Trash to Treasure
Generating energy in a garbage dump turned public park
The Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island was one of the more dubious pen-strokes of New York’s “master builder,” Robert Moses, in 1948. The idea: Take the garbage from New York City, dump it into an unbuildable wetland for a few years, and then develop the trash heap into residential or industrial zones.
Fifty-three years later, the last barge schlepped its last load of trash. By then, Fresh Kills was not only earth’s biggest garbage dump, but also the largest man-made structure on the planet, surpassing in volume even the 5,500-mile Great Wall of China.
Since its closure in 2001, however, Fresh Kills has made a startling transformation from junk heap to public park—a green canvas three times the size of Central Park. The trash has been sealed and contained; wildlife areas and wetlands restored; and trails and recreational spaces established.
The park’s master plan, created by the New York City planning department in collaboration with other city and state departments, envisions a scope far grander than environmental restoration and outdoor recreation. Freshkills Park will serve as “a leading site for ecological research, renewable energy installations, sustainably designed educational and cultural facilities, and large public artworks,” according to planning department documents.
A neatly overlapping incarnation of this vision took place in 2012 in the form of a competition sponsored by the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), a project of the Pittsburgh-based Society for Cultural Exchange. LAGI’s mission, in a nutshell, is to design and build public artworks that are also public utilities —works that generate power and feed it into the public utility grid. The initiative was created by the husband and wife team of Robert Ferry, an architect, and Elizabeth Monoian, an interdisciplinary artist and designer who is founder and director of the Society for Cultural Exchange.