Sunday, September 29, 2013

Central Park: A Conflation of Nature and Culture

New York City, Manhattan in particular, is one of the most objectively unnatural places in existence. While it is an island, taking a boat to reach the ‘mainland’ is unnecessary. Rather than the rural or tropical wilderness usually connoted by any piece of sub-continental land surrounded by water, Manhattan is the land of street vendor’s synthetic food, towering buildings, and blinding billboards that never sleep. This is all to say, few things in the big apple remain unmitigated by human influence. But in a city so micromanaged by human hands, then, it almost seems ironic that one of the major landmarks for natives and tourists alike is Central Park.

The park’s location at the geographic heart of city life was not part of New York’s initial urban planning efforts. The park was the eventual outcome of longstanding public desire. Between the years 1821 and 1855 the population of New York City nearly quadrupled in size. As the city expanded, people retreated to the few existing open spaces to get away from the noise and chaos (Central Park Conservancy 2010). At the time, however, spaces of this nature were limited to cemeteries. Among the affluent and influential New Yorkers there was a conscious appeal for a stylish place for open-air driving and conversation – something akin to the Bois de Boulogne in Paris or Hyde Park in London.

(Map of New York Circa 1875, c/o
In 1857, New York State appointed a Central Park Commission to oversee development of the 700-acre area from 59th to 106th streets. This space was planned to a T by landscape designer Federick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux. The procurement of the land and initial budget for development was an estimated five million dollars (Central Park Conservancy 2010). From its earliest moment of conception, it is evident Central Park, New York’s great embodiment of ‘nature,’ was far from natural.


A place where dogs can roam without leashes, children can run and climb, and birds (other than pigeons) chirp, Central Park has become the standing symbol of nature in the concrete jungle. The fifty-block-long bastion of flora and fauna provides New Yorkers with a sense of escape. It is an almost Thoreau-like retreat from reality to a place with seemingly alternative notions of time and space.


So what enables this space to be so special? For starters, the basic spatial planning of the park helps to create a ‘natural,’ or non-cosmopolitan, atmosphere.  The park is visibly free of all signs of New York traffic. While there are a few (four) designated crossing points – where cars and buses freely migrate from east to west and west to east – the park remains visibly un-penetrated by vehicles. These roads are concealed from popular pedestrian areas. The greater environment of the park is pervaded by feelings of tranquility rather than hustle and bustle.

New Yorkers may be bound up in an identity of constant, fast movement, but the landscape of the park posits an alternative. A separate notion of time and space can materialize – one associated with something natural in contrast to the culturally pervasive “New York Minute.”

Feelings of nature may be pervasive in this context, but the curation of this landscape should not be overlooked. The park is comprised of 24,000 trees (which were intentionally planted), 7 water bodies (which were intentionally constructed), 9,000 benches and 36 bridges (which were intentionally built). Furthermore, even amidst the unrestricted patches of grass, child play does not occur in a “natural” setting. The park is home to 21 playgrounds – that is, 21 places intentionally designated for children to just be children.

What I found most striking about the park’s design is its eight designated “quite zones.” Bethesda Terrace, Conservatory Garden, Conservatory Water, East Green, Shakespeare Garden, Sheep Meadow, Strawberry Fields, and Turtle Pond are all spaces allocated for reading, meditation, and so-called “quiet enjoyment.” The public space is governed by rules. Here, no musical instruments are allowed, as signs stipulate in these spaces: dogs must be leashed and kept on pathways, no running, rollerblading or bike riding is permitted, no organized, active recreation or sports are allowed, even the feeding of birds and other wildlife is prohibited.

In a similar vein, it should be noted activity in the park is further restricted by its opening and closing times. While its entrances are not barricaded or gated, the park does close at 1am and open at 6am. ‘Nature,’ as New Yorkers conceive it, has permissible times in which it can be experienced. It is not recognized as a continuum – a world of infinite possibility and self-reliance as Rousseau describes it – but rather as an entity with recognizable limitations. Nature is culturally sanctioned. It is subject, much like the rest of the city, to both the public and invisible rules of New York. In other words, one can never truly escape New York whilst in the park. Rather, he or she can merely enter an alternative realm of New York’s rules. 
To many, especially native, New Yorkers, Central Park is ‘Nature.’ It has that raw feeling and instantaneous sensation of the great outdoors. Upon further inspection, however, it is evident the park rather than being nature is merely a symbol or (impure) icon of such. But, the question remains, does it matter that the park is not actually ‘nature’ or natural if it signifies this thought or alternative category of being to its visitors?  There appears to be an interesting conflation of symbol, symptom, index, or icon and ‘nature’ as it is classically conceived by Thoreau. It is clear that Central Park belongs exclusively neither to the category of the ‘natural’ or ‘cultural,’ but resides in grey area where culture has created a unique manifestation of nature.

[By Gabby Borenstein]

No comments: