Wall-E Park

The Fresh Kills landfill, in all its putrid glory, 1990.Photo: Stephen Ferry/Getty Images

Let’s start at the end of one story, the story of the dump, with the view from way up on top of it.

Let’s start at the peak of what was once a steaming, stinking, seagull-infested mountain of trash, a peak that is now green, or greenish, or maybe more like a green-hued brown, the tall grasses having been recently mown by the sanitation workers still operating at Fresh Kills, on the western shore of Staten Island. Today the sun dries the once slime-covered slopes, as a few hawks circle in big, slow swoops and a jet makes a lazy approach to Newark, just across the Arthur Kill. The sky, when viewed from atop a twenty-story heap of slowly decomposing garbage—the so-called South Mound, a Tribeca-size drumlin surrounded by other trash mounds, some as long as a mile—is the kind of big blue that you expect to see somewhere else, like the middle of Missouri. It’s a great wide-open bowl, fringed with green hills (some real, some garbage-filled) that are some of the highest points on the Atlantic seaboard south of Maine. Meanwhile, at your feet, hook-shaped white plastic tubes vent methane, the gas that builds up naturally in a landfill, a by-product of refuse being slowly digested by underground bacteria. The hissing of landfill gas is soft and gentle, like the sound of a far-off mountain stream or the stove left on in your apartment.

But as you look a little longer, it’s definitely not a Missouri view, and the unmistakable landmarks come into focus: a tower on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, a span of the Outerbridge Crossing, and, on Coney Island, the very top of the parachute jump. In the foreground, trucks enter the landfill, climbing the mounds and dumping clean soil over not-so-clean soil. It’s all part of a radical plan to turn Fresh Kills landfill into Fresh Kills Park, with mountain bikers and kayakers and ballplayers sharing 2,315 acres of open space with restored maritime forests, with chestnut trees dotting dry prairies, with new or revived sweet-gum swamps, maybe a fox scooting through persimmon copses or a deer through a new birch thicket.

The composer of this massive reclamation project is James Corner, the landscape architect best known in New York as the designer of the High Line. When that abandoned elevated railway turned inner-city park opens its first section this winter, its industrially influenced meadows, interstitial urban prairies, and sundecks will bring Corner’s firm, Field Operations, a new round of international attention. But as celebrated as the High Line will probably be, it is Field Operations’ other New York park—the one that’s bigger than lower Manhattan, and currently about the height of Mexico’s Great Pyramid of Cholula—that may change people’s ideas of what a park is all about.

In the late 1840s, Frederick Law Olmsted had an experimental farm on Staten Island, but by the time he and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park, he was less a farmer than an artist. The environment they created looked like a landscape painting into which New Yorkers would stroll and recreate, like Mary Poppins jumping into the sidewalk sketches by Bert the chimney sweep. The immigrant shantytowns and African-American villages that sat in the swampy land were all cleared away, and Olmsted built hills and streams by dragging in dirt and blasting outcroppings with more gunpowder than had been used at the Battle of Gettysburg. Nature wasn’t natural in today’s locavore, native-plant sense; it was a collection of natures, pastoral and picturesque, local but mostly exotic, with birds from Europe and trees from China. The bushes in the Ramble, designed with the Adirondacks in mind, were chosen for their shade of green, as painterly effects. The medieval castle was placed on a hilltop as a reference to Europe, as well as for fun. Central Park was Platonic in theory and Barnumesque in practice. “It was designed as a natural Disneyland,” says New York City Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe.

This idea of a park—a green, pastoral place to sport and play—hasn’t evolved much since Central Park was finished. Olmsted took his success to Brooklyn (at the more ambitious Prospect Park) and around the nation, working romantic landscape design into parks and greenbelts in Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, and Montreal. Even Robert Moses, the most powerful Parks commissioner in the history of Parks commissioners, played along the Olmsted lines—a little nature here, a little recreation there, all of it looking very park, and not much like the land that was there before (Jones Beach, for instance, had been a barrier island). But now Corner is among the handful of landscape designers who are taking the idea of an urban park into un-parklike territory.

A section of the North Park that will be among the first parts of the park to open.Photo: Courtesy of Field Operations

Corner acts uncomfortable talking about design, as if the aesthetic differences between the English countryside and the Tuileries aren’t particularly meaningful. He’d rather discuss concepts and processes, such as how a planner should approach an enormous trashed landscape. “Parks all start to look the same,” he says, “and that sameness is either the pastoral model or the modernist formal model, and this is my problem with style. We try not to have a style.” When Corner and his team began to think about Fresh Kills, they knew that the site was so large and technically demanding that it would be distracting to think in terms of design the way Olmsted did. So they have opted instead to “grow” the park. “Rather than choose between French and English landscaping—rather than designing a grand composition—we designed a method.”

