History of New York Parks
New York, by the mid-nineteenth century, was emerging as a major metropolis. Its population was exploding as people fled failing farms upstate and failing economies abroad to find work in its burgeoning industries. Poor and working class people crowded into the teeming wards of Lower Manhattan, livng cheek by jowl in fetid neighborhoods where alleyways , streets and gutters overflowed with refuse and human wastes. During the hot summer months, epidemics swept through the city -- typhoid, yellow fever, cholera -- killing poor and rich alike.

The wealthy were able to escape to their country homes but the poor had no such means of escape from an unhealthy urban environment. Urban parks were viewed as antidotes to such miserable conditions, offering green spaces, fresh air and sunlight to the masses.

The campaign to create a great public park began in 1844 with an editorial in the
Evening Post by William Cullen Bryant, who proposed a wild tract of 160 acres between 68th and 77th streets and Third Avenue and the East River, known as Jones's Wood, which he described as "beautiful woodland...thickly covered with old trees." A "committee of gentlemen to lobby for a public park" was formed by merchant Robert Minturn, and included such prominent merchants and bankers as William Astor, Moses Grinnell, William Aspinwall. Bryant's idea of a park for the people, however, was the furthest thing from these gentlemen's minds. They aimed to create a grand park that would vie with those in European capitals, a park where they could ride their carriages in style and their wives could promenade safely away from the rowdy masses. Not least, such a park would raise the value of real estate bordering the park.

Other voices advocated for true people's parks. Bryant (editor of the
Post), Horace Greeley (publisher of the Tribune), landscape architects Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted, and architect Calvert Vaux -- all envisioned public green spaces where the barriers between social classes would be erased, and people could mingle in beautiful and healthy surroundings. Greeley, for example, hoped that such a park would bind "rich and poor into a single public that tesdtifies to the possibility of an orderly and refined republic," and Olmsted declared in his essay on "Public Parks" that a great urban park would embrace "all  classes...with a common purpose,...poor and rich, young and old, Jew and Gentile."

The Jones's Wood site was ultimately rejected by its landowners, but this did not trouble park advocates too much, since they had their eyes set on a larger tract of 843 acres smack in the middle of Manhattan, incorporating the new reservoir. This rugged, rocky patch of undeveloped land became the site of Central Park. A Central Park Commission was formed in 1853, and out of thirty park designs submitted, the Greensward Plan of Olmsted and Vaux won hands down (not surprising, since Olmsted was Park Superintendent). Work quickly got underway to sculpt a park that fit the aesthetic of its designers.

It was a massive undertaking. The rugged, hilly land was studded with outcrops and massive boulders, alternating with boggy depressions and swamps. While Olmsted retained a few of these "picturesque elements," most were erased or rearranged in order to create grassy meadows, light-reflecting lakes, wooded copses, and expansive vistas in keeping with the English Pastoral tradition. Workers blasted outcrops and boulders, grubbed out unwanted trees and shrubs, and carted tons of topsoil and landfill in order to smooth and level the surface. They laid in 95 miles of pipe to drain bogs and siphon water from the natural streams into two lakes. The report of the Central Park Commission in 1860 records the work: 10,500 men moved 1,444,800 cubic yards of earth, and excavated 198,000 cubic yards of rock using 132.5 tons of gunpowder. In addition, they planted 150,000 trees.

It's ironic, considering the calls for a people's park, that the creation of Central Park began with the routing of so-called squatters from the land. These were poor but enterprising Irish, Germans, and African-Americans who raised fruits and vegetables, chickens and hogs; while many were in fact squatters, one-fifth owned their patches of land and paid taxes, and many others paid rent. In addition, an established working class community of African-Americans and Irish Americans, known as Seneca Village, located between 83d and 88th streets and Seventh and Eighth avenues, was razed to make way for the park. Already, the African-American village of Yorkville, between 79th and 86th streets and Sixth and Seventh avenues, had been demolished to accomodate the new reservoir. All -- whether landowners, renters or squatters -- were evicted as ground was broken for the park.

But the idea of a people's park had taken root in the public imagination, and that is exactly what Central Park, followed a decade later by Brooklyn's Prospect Park (also designed by Olmsted an Vaux), became. Since the time of Olmsted, urban parks have served not only as green havens and pleasure grounds for the masses, but as nature preserves. State and national parks began to be created toward the end of the nineteenth century (New York was, in fact, the first state to implement the concept of "Forever Wild" and the Adirondacks was the first such state park), and by the end of the 20th century, the idea of land preservation and habitat restoration took hold. Now, a green corridor -- a necklace of parks linked by greenways -- is the urban ideal. In 1993, New York City commissioned the Greenway Plan, which when completed will form a network of 350 miles of biking and hiking paths. To learn more about the Greenway Plan and the history of individual parks, and to download maps, go to the NYC Parks website,

Parks in the Five Boroughs

(Note: I emphasize the natural rather than recreational features of these parks).


