Leaders of both parks aim to learn from each other’s successes and challenges in order to create the greenest spaces possible in two densely populated metropolitan regions.

Once deemed the wastelands of their respective regions, the two most notorious garbage dumps of Israel and New York City are joining hands to find a greener future together.

A garbage mountain to remember (see below)

The leaders of Ariel Sharon Park – home to the Hiriya garbage mountain – and Staten Island’s Freshkills – the burdensome landfill of the fifth borough – signed an agreement to “twin” the two parks on Thursday afternoon, for a shared path of informational flow and other cooperative plans going forward.

As both parks are scheduled to undergo extensive rehabilitation in the next few decades, their leaders aim to learn from each other’s successes and challenges, in order to create the greenest spaces possible, in two densely populated metropolitan regions.

“Just like Hiriya was considered to be a mountain of garbage, Freshkills was also thought to be one big pit of garbage,” Moshe Borochov, the CEO of Ariel Sharon Park, told The Jerusalem Post. “People don’t understand how on Hiriya it’s possible to have shows, to have a lake, to enjoy an open, developed public space – a place that today serves the public [but] was once a mountain of garbage.

“The parks are very similar from a rehabilitation angle and also from a perspective of taking a place that once was a nuisance and transforming it into a resource.”

Both garbage dumps began receiving garbage more than 60 years ago and closed at roughly the same time – Hiriya in 1999 and Freshkills in 2001 – collecting and concentrating waste from their respective cities, Borochov said.

The two parks will be roughly the same size, about 800 hectares or three times the size of Central Park, and will involve many of the same engineering and technical planning decisions, Borochov added.

A portion of Ariel Sharon Park, atop Hiriya, was first opened to the public in May 2011, with more and more wooded areas, bike paths and other slices of greenery gradually opening all the time.

Although Hiriya will remain a landmark icon at the park’s center, the reformed “garbage mountain” will only be a small part of the Gush Dan region’s green oasis in the years to come. Costs for the entire park’s transformation are estimated to reach $250 million by the project’s eventual conclusion.

“In New York, this is the image that everyone has in their mind about Freshkills,” said Eloise Hirsh, the Freshkills Park administrator for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, displaying a photograph of birds swarming over piles of garbage. “The change in public perception is a big deal in both of our works.”

In an effort run by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Department of Sanitation, rehabilitation work on the ground, after years of planning, kicked off in 2008. Despite already appearing much greener on the outside, however, no portion of the park has been opened to the public except through special tours, Hirsh said, during a presentation about the site on Thursday.

Unlike Ariel Sharon Park, which contains a garbage dump as well as expansive agricultural fields, Freshkills was nearly entirely covered in garbage – making the rehabilitation process a bit more complex from a public health perspective.

“All of New York City’s garbage was coming to Freshkills Park,” she said. “Staten Island is the least populated and least politically powerful of all of the boroughs.”

After its completion, the Freshkills Park will hold five parks in one – the Confluence, North Park, South Park, East Park and West Park.

The Freshkills Park administration has already rehabilitated a local playground on the border of the park, and constructed new soccer fields and geothermal heated bathrooms in another neighborhood site just outside the park’s lines. By opening these neighborhood projects first, Hirsh said she hopes to see the public actively engaging in, and gaining a positive perspective about, the overall Freshkills transformation.

Among the future plans for the park include compost toilets on a forested plateau, bike paths and baseball fields, a natural amphitheater and restoration of the wetlands – as a reminder of the days before the colossal dump emerged.

Research centers for alternative energy, biodiversity, ornithology and soil and water studies will also be critical elements of the park, as will be further cleanups of the waterways that run through the grounds, Hirsh said.

“We’re going to use oysters to clean parts of our water,” she said. “Our waterways are clean enough for boating but they are not yet clean enough for swimming.”

Like on the peak of Hiriya, where live performances draw crowds on hot summer nights, Freshkills also aims to become a beacon of arts and culture, drawing New York City residents to its greenery for all sorts of activities, Hirsh added.

“Freshkills is so important to the future of parks and environment and waste sustainability in New York City that it will continue to be supported,” she said. “It’s so important for us to continue to work with colleagues around the world.”

Together with Borochov and his colleagues at Ariel Sharon Park, Hirsh told the Post that she hopes to see continued exchanges of information and specialized knowledge between the two groups.

Calling such big, public projects “lonely work.” She stressed that it is “terrific to have a relationship that has the potential to be so close.”

As the Israeli and Staten Island parks forge forward together toward a common goal, Hirsh said that she hopes to see this partnership inspire future such international collaborations on land reclamation projects.

“Everybody has landfills, everybody has spoiled places, and the work that we’re doing, the work that [Borochov] and the Ariel Sharon Park people are doing, is all about gaining more knowledge and sharing more knowledge about how to make those places better,” Hirsh said.

A garbage mountain to remember

Crawling at turtle speed over the Outerbridge Crossing from New Jersey to Staten Island, we knew that in just a few miles we would be greeted with the welcoming aroma of the Fresh Kills Landfill.

Crawling at turtle speed over the Outerbridge Crossing from New Jersey to Staten Island, we knew that in just a few miles we would be greeted with the welcoming aroma of the Fresh Kills Landfill – or as my dad referred to it, the Staten Island Dump.

On each Passover, Rosh Hashana or any other family event, traveling from our home in central New Jersey to our cousins in Long Island almost always provided two consistencies: 1) the traffic and 2) a prime view of a colossal garbage mountain just east of the West Shore Expressway. That is, aside from the rare times we took the New Jersey Turnpike straight to the Goethals Bridge and right to the Staten Island Expressway.

Opened in 1947, the landfill was once the largest man-made structure in the world. It certainly outlasted its welcome, permeating the area with its infamous odor and unsightly presence until 2001. Yes, unsightly, but a timeless memory in the chain of stuffy car rides and backseat brawls with my younger brother.

My mother – an environmental health specialist – recalls a particularly malodorous episode in September 1986, when she visited Fresh Kills as a consultant to assess the impacts of the site’s methane recovery system. While she was not yet positive she was pregnant with my brother before the visit, the nausea that resulted from that day’s fragrances confirmed her suspicions.

Little did my mother know that just two-and-a-half decades later her daughter would be covering in great detail the transformation of another equally problematic eyesore – Israel’s “Fresh Kills” – a mere 9,000 kilometers eastward. On Thursday, New York’s garbage dump to remember became an official partner with its Israeli counterpart in the heart of Gush Dan.

Piece by piece, small portions of Israel’s rehabilitated Hiriya garbage mountain began to open to the public in 2011. Although the overhaul of the entire site, now known as Ariel Sharon Park, will by no means be complete for decades, the burgeoning oasis now stands side by side with its New Yorker sister of roughly the same size, undergoing similar trials and tribulations.

When a garbage dump I grew up with joins hands with the one I’ve been writing about ever since I moved to Israel, it’s safe to say that I’ve come full circle.

I hope that, in the not so distant future, some wide-eyed little girl traveling with her family from New Jersey to Long Island will request a stop along the West Shore Expressway to see – and smell – the freshly blossoming vegetation and diverse array of wildlife on a green Staten Island.