This was, in fact, a very American idea—think Jefferson’s grid—and with this conceptual centerpiece, 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. 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. For a lot of people, it is as if a lot of conceptual deadwood had finally been cleared away. “I think Fresh Kills could be a model,” says Steven Handel, a professor of ecology at Rutgers University who specializes in the ecology and restoration of beat-up places and has worked at Fresh Kills over the years. “It’s a new paradigm for a park.”

If landscape architects were birds, Corner would be a hawk, with his gray bristled crown, intense sharp-eyed grin, and reputation for circling old dumps, abandoned military facilities, closed industrial plants, and other large urban sites often referred to as disturbed. In addition to Fresh Kills and the High Line, his firm is at work on a 950-acre site on the lakefront of Toronto; the Great Falls, which ran the mills in Paterson, New Jersey (and was the first planned industrial site in the U.S.); and Shelby Farms Park, which until the sixties was a penal farm. “There are all these postindustrial sites, and no one knows what to do with them,” says Corner. “It’s a big heyday now.”

Corner founded Field Operations in 1998, in Philadelphia, where he chairs the landscape-architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania. He arrived at Penn fourteen years earlier, from England, where he grew up outside of Manchester, a hiker and climber who didn’t know he wanted to be a landscape architect until the British education system recommended it to him. At Penn, he studied under Ian McHarg, a seminal figure in landscape architecture, the reinventor who started people using ecological systems as a design starting point. Corner took McHarg to another level—putting people and history into the ecological studies of his predecessor. After a few years mostly theorizing on landscape, he acquired a few projects, such as Fresh Kills and the High Line, that repositioned landscape architecture for a lot of people, and suddenly he was winning awards that normally go to architects.

Sometimes Corner is mistakenly called Olmsted but more overgrown, a park-maker with a penchant for less-manicured plantings. In fact, he’s more like Olmsted as modern-literature professor, a designer who sees the landscape as text, a place where stories are written and rewritten, one on top of the next, sometimes getting all smudged up. 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.”

The ecology of city real-estate construction is such that the last open spaces in cities are the ones nobody wants, and often they are the biggest ones. Corner has said he wants the public to dream big about Fresh Kills, but that’s not too tough; it’s big already. How do you reappropriate what was once a salt marsh and is now filled with roughly 150 million tons of waste? How do you manage all the leaking chemicals—the 312 gallons of liquid dump excretions processed by the Sanitation Department every minute? You don’t just get rid of a landfill: The garbage still decays, the hills still descend a few feet every year, as gas leaks and pollutants drain. The Sanitation Department won’t be leaving the site for at least another three decades. Thus, Fresh Kills is no-man’s-land, or no-corporate-man’s-land anyway, and the way we design a park there says a lot about how we confront land we have screwed up and how cities might be designed in the future.

Trails for cross-country skiing, horseback riding, and mountain biking will be included in the early phase of the South Park development.Photo: Courtesy of Field Operations

The view from the mounds exists precisely because it was once a low-down, muddy, tidal place. Before it was settled in the seventeenth century by French Huguenots, Walloons, and freed slaves, Fresh Kills was host to a large Native American population and was sometimes referred to by native people as Aquehonga Manacknong, or “haunted woods.” Henry David Thoreau, living in Staten Island while trying to get freelance writing work in Manhattan, used to walk onto the marsh island in Fresh Kills to dig arrowheads, “the surest crop.” Beginning in the late-nineteenth century, brickmakers dug out clay deposits, creating holes in the meadows that would later attract sanitation experts looking for places to dump. Meanwhile, Staten Island was serving as a kind of spawning ground for naturalists in New York. William T. Davis, the island’s John Muir, rolled up his suit pants to explore the kills, so named for the old Dutch word for stream. Landscape artists painted bundles of salt-marsh hay. Men in hats rowed in Fresh Kills, while developers thought it was a shame it wasn’t all developed.

