Freshkills Park

It’s not impossible, but making your way to Freshkills Park is a bit of a trial. The park is not officially open yet, so one either has to visit during a planned event or get a group together for a tour. Despite the challenge, a trip to this amazing changing landscape is definitely worth the trek out to Staten Island.

Freshkills was originally opened in 1948 as a landfill. It was meant to be open for only three years, but it stayed open until 2001. A design competition was then held and a plan to create Freshkills Park was chosen. The company that won was Field Operations, the same group that designed the High Line. Work officially began on the park in 2010 and they hope to have it finished by 2030.

Smokestacks in the background of Freshkills

When I went on a tour of the park I was amazed that it used to be the world’s largest landfill. The rolling, grassy hills and the beautiful creek did not immediately scream trash mountain to me. Upon a closer look, I could see the signs of the past. Smoke stacks behind hills, garbage trucks, and gas well heads scattered throughout the landscape reminded me that the hill I was climbing was almost entirely made of trash. Between me and the trash was a soil barrier layer, a gas vent layer, an impermeable plastic liner, a drainage layer, at least two feet of barrier protection material, and at least six inches of planting soil. The engineers who designed this park had safety in mind when considering how to cover the trash. The drainage layer is to make sure that leachate (water that mixes with waste and toxic substances) would not leak into the kill (an old Dutch word for creek). The gas vent layer connects with the gas well heads and then the landfill gas (LFG, which consists of methane, carbon dioxide, water, and other organic matter) is then collected and stored. Since methane and CO2 are both greenhouse gasses, it is important that LFG is collected so they are not released into our already polluted atmosphere.

Freshkills, as well as reusing a damaged landscape and converting it into a natural area for the city to enjoy, also pays attention to how it can be environmentally sustainable. Currently the gas collected from the landfill is purified, sold to National Grid, and used to power many neighborhoods in Staten Island. In 2013 former New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg announced that Freshkills would be the site of the largest solar power installation in the city. This installation is expected to produce over 10 megawatts of power and make the city produce 50% more renewable energy. Wind turbines and geothermic heating and cooling systems might also be placed in Freshkills.

The reenergization of Freshkills also helps the city in other ways. The area was originally a low-lying salt marsh, but the landfill compacted everything and altered the landscape. The transformation of the landfill to a park has helped reestablish the marsh. The plan is to bring back native habitats and reduce non-native and invasive plants. Currently the park suffers from an infestation of non-native phragmites, a plant that looks like a tall grass and thrives near wetlands, but will take over any available lands. The park has used goats in the past to get rid of the invasive species, but the population of phragmites has come back. Anyway, the now reinvigorated marsh provides a vital service to Staten Island. During Hurricane Sandy, the hills of trash and waterways which were once used to float waste into the landfill, protected the neighborhoods of Travis, Bulls Head, New Springville, and Arden Heights from what could have been catastrophic flooding. Though they did still receive some of Sandy’s storm surge, they were saved from the worst of it.

Freshkills Landscape

Freshkills Park is a symbol of our changing mentality toward the environment and a hopeful sign to end my journey through New York’s parks this semester. Though only two sections of the park are currently open for all year public use – Schmul Park and Owl Hollow Soccer Fields – Freshkills Park will one day become the second largest park in New York City and be sustainable. It was designed with protecting our environment in mind and promoting green energy. I believe that the conservation practices currently in place at the park in combination with the sustainable design will make Freshkills Park one of the most prepared parks in New York for the effects of climate change.


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Old Croton Aqueduct State Trail

Despite only walking a section of the Old Croton Aqueduct State Trail less than a mile long, I spent more than 4 hours on it one April morning. A group of over 200 volunteers gathered in Yonkers around a buffet of food to listen to the mayor and various other city officials talk about the importance of maintaining the trail. We could barely understand them over the murmurings of the crowd, though we did hear a shout out to Sarah Lawrence College, even though only three of us came to help with the cleanup.  After the men and women in suits finished speaking, the rest of us took to the trail and the Annual Yonkers Cleanup Day really began. We were all ready to get started on what we were actually there for – making the section of the OCA in Yonkers a more pleasant space.

