October 8, 2008, 4:14 pm
Does Central Park Need Any More Praise?
By Sewell Chan
Central Park was named one of 10 “Great Public Spaces” of America. (Photo: Michael Kamber for The New York Times)
The American Planning Association on Wednesday announced that it had designated Central Park as one of the 10 great public spaces in the United States. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Greensward Plan of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the 1858 document that established the aesthetic vision for the park.
The designation is part of a new program, Great Places in America, which the association hopes will highlight the role of careful planning in developing streets, neighborhoods and public places that matter.
Last year, in the first year of the Great Places program, the planning association named 125th Street in Manhattan as one of 10 great streets and Park Slope in Brooklyn as one of 10 great neighborhoods. This year, “great public spaces” was added as a third category.
What do these annual lists really accomplish?
The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s yearly list of the 11 most endangered historic places tends to prompt hand-wringing, letter-writing and even changes in public policy.
But by all accounts Central Park is in as good shape as ever. Calling it “the gold standard for U.S. city parks,” the planning association noted that Central Park has gone through periods of decline and revitalization.
In the 1920s, the park was home to “worn carriage drives from increased automobile traffic, muddy paths, overgrown or dead trees and shrubs, unrepaired bridges, and littering and vandalism.” Robert Moses, the regional development czar, revitalized the park during his tenure as parks commissioner, from 1934 to 1960.
In the ’60s through the ’70s, Central Park again fell into decline, until the Central Park Conservancy was founded in 1980 to restore and manage the park.
In a phone interview, William R. Klein, director of research and advisory services at the American Planning Association, said the Great Places program was “intended to make the point that we know a good place when we see it.”
These places didn’t just happen by accident. These places were the result of inspiration and action taken over a long period of time, and the cumulative effect of that inspiration and action results in what you see today. We’re trying to single out places that are great — not places that are threatened or in decline.Mr. Klein, who lives in Chicago, waxed a bit about his own memories of Central Park:
I was a user back in the bad old days of decline in the ’70s, when I heard Duke Ellington and others play at the skating rink. I was a 17-year-old kid from Syosset, a suburban kid experiencing Central Park for the first time. It was a wonderful experience. The other great public spaces named by the planning association are:
My wife was born and brought up in Manhattan and lived a couple of blocks from the park. She always told me stories from her formative years, of what an important place Central Park was to her. It was really the only connection they had to nature and open space and recreation.
The 10 great streets, 10 great neighborhoods, and 10 great public spaces will be celebrated as part of the planning association’s National Community Planning Month this month.
- Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza, Prescott, Ariz.
- Santa Monica Beach, Santa Monica, Calif.
- Union Station, Washington, D.C.
- West Side Market, Cleveland
- Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland, Ore.
- Mellon Square, Pittsburgh, Pa.
- Waterplace Park, Providence, R.I.
- Waterfront Park, Charleston, S.C.
- Church Street Marketplace, Burlington, Vt.
Mr. Klein said additional categories might be added to the Great Places program next year.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company