Around 1947, Robert Moses showed up with a plan to create new housing and parks on the site. STATEN ISLAND BOG GIVES WAY TO PARK ran a Times headline at the time, and streets were laid out in anticipation. But first the marshes would need to be filled in, a problem Moses solved by proposing first three and then twenty years of dumping. Within a year, a fleet of scows began ferrying trash to the 3,000-acre site. The New York Audubon Society protested that at least some of the clay ponds should remain untouched by garbage. “Once it is destroyed,” they warned, “it can never be restored.” Moses initially consented, but he soon changed his mind: By filling in the ponds, he argued, he was preventing possible drownings. Not that the dumpings succeeded in keeping everyone out of the ponds. As a kid in the fifties, Sanitation Commissioner Doherty used to camp along the kills with friends; they’d swing on a rope out into the murky water. “And we are all still relatively healthy,” he says.

“I said, ‘Look, whatever we do, we’ve got to keep the big and green. These are views most people would have to drive hours to see.’ ”

Fresh Kills was slowly filled in—the idea, of course, being simply to level off the meadows. A mile-and-a-half-long lake was displaced, and the marshes absorbed the junk and jetsam and little lost notes of city history: a million dollars’ worth of cocaine and heroin accidentally lost in a garbage scow (1948); eight capsules of radium accidentally taken from a doctor’s office (1949); a leg, possibly from a gangland-style hit (1974). There were plans for airports, in 1966, and, in 1970, for “a huge city within a city” that Mayor Lindsay never built. Moses’s promised parks never arrived, either, and by the seventies, one could identify the elevated beginnings of what would eventually become four trash mountains. “Mounding,” the city euphemistically called it, and officials imagined no more than 50 to 100 feet. A city report tried to put a good face on mounding, calling it a “superior land resource suitable for park and community development.” But the city knew it had a problem: In 1972, the Sanitation commissioner and the Environmental Protection administrator climbed a 55-foot-tall, 30,000-ton pile of garbage at Fresh Kills, as a teaching moment, to illustrate how much New York trashed every day (at the time reportedly more than London and Tokyo combined).

As expanding environmental regulations increased the expenses attendant on landfill maintenance, the cash-strapped city consolidated, piling more garbage into fewer landfills—one can read the four giant mounds as past fiscal crises written into the landscape. By the eighties, the city was down to four large dumps: one in the Bronx, one in Brooklyn, and two on Staten Island. Regulations changed again, and the city was sued to make safer dumps, the result being the city agreed to close all but Fresh Kills. This required upgrading on a military order. “When you have a place that’s as big as all of below 23rd Street in Manhattan,” says Phil Gleason, the engineer at the Sanitation Department in charge of the landfill for more than two decades, “you don’t just fix the place in a year.”

Fresh Kills excretes two substances: natural gas and leachate. Gas is dangerous—it can seep into utility lines and cause houses and neighborhoods to explode, a phenomenon not unheard of around landfills—but it is also valuable. Today, Fresh Kills is mined for 10,000 square cubic feet of gas a day, and the city receives $10 million annually from a gas company called National Grid. Leachate is more problematic. All dumps perspire leachate, which forms when rainwater combines with trash to make a kind of polluted tea, or garbage juice. New landfills are pre-lined with essentially clay and plastic. An estuary is perhaps the worst possible location for a landfill from the perspective of sustainable ecological practices, but the clay found in the marshes of Fresh Kills might, in fact, be sealing in some leachate (though despite all the engineering assurances in the world, some leachate is surely leaking out the bottom). The leachate captured by the Sanitation Department is mostly composed of ammonia, which is not the worst toxic chemical as far as incredibly toxic chemicals go, but not good, either.

The wetlands.Photo: Courtesy of Field Operations

In 1999, bowing to political pressure from Staten Island, Rudolph Giuliani announced that he would be closing Fresh Kills landfill and that the city would ship its trash to South Carolina. In 2003, Mayor Bloomberg, then at his lowest popularity levels, courted votes on Staten Island by proposing a park at Fresh Kills. The Municipal Arts Society had been exploring post-landfill uses for the site, and sponsored a contest with the City Planning department for landscape architects. In September 2003, Mayor Bloomberg announced Field Operations the winner, with Staten Island borough president James Molinaro calling the plan “the final nail in the heart of Dracula,” meaning the landfill was finally closed for good. The closing caught the engineers of the mound by surprise; the tallest mound had suddenly stopped at a 220-foot plateau. You don’t want plateaus on landfills; to channel rainwater in a controlled fashion, the mound would have to be regraded. The landfill was temporarily reopened to accommodate material from the World Trade Center, just as a design competition for the park had begun. (Some material with human remains in it was mixed in with other debris, so that relatives of 9/11 victims have sued the city unsuccessfully to sort through all the rubble again, and a 9/11 memorial is part of the park plan.) Today, if you go on one of the tours of the site given by the Parks Department, you can see trucks finishing off the East Mound with so-called “clean-fill” from construction sites and channel dredging as well as soil—topping it off like a cup of coffee in a diner. Even closed, the landfill needs feeding.