Central Park may be the most well-known but is not the only park in Manhattan. On its north end, the island boasts Fort Tryon Park (77acres), site of an exquisite medieval museum, the Cloisters, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and a three-acre heather garden; and Inwood Hill Park (196 acres), donated to the city by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the late 1920s. Both parks feature mature upland forest and stunning outcrops of schist, Manhattan's bedrock. They span the highest points in Manhattan -- 232 feet in Inwood Hill and 260 feet above sea level in Fort Tryon -- affording glorious views of the Hudson below and the New Jersey Palisades across.

The Bronx

This borough embraces two of the largest city parks: 1146-acre Van Cortlandt Park and 2765-acre Pelham Bay Park, both acquired by the city in 1888. Van Cortlandt is named after its original owner, Jacobus, who dammed Tibbett's Brook to create a mill pond here in 1700, now Van Cortlandt Lake. Besides the lake, the park features a freshwater marsh, upland forest, and outcrops of Fordham Gneiss, a relic of an ancient mountain-building episode dating back a half billion years. Pelham Bay was similarly named after the original owner of an estate here (prior to the truly original owners, the Siwanoy Indians). The park was extensively developed as a recreation area by Robert Moses in the 1930s, when the bay was filled in and Orchard Beach created. Despite such alteration, Pelham Bay Park features 660 acres of salt marsh, and an upland forest of towering oak and tulip trees, as well as a grove of white pines that attract both wintering and breeding owls.


Forest Park
(538 acres) and Alley Pond Park (655 acres) were created in 1929. Both feature glacial moraine elements, but Alley Pond Park has particularly beautiful examples of kettle ponds and moraine ridge trails that wind through old-growth forest, as well as a salt marsh. On Long Island's South Shore, Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge (9100 acres) was incorporated in 1972 as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, the first national urban park. It features a manmade freshwater pond, and a natural salt marsh that draws thousands of migrating shorebirds to its mudflats. The refuge provides prime breeding grounds for waterbirds, including herons, egrets and ibises. Its wooded habitats attract migrating warblers and other neo-tropicals (some of which breed here), as well as hundreds of birdwatchers who suffer from "warbler neck."


Prospect Park
, created in 1866 and now undergoing considerable restoration, offers a 90-acre expanse of lawn called Long Meadow, and Prospect Lake as its centerpieces. The park is sited on glacial moraine, and its wilder edges include rocky streams, ponds, and a 20-acre patch of mature woodland that stretches from the Midwood section to Binnenwater. 

Staten Island

Dedicated in 1984, the Greenbelt is a 35-mile network of trails that span 2500 acres of the island's Serpentine ridge, meandering through a variety of habitats, including wetland, swamp, kettle pond (18 in all), upland forest, and the highest point on the Atlantic seaboard -- 540-foot-highTodt Hill. Clay Pit Ponds State Park (260 acres), established in 1977, is dotted with kettle ponds and pits that were once mined for clay to supply the brick-making industry, and that are now filled with water and plants that provide habitat for turtles, frogs, salamanders, lizards and snakes. This is a geologically interesting park as well: its clays were deposited 70 million years ago during the Cretaceous, when the dinosaurs reigned supreme; and its gravelly outwash and tills attest to a glacier that stopped here. As a result, the park features a mosaic of habitats: kettle ponds, bogs, swamps, streams, and an oak-pine barrens.

Reading List

Elizabeth Blackman and Roy Rosenzweig.
The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992).

Sheila Buff. Nature Walks in and around New York City (Old Saybrook, Ct.: Appalachian Mountain Club, 1996)

M.M. Graff.
Central Park and Prospect Park: A  New Perspective (Greensward Foundation, 1985)

Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson.
Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places, and Natural Phenomena of New York City. With 33 Walking Tours in All Five Boroughs (New York: Crown Publishers, 1997)
De Korte Park, The Meadowlands
Central Park, Manhattan
Alley Pond Park, Queens
Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan
Fort Tryon Park overlook, Manhattan
Pelham Bay Park, the Bronx
Prospect Park meadow, Brooklyn
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