Dumping problems paralyzes this section of the trail, which spans from Palisade Ave to Prescott St. The trail is seen as a convenient area to get rid of bulky items, such as mattress or reclining chairs. During our cleanup I saw at least two of each, as well as many other interesting items. The biggest problem was the amount of litter – bottles, cigarettes, Styrofoam, plastic plates. With no garbage cans along the pathway, people think that they can just throw their trash anywhere. The worst items were the plastic bags. They were partially decomposed and tore into tiny pieces as we tried to pick them up.

Trash is not the only problem the trail has though, the trees are covered in invasive vines. Like in a lot of the parks I’ve visited in New York, many of the trees have been completely taken over by vines. The Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct have two events planned in the near future, one at the section of the trail in Croton-on-Hudson and the other with a location unspecified, which will focus on weeding out invasive species on the trail. They also encourage people who wish to volunteer to specifically focus on trail cleanup and invasives removal.

Unlike most of the parks I have visited during this project, the trail is not directly on the water. That means that while thinking about how the trail will fare against climate change, rising sea levels are not an important concern. What is a concern is getting rid of invasive species and preventing dumping and littering.

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If the trash in the park continues to be mismanaged that could lead to it getting into the waterways and hurting the marine animals. Cigarette butts, which are prevalent on the trail, are considered toxic waste. They do not biodegrade – the plastic in the filters just breaks down into smaller pieces. The toxins from cigarettes also leach into the water and can kill wildlife. In addition, the park has other waste, like needles, which can become hazards to unsuspecting people whom simply want to enjoy the park. To prevent more damage from occurring on the trail and lessen the effects of climate change, I would encourage the placement of trashcans along the trail. It might also be helpful if the Yonkers Clean Up event occurred more frequently than just once a year.



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Croton Gorge Park

Before beginning this post I want to make it clear that I spent all of ten minutes in this park. I had heard about the park from a friend and, while on a hiking trip the first weekend in April, I finished hiking early and was able to drive over to the park with the extra time before I had to return my rental car. I was able to look around and get some pictures of the New Croton Dam, but I did not get a chance to hike on the trail.

The dam is 200 feet tall and was the first large-scale masonry dam in the US. It was built from 1892-1906 and was originally meant to bring drinking water to New York City, but the needs of NYC soon outgrew the capacity of the dam. To create the dam, the riverbed had to be diverted and dried, then a canal was built to alter the flow of the river. While on top of the dam, one can see the Croton Reservoir, which can hold 34 billion gallons of water. There are many fish in the reservoir, including bass and perch species. Rowboats are allowed on it, but must first be approved by the NY Department of Environmental Protection.

New Croton Dam

When you drive into the park, you immediately get a view of the dam. It’s beautiful with the water cascading off the stones, before flowing under the bridge. On the day I visited, the view was marred slightly by a fenced off spot next to the side of the dam. Across the bridge, there is a wide, open space with plenty of picnic tables, a playground, a baseball field, and bathrooms.

On one side of the field, after flowing off the dam, is the river, which is open for fishing, but not for swimming. Though in many places in the Hudson Valley it is not recommended to eat more than one fish meal per month for men over fifteen and women over 50 due to mercury contamination, the NY Health Department does say it is okay to eat up to four fish meals per month for people of all ages from the New Croton Reservoir as of 2014. It is not safe enough to swim in, though that might have more to do with the river than the water quality.

The wood in Croton Gorge Park

On the other side of the field there is a wood. Like most of the woods I’ve visited in New York, it was covered in vines.  The one trail in the park leads up through the woods to the top of the dam and also connects to the beginning of the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail (stay tuned for a post about that trail), which stretches 26.2 miles to Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. The trail is the only way to reach the top of the dam. There is a road that crosses over the top, but cars have been prohibited to cross it since 9/11. If someone is in a hurry to see the top of the dam, they can park on the side of the road before the blockade and cross on foot, though signs are posted that say parking is not allowed.