The first time Corner saw the view from the East Mound was summer 2001, when he toured the site in a van with other landscape architects competing for the commission. Every contestant ended up emphasizing so-called green ideas like recycling, native planting, and the use of sustainable-energy sources. Hargraves Associates featured Olmsted-sounding names like “The Meadows” and “The Preserve”; John M. Caslan and Partners proposed “ecospheres,” or giant domes that housed various American climates; and Rios’s plan featured an intrapark amphibious shuttle bus. But none of the competitors addressed the trash hills as explicitly as Corner. Linda Pollak, reviewing the competition in Praxis in 2002, noted the enormous opportunity for the “conceptual reengineering of these constructed mountains.” “Yet for the most part,” she noted, “these competition entries maintain a silence around their vast presence.”

Corner, in contrast, recognized that these Wall-E-esque trash heaps were the most significant feature of the land. “I was just blown away by the scope and beauty of the place,” he recalls. Embracing the hills was as counterintuitive to most city-park design as it was consistent with Corner’s philosophy of landscape, which was to take chances with what he called “the tough, machinic, strange quality of these sites” to reinvent a city dweller’s recreational landscape. The takeaway point: Keep the views, which he knew would blow away every New Yorker who will, 40 years from now, take a hybrid bus or solar-powered ferry to the place. “I said, ‘Look, whatever we do we’ve got to keep the big and green. These are views and vistas that most people in a city would have to drive three or four hours to see.’ ”

Just traveling through a landfill gets the average landscape architect pretty hyped up; geologic forces alone would never have created mounds like these. “I’m really excited about the structural aspects,” says Ellen Neises, Field Operations’ project designer for the park’s master plan. She and her husband cruised Staten Island on weekends when Field Operations was developing the competition entry, meeting with plant specialists, comparing every other park in the borough, and now in her mind’s eye she can see the transition from Fresh Kills landfill to Fresh Kills Park.

She points to an old playground, Schmul Park, and asks you to imagine a strip of small trees near an entry parking area. This tree farm, run by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, will be a staging ground for native plants—trees like eastern red cedar, black tupelo, and sweet gum—that will later be transplanted to the mounds and the lowlands around South Park.

This first patch of Fresh Kills Park, in other words, will contain the ingredients for the rest. In the nineties, Steven Handel, the ecologist from Rutgers, showed that small communities of native flora could be planted and, with some human help, could steal sunlight from invasive plant species and eventually beat them out. “We were having birds bring in seeds, not contractors,” Handel says. Field Operations adopted the idea in parts of the park, taking advantage of the mounds’ different moisture zones to seed forests and propagate plants.

Existing view from atop the South Mound, the first of the garbage piles that will be reclaimed as parkland with new soil, native meadow, and trails.Photo: Courtesy of Field Operations

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.

James Corner at Fresh Kills.Photo: Kevin Cooley

It’s conceptual, of course—the park looks cool in the renderings, a little like Mount Desert Island, if it were on the Jersey shore. But it’s not clear to anyone exactly how much it’ll cost, or whether Fresh Kills will ride out the fiscal crises in permanent Moundscape. So far, the city has budgeted $8.8 million for park design, which will go to Field Operations and its subcontractors. The first North Park step is planned to cost $21 million, or nearly $1 million an acre. “It’s much more than a normal park would cost,” says Eloise Hirsh, the park administrator for Fresh Kills. Imported clean soil goes for up to $80 a cubic foot, for instance, and plans will need to be made to keep the landfill infrastructure vandalproof.

But given the financial climate, it may be that the super-long-term trajectory of Corner’s plan shields it from the cyclical strains on city coffers. Flush budgets will come and go, he seems to be saying, and the Lifescape is designed to absorb that.

Some landscape architects complain that the Field Operations plan camouflages the landfill too much, which makes his critics sound, in a way, more Corner than Corner. Why should forests and wildflower fields mask the postindustrial mess we New Yorkers created? Why should we not see the trash, or at least the remediation process, more clearly? The ultimate in contemporary disturbed-site projects is Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, a 500-acre park in the Ruhr Valley of northwestern Germany, where Thyssen produced steel for 100 years. About twenty years ago, the government called for plans for adaptive reuse of the brownfield site, and landscape architect Peter Latz came forward with a design that created a playground, literally, within the industrial wasteland—underwater diving in the old gas tanks, rock climbing in the disused sewage channels.

