by Mark Sosnowitz, MG, GCSAA
When you look at a map of Manhattan Island, you will see just how central Central Park is - placed and laid out in such a way that people use it from all four sides. And even though it was rated as one of the world's 10 most-visited tourist attractions in 2013, it is not just for tourists. It gets used every day by the common New Yorker and is a vital part of their day as an integral cut of the fabric of their lives. If you sit at one of the entrances to the park for an hour, you'll see a wide variety of routines walk in and out. The park is a gathering spot for many groups, for picnics, for walks and exercise, ball games, concerts and more. I've been in the park many times, for many different activities through the years, and after a while I started to think about its history, how it got to where it is and why, and its functionality.
The Genesis of Central Park
Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape architect from Newburgh, New York, was one of the first in the field to propose a park the size of New York City's Central Park. He was also the publisher of The Horticulturist magazine. A friend and mentor to Olmsted, Downing brought him together with Calvert Vaux, who had moved here from England as Downing's architectural collaborator.
Downing died in July 1852. Olmsted and Vaux entered the Central Park design competition together. Vaux had invited the less experienced Olmsted to participate in the design competition with him, having been impressed with Olmsted's theories and political contacts. Prior to this, in contrast with the more experienced Vaux, Olmsted had never created or executed a landscape design.
But in 1858 their plan and package, the Greensward Plan, was chosen from 33 submitted in competition for a $2,000 prize, which even in those days was peanuts for the amount of time, effort and cost to complete their end of the project. The team began executing their plan almost immediately.
Central Park Design
When Olmsted and Vaux entered their proposal, the setting they were to work with was a desolate, rocky plot of more than 700 acres (later increased to 840 acres) contained swamps, steep ravines, clay pits, several settlements and graveyards, which were never exhumed.
Olmstead's first principle was that a park should complement the city to which it belongs. If a city is cramped, crowded, and rectilinear, its park should be composed of winding thoroughfares and a variable topography that includes large open spaces. The "comparative largeness" of Central Park was key, since a park should "be a ground which invites, encourages and facilitates movement."
A park should also be faithful to the character of its natural terrain. It was in "bad taste," for instance, to grow lawns in the arid western United States or palm trees in New England. Beauty was to be found not in decorative plants, like in a florist's display window, but in general effects. Trees should be grouped in such a way that "their individual qualities would gradually merge harmoniously."
As seen in LASN magazine, March 2020.