Back in the main part of the park there is a fountain, which sometimes is operational. I unfortunately didn’t get to see it working, but, when it is active, the pressure of the water in the reservoir powers it. Other than the invasive vines and some trash overflowing from the bins, the park appears to be well kept. Though this park might not be impacted by rising sea levels, the dam has large environmental impacts, which must be acknowledged. Dams prevent the migration of fish and altering riverbeds diminishes areas where fish can spawn in river bottoms. Another impact is that sediment is trapped by the dam, which can lead to the river being eroded further downstream. This park may be enjoyable and the dam a pretty photographic opportunity, but it is not without its environmental consequences.



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Riverside Park

Riverside Park, located next to the Hudson River and stretching 4 miles, is a beautiful park though the day I was there it was raining. It wasn’t as enjoyable as it could have been. The park is a bit unusual seeing as the West Side Highway splits it into two parts. On one side is the forest, with lots of paths and fields for sports. The other side has a trail that runs along the Hudson. I got a chance to explore both of them.

The park has lots of diverse elements to it, which attract lots of different people. There are many sports areas including those for basketball, soccer, baseball, tennis, and skateboarding. The park has a large marina and during the spring and summer one can rent kayaks. There is a play area for children and many historical monuments. One interesting monument is actually a part of the National Parks System. Grant’s Tomb is a beautiful memorial and historically important.

An interesting section of the park is the Woodland Restoration area. First, I want to point out a bit of confusion. In the park there was a sign that said “Forever Wild”. This is a program from the NYC Parks system to protect and preserve ecosystems in the city. Though on the map of Forever Wild areas Riverside Park is included, it is not listed as a location of the initiative in other sections of the website. Whether or not the restoration done in Riverside Park is a part of Forever Wild project, the work done is very important. The original trees planted in this area had grown very tall and formed a lush canopy. Underneath this canopy, non-native plants had spread and taken over the landscape. Volunteers have started to remove invasive trees, put down compost, and created a berm – a strip of land bordering a river – that has an erosion cloth, to slow runoff. Native grasses and perennials were then planted. Finally, the canopy has been pruned to allow for more sunlight to reach the newly planted flora.

Woodland Restoration in Riverside Park

There are limited access points to the trail, called Cherry Walk, but it is definitely worth taking a walk along. Be careful though – I was strolling along the path and paused for a second and got yelled at by one of the bikers. The trail is located right next to the Hudson River, with hardly any space between the path and the water. One part of the trail does have a fence protecting it from the riverbank, but on other parts you can step off the trail and put your feet in the water. (Though swimming in the Hudson is legal, I would not dare to do that, at least not in the weather that I experienced while walking along the trail.) On the other side of the trail is the West Side Highway. With how close the trail is to the river, I expect that many parts of the trail would be vulnerable to sea level rise. The rest of the park would be protected from any changes in sea level because it was built on top of retaining walls. Still any change to the park would be a great loss to the city since the park is one of eight scenic landmarks in NYC, according to the NYC Parks Department.

Easy access to the Hudson River

While I was walking along the trail I saw an interesting sign. I just glanced at it, but as far as I could tell it was asking for money to build new bathrooms. When I investigated online I found out it was a part of the Green Outlook (GO) initiative, which wants to build a rest area alongside the red clay tennis courts in an abandoned parking lot. This facility would be a sustainable maintenance building, and would include a wildflower meadow on the roof and a carbon-neutral public restroom which would have composting toilets, use solar energy, rainwater, and recycled materials. The compost would be used to fertilize the meadow. I think this initiative is great. Creating sustainable buildings makes people think about climate change during times when they usually wouldn’t. The building is also a great example of how other urban buildings, outside of parks, can be sustainably designed.



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Randall’s Island

Randall’s Island is a park in sections. I visited the island on a rainy morning in April. I was surprised, upon entering the park, to see how much of it was not actually parklands. The island has a wastewater treatment plant, a fire academy, a psychiatric center, a shelter, and a few other buildings. Along the edges there are gardens and wetlands, and on the inside are soccer fields, tennis courts, a stadium, baseball diamonds, and a golf course.