As much as Corner admired Latz’s achievement, Fresh Kills doesn’t offer him the same opportunities for romantic decrepitude. For starters, most ecologists argue that we can’t just leave a place like Fresh Kills a broken dump. “If you left it alone,” says Handel, “it would change, but it would change in a depauperate way.” And Corner can’t imagine exposing, say, leachate streams for teaching-moment purposes, especially in a city where parents sue if their children’s feet burn on hot playgrounds. “I think landscape should be edifying, but there are joyous and optimistic ways. It doesn’t have to be so apocalyptic.”

When you are walking around Fresh Kills today, the hills look at once magnificent and strange, a little bit solemn and prehistoric, a little eerie—a cross between the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, which mark the site of an ancient Native American city that thrived between 700 and 1,400 A.D., and the mounds of the Teletubbies. Big, long trucks crawl across the top of the East Mound, bulldozers scratching, laying down loads of clean-fill to close up the top of the dump, a decadelong process. The long drumlin-shaped mound features long lines, parallel to the ground, giving the appearance of fallow farm fields. Phragmites reeds are everywhere, along with ailanthus trees and mugwort—it’s an Eden of the small number of species that thrive in poor soils and beat-up ecologies.

You feel free, as people so often do in old industrial sites, as if the rules are a little bit off. The rules are not off, of course, and the Sanitation Department is still a little nervous seeing people out here, especially if they’re carrying cameras. Not too long ago, a young, hip designer, new to Field Operations, was wandering on the site, and the sanitation worker in charge of security looked at him as if he had wandered in from some nightclub. And if you have any history at the site, if you remember it when it was covered with stinking trash, if you remember the day the very last municipal trash barge came in, as I do (I happened to be there), then it feels like a ghost town, so many workers gone, no more municipal garbage rattling out the backs of trucks, with fences everywhere trying to contain the garbage, booms out on the water holding back the trash as it tries to make a break for it and float away to Jersey.

You can walk the little land bridges crossing creeks that were once fresh and then polluted and now dead and dry. There are patches of what you might call natural landscapes: Near the South Mound, there are little beachheads of spartina, the same indigenous salt-marsh grass that once covered most of the area. You can see groves of trees planted by people like Steven Handel and also Richard Lynch, a longtime Staten Island naturalist who has single-handedly put in mini-forests in the area. But mostly the place feels one-note, beaten-down, and tired.

The machines that were used to move around trash were originally designed for the mining industry: huge monsterlike diggers, one of which, courtesy of the Sanitation Department, is being dismantled so that it can be moved beneath the West Shore Expressway and stationed along the road. From the jaws of the old tool will dangle the first sign to announce the new park; it will be Field Operations–style graphically cool. It will also announce the beginning of the work of reimagining that the public has to do. “One of the biggest things about Fresh Kills,” says Corner, “is that there are so many bureaucracies and entities involved. And there’s no king, there’s no mayor, there’s no one individual. Whatever happens is going to be a collective. You’ve got to continually mediate conflicting interests.” The most complicated part of the design is the idea that it is designed to change. “Large parks will always exceed singular narratives,” Corner wrote in a recent essay. “They are larger than the designer’s will for authorship.” He added, “The trick is to design a large park framework that is sufficiently robust to lend structure and identity while also having sufficient pliancy and ‘give’ to adapt to changing demands and ecologies over time.” Early on, people were saying there should not be a park there. There were the health and safety issues that people thought were insurmountable. Now it appears to be a given that there will be a park there, and that it will be different somehow. “I think people get it,” says Eloise Hirsh, the park administrator.

Very few urban parks compare to Fresh Kills in terms of size. The smaller Bois de Boulogne comes to mind, as does Amsterdamse Bos, the man-made woods adjacent to Amsterdam. In St. Louis, Forest Park is bigger than Central Park but about half the size of what Fresh Kills is slated to be. What it will be is as significant as what it was in the past, so that there is some kind of a moral, a teaching moment, buried in the new Fresh Kills idea, even if Corner doesn’t want to say so: If we learn how to make a dump into something else, something that’s still somehow related to a dump, then we might make better dumpers in the future, and we will think differently or just think about how and when we fill the land. Fresh Kills is like forest succession on a simultaneously human and industrial basis, like a nurse log in the woods, where one plant moves in on the back of another, where one use is superseded by another, one layer of ideas on top of the last. Walking around, you can think about these things, and feel a kind of excitement, and then all of the sudden get freaked out by a feral cat and wonder where the hell it came from.

Wall-E Park