Tuesday, April 29, 2008

1858: design approved for first landscaped urban park in US

150 years ago yesterday, the City of New York approved a design by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who won a design competition for what became Central Park.

Prior to park improvements, the site of Central Park was a wasteland -- swamp, heavy brush, debris from (transient) human occupation -- and parts were heavily populated by goats. Existing reservoirs separated the available land for the park, hindering the ability to have singular composition.

Nearly 5 million cubic yards of soil and stone were moved and over 100 miles of drainage pipe were put in place. Significant roads, planting, artificial ponds, and removal of brush occurred in an effort to achieve the desired landscape.

The park opened in 1862, but even before it was finished it was very successful. 25,000 visitors a day came to the park, in carriages, on foot, to play games, to ice skate. The success of Central Park led to many other parks across the country.

Emphasis in the plan was placed on the scene, long vistas, and the perception of vast space.

Grade crossing elimination was very important to the overall unification of the park. The four crossroads for traffic crossing the width of the park were sunk below the park grade allowing the park experience to be continuos and without traffic conflict. When the park was finally built, carriage roads, walking routes, and bridle paths within the park (and future parks - Nethermead Arches, Prospect Park) were dealt with similarly lending to a "seamless" experience of movement and vistas.

Meadows, woods, and a pedestrian mall and water terrace (Bethesda terrace) were included in the park. The pedestrian mall fulfilled a desire of the plan, as a place where people could "see and be seen." The mall axis was oriented in the direction of the Ramble, a primary scenic piece of the plan.

The title Landscape Architect was first used by Olmsted and Vaux when they won the design competition for Central Park. They invented the name to convey their intent to bear toward the total landscape the same relation that an architect bears toward a building, with essential emphasis on design. (info from Colorado State University)

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