Think of Manhattan, and your first thought may be of a concrete jungle – skyscrapers, noise, crowds, and the constant bustle of one of the world’s truly global cities. But there is a quiet, green oasis in the middle of the city, and there’s a lot more to it than many people might expect. The park was designed in 1858 by Frederick Law Olmsted, who would later become one of the most famous landscape architects in the world and would design hundreds of public parks in major cities across the country, as well as dozens of college campuses.

Olmsted believed that urban environments had an oppressive effect on the human spirit, and that city-dwellers needed to have access to nature in order to remain healthy and happy. Of course, there was no true wilderness on the island of Manhattan by the 1850s – but Olmsted designed the park so as to make it feel as natural as possible. Thus he designed the winding paths, the mix of hilly and flat terrain, and the placement of large bodies of water to make Central Park seem like a pocket of nature in the heart of the city. This “naturalistic” approach to landscaping became so popular that we now take it for granted in our city parks.

Fun in the park before

Yes, people had also fun in this park before.

Central Park has an area of 843 acres – fully six percent of the total area of the island. Within that space are numerous water features, recreational facilities, and works of art. For example, the Park is home to the Conservatory Garden, a beautifully curated collection of plants and fountains near the Harlem Meer. The Conservatory includes examples of formal gardens in both the English and French styles, as well as a luxurious array of flowers.

Some of the most popular attractions in New York are the museums immediately surrounding Central Park. They include, to name only a few: the American Museum of Natural History, with its dinosaur fossils and dramatic displays on science and nature; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, perhaps the most famous art collection on the east coast; and the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, which offers hands-on exhibits that allow children to learn while they play.

Familiar benches in Central Park

Familiar benches to all TV owners and moviegoers around the world.
Photo by Phil Roeder

Central Park is particularly iconic because of its frequent use in movies. The park affords spectacular views of downtown Manhattan, but is also spacious enough to allow for shooting intimate dialogue between two characters. Although most of these movies do not focus on the Park itself, characters will often be shown walking together or sitting on a bench discussing major plot points. As a result, any visitor familiar with American movies may feel that they have been here before.