I walked along the southern edge of the island. The path is multi-purpose allowing for both walkers and cyclers to use it. It’s edged with pretty gardens, including one section that is a native plant garden. This is a great conservational move because native plants need less maintenance than non-native plants and do not promote the spreading of invasive species. This does make me wish that all of the gardens on the island used native plants.

Marshlands at Randall’s Island

Just a few feet from the path is the East River. There are no protections to stop the river from flooding the island in the event of a storm, but the grass strip between the path and the river does help prevent runoff from entering into the water. The northern end of the island, which I didn’t have a chance to explore, has even more protective elements. That section of the park is home to salt marshes and freshwater wetlands. Both of these natural areas work as barriers between the developed sections of the park and the river during floods or storm surges by soaking up the excess water and releasing it slowly. They also help to stop erosion and offer food and sanctuary for birds.

Just a step and you’re in the East River.

The Randall’s Island Park Alliance has raised over $16 million to restore and develop the natural areas of the park. They first worked on restoring the salt marsh and freshwater wetland; later they repaired a seawall, planted another salt marsh and helped create a second growth forest.

Another cool feature of the island is the Urban Farm. Only an acre large, the farm produces organic fruits and vegetables and uses a wide variety of growing methods. Some food found at the farm includes: rice, kale, leek, broccoli, lettuce, carrots, and corn. There’s also a chicken coop. Even a farm as small as this one is great in this changing ecological world. An urban farm helps, in a small way, reduce the city’s ecological footprint.

Though the majority of Randall’s Island is likely to be flooded in the case of an extreme weather event and rising tides would severely decrease the acreage of the island, I believe Randall’s Island is doing its best to fight the effects of climate change. They regularly look for volunteers to help get rid of invasive plant species, plant native trees, and get rid of trash. The restoration of coastal marshes goes a long way to helping prevent runoff and erosion from hurting both the park and the river.

From an island in the East River to a park alongside the Hudson, in the next post I cross Manhattan to visit Riverside Park.



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Great Kills Park

My trip to Great Kills Park, part of the Staten Island Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area accidentally occurred too early for two different reasons. The first reason is that I went in late March, only a week before the ranger station opens up for the summer season, though I didn’t realize it at the time. The second reason takes a bit more explaining, so keep reading.

After a long bus ride from Manhattan, I arrived at Great Kills Park – two stops after the one I was supposed to get off on. Siri has never been my friend and the location I thought was supposed to be the park entrance was actually just a fenced off section of the park. I walked along the side of the road to get back to where the gate is and once again took in the sight I’ve become so used to: trash everywhere and lots of vines.

When I finally made it to the gate I was surprised to realize how far of a walk it was to get to the main section of the park. The sidewalk stretched on forever and there wasn’t much to see. The parklands on either side of the road were fenced off. I saw a sign saying that an environmental cleanup operation was going on and that entrance was prohibited. Other signs said that there were hazardous materials in these spaces. I kept walking.

The path was surprisingly busy, despite the chill. Lots of people were running or riding their bikes. Some walked with family, others chatted on their cell phones. All were out to enjoy the park.

Eventually I reached the beach, and the closed visitors center and parking lots. The beach seemed nice, though lifeguards were not posted at the time (they’ll start working after Memorial Day). I’m not much of a beach person, so I kept walking. I passed by the busy marina and walked all the way out to Crookes Point. In this area of the park I was finally able to find hiking trails, though they were very short and not cleared very well. They felt like afterthoughts to the general purpose of the park. Finally, I sat on the edge of the water, on a rocky ledge, watching a group of men fish and some seagulls fighting.

All in all, I have to say that this is not my kind of park. I prefer parks with great views and lots of hiking trails. Great Kills is meant for more recreationally minded people, what with the beach and marina. My assessment of the park was furthered when I was able to get ahold of a map. The park contains soccer fields, four ball fields, a model airplane flying field, and a few more trails in that mysterious closed off section of the park.

