imagery, walking among remnants of the mining equipment used by the Sanitation Department to sculpt the mounds. Kayakers skirt wildlife areas, where presumably there will be more deer than there already are in Staten Island. The finish line, Eventscape, heightens the ecological complexity of the site, adding more amenities, restaurants, and gatherings.