Celebrating Central Park

As New Yorkers mark the 150th anniversary of Central Park, it's worth noting how that 843-acre jewel influenced the rest of the country. For it launched the career of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture.

It's hard today to imagine New York City without Central Park, Boston without the Emerald Necklace, Washington without the National Zoo or Rock Creek Park - all the work of Olmsted, or (in the case of Rock Creek Park) his son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who carried on his work.

Central Park's serene beauty is not the original landscape of Manhattan. That was mostly marshland. Olmsted was influenced by the tradition of English landscapers who created designs that looked natural but were carefully planned and sculpted to create desired effects.

Olmsted's view of nature was similar to that of his contemporaries and friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His landscapes expressed transcendentalist concepts of natural order and morality, which helped breed a cult of wilderness - even of wilderness created or altered by humans.

Adrian Benepe, New York City parks commissioner, compares Central Park to a "19th century Disneyland," a woodland fantasy engineered to resemble the nearby Adirondack and Catskill Mountain regions. Workers spent years constructing it: The original park contained 270,000 planted trees and shrubs.

Central Park was an innovation that differed from its European counterparts, which were originally aristocratic hunting grounds later opened to the public. Central Park and Olmsted's other projects were meant for the people from the start.

The Oldmsteds left their mark on urban and suburban landscapes nationwide, but also played key roles in founding the National Park system, now copied worldwide. Olmsted senior was the first commissioner of California' Yosemite Park.

The Olmsted legacy was to make American cities more livable and beautiful - to make nature more available to city residents. It's a legacy to celebrate with every walk in the park.

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