That 265-acre mystery section was once a city landfill. Robert Moses (the same Moses who built the Jamaica Bay Ponds) wanted to strengthen that section of Staten Island marshland so that it could be used for recreational purposes. Household and industrial trash was dumped there to compact the land and fill it. In 2005 during a helicopter sweep of the area, the New York Police found 80 hot spots of radiation, which were 200 times the background levels expected in such an area. That section of the park was then closed down to be surveyed. Though Hurricane Sandy delayed the survey process, eventually the National Parks Service discovered 1,200 locations with elevated levels of radiation. Thirty-five of the spots were excavated and the rest still need to be investigated.

It doesn’t end there though. During the survey, the NPS realized that not only was the radiation even more prevalent than they first suspected, they also found out that the waste material dumped in the land, as well as having radioactive materials, contained chemical contaminants. This has led to another, separate study of the land that started in 2015, which will take approximately five years to finish.

Trash on Crookes Point in Great Kills Park

It’s hard for me to make an assessment of how well Great Kills can stand up against climate change with so much of the park blocked off. It was difficult to get a feel for how much land invasive species had taken over. From what I could tell, the beach seemed healthy – if a bit full of trash – and there were barriers in place to prevent erosion. On park message boards I saw signs for a Littoral Society clean up event from last October. I visited Great Kills four years too early to really understand the park, but hopefully I’ll get the chance to visit again in the future.



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Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

The first thing you notice about Jamaica Bay is the trash. It’s everywhere. It’s caught in the trees; it’s on the ground in minuscule pieces so that it almost blends in with the earth. It’s a sad sight to behold and to enjoy the park you have to ignore the litter everywhere.

Trash at Jamaica Bay

I arrived at the park first by subway and then a mile-long walk to the park entrance. Without a car, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, is hard to access, but definitely worth the visit. It is the only wildlife refuge managed by the National Parks Service and is an important birding location. Twenty percent of North American bird species stop at the refugee each year. When I visited, I almost got to see an owl, but it flew away just before I got there.

There are two main trails in the park and I decided to walk the loop around the West Pond. This puts you immediately out on the marsh. It feels completely natural, other than the looming views of the Manhattan skyline. I hadn’t really taken a good look at the park map, so I was surprised when my walk abruptly ended. Hurricane Sandy had breached part of the pond, rendering the trail impassable, and three years later it still hadn’t been fixed.

The West Pond Breach – Source: NPS

After a thorough search for information of Jamaica Bay I did find out there is a plan underway to fix the trail, but I also learned something interesting about the pond. The West Pond and its eastern counterpart are both man-made ponds, created under the orders of Robert Moses, a city planner who worked in the New York City area. Plus, not only were these parks man-made, they were also fresh-water ponds. This means that the break is especially bad, because it turned the fresh-water area into a salt-water space. This makes the pond unable to support some of the unique birds that visited the freshwater pond. Hopefully the pond will be repaired soon, but first the NPS must assess the viability of restoring the pond to a freshwater ecosystem or letting it “revert” to saltwater. (Supporters of restoring the pond to freshwater think it doesn’t make sense to let a man-made pond revert to anything.)

The National Park Service said, in a report produced before Hurricane Sandy, that they expect Gateway to be affected by climate change in four main ways: sea level rise, temperature changes, precipitation changes, and extreme weather events.  Hurricane Sandy is arguably an example of such an extreme weather event caused by climate change. There have been other effects already occurring in the meantime. The National Parks Conservation Association says that the salt marshes of Jamaica Bay have lost 60% of their area. In 2014 a grant of $11.1 million was provided to the park for many projects including salt marsh, wetlands, and forest restoration, as well as oyster bed enhancements.

A view of the Manhattan skyline from Jamaica Bay

The Nature Conservancy is working with the National Parks Service and the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy to make the park more resistant to rising sea levels and also to protect it from the changing climate. They plan to weed out invasive species, such as Asiatic bittersweet, and plant new trees and shrubs and species that are flood-resistant and can tolerate and flourish in salty water. They also plan to add in milkweed to attract pollinators. Emily Nobel Maxwell, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s program in NYC hopes that this will serve as an example of what could be done to protect the rest of the City’s coastline.

Though Jamaica Bay has its issues, it’s clear that the National Park Service and proponents of the park are trying to improve and conserve it for future use. When you have the time, you should definitely stop by the park to hike but make sure you read the map before hitting the trails.



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