Take a longer view…News
After checking out March’s Dwell magazine, one of the pieces that stuck with us most was a visit to Freshkills Park on Staten Island (yes, we sometimes pay attention to things outside of Brooklyn). Hopefully the “5 Boroughs in 48 Hours” piece will make it on Dwell’s website soon. It’s a whirlwind trip through our fair city passing through an apartment in Harlem, restaurant in Flushing, loft space in Red Hook, and a green roof complete with beekeeping in the Bronx. The whole issue is centered on New York City spaces, and definitely (as usual) worth picking up a copy.
However, it was the small piece on Freshkills that we felt had the most impact. Since the late 40’s the name has suggested one of the most visible monuments to environmental abuse and our throw-away culture. In some ways Freshkills’ tale will always remain about that, but over the past decade and in the next three or so to come, another layer will be added.
After accepting its last barge of NYC’s trash in 2001 – with an exception for wreckage from Sept 11th – New York City has positioned Freshkills to be almost 2200 acres of park dedicated to restoring a more balanced relationship between people and the environment. Over the next 30 years the design for this environmental reclamation project will boast vast tracts of undisturbed meadows and fields combined with educations centers, public waterfront space, hiking trails, and open waterways.
All of that is fantastic, but like most environmental efforts in our time it’s a bit of a mixed bag. In the short view, one can’t help but remember the fact that New York City can only take this acreage from what the NYC Parks Department describes as “an emblem of wastefulness, excess, and environmental neglect” to a place where nature is celebrated only due to what resembles a massive shell game. The four mounds representing about 150 tons of garbage have to go somewhere if they’re not coming to what was, for a time, New York City’s only landfill. These days (since 2001) that means our household trash – our coffee cups, chip wrappers, and patio chairs – are shipped out of sight to places like Pennsylvania and Virginia. As with many of the steps toward an ultimate ecological balance, change becomes entangles in contradiction and compromise. Obviously, we’d have less need for landfills if we had less garbage to discard, and there’s a certain out-of-sight, out-of-mind quality to sending our trash to faraway places while we allow our corner of Mother Nature to reclaim her lost wetlands. It’s one of the special burdens of environmental consciousness in our time to not let these contradictions deter us from our work. However, in the face of these contradictions, we must consider the system-wide steps being taken to correct generations of environmental neglect in a longer view. Turning more of our waste into compost, creative recycling efforts, and ever-spreading green roofs are helping to make sure that the barges we send away are emptier every decade, dwindling to a number where the fleets mostly exist as the floating gardens described in the master plan.
This brings us back to Freshkills Park. According to the NY Parks Dept. while almost 45% of the Freshkills site was used for daily landfill operations, the remainder has stayed as wetlands and waterways. The new park hopes to embrace more of that with soccer fields next to LEED Gold rated buildings and pathways nestled next to the William T. Davis wildlife refuge.
All of these slow deliberate efforts will add another layer to a complex, but ultimately positive legacy. In almost the same amount of time it took our wastefulness to grow those mounds, they will be converted from a symbol of waste to a symbol of the effort to act more responsibly toward the place we call home.