When my family first moved to New York City, as I was starting high school, I had trouble coming to terms with the never ending rows of uniform artificial structures that characterize the island. I went from living in a town with a population of 8,000 people, nestled in an agricultural valley in Southern California, to what seemed like a bustling concrete prison. Then I discovered Central Park.
Throughout my four years of high school, I ran cross country. The team practiced in the park, and to this day I still run there five days a week. The image of the roads, trails, and paths that intricately connect the myriad bodies of water, jungle gyms, and fields, are burned into my brain. As I was building that mental map, I began exploring different locations for sitting and doing homework. Some were closer to my home, first in East Harlem and then on the Upper West Side, while others were near school, on the Upper East Side. The spot that eventually became my favorite and that I continue to frequent to this day is the Great Lawn.
The different nodes of activity in Central Park vary widely in their usage of the design elements that William Whyte discusses in “The Design of Spaces.” Although the park is a marvel of New York City in and of itself, the parts that make up the whole are not all equally successful in their use of space. For example, the “Dustbowl” is usually not as busy as the Great Lawn. If you sit and watch visitors from one of the benches that surrounds it, you notice that people congregate on the upper or the lower edge and they often reposition themselves many times. This is likely because of the sharp hill that begins on the west side of the Dustbowl and slopes down to the eastern edge, thus sitting on the grass feels awkward no matter where you are; it is also right across the street from a hospital, making the piercing noise of sirens commonplace; and it is situated on one of a less commonly used entrances. Regardless of these design flaws, like most of the greens in Central Park, it still gets quite a bit of usage, because of the park’s ability to allow you to escape, if only just momentarily, from the clamor of the city.
On a sunny day when the temperature hovers around sixty degrees, it is highly probable that you will find me sitting under one of the several trees that spot the edge of the Great Lawn. This coveted spot provides prospect and refuge: I can see pasty women sun bathing, teenagers siting and gossiping in groups in the middle of the field, dogs frolicking with their owners, kids practicing their swing at home plate, runners jogging around the exterior, and tourists lined up at a hand full of food vendors. The Great Lawn is so successful because its design is versatile. The field itself provides integrated space for playing and lounging: several trees and baseball diamonds that line its edge make the center of the field feel somewhat secluded, allowing people to feel comfortable sitting there.
Another vital aspect of the Great Lawn is that although it is between a three to ten-minute walk from the main streets of the east or west side, respectively, it feels connected to busy city life in a calming way. The lawn represents a central artery of the park, thus many people who are traveling east to west, vice versa, or are just strolling, make their around this particular field. As Whyte would put it, it is instinctive to enter this area, making it hard to tell where the city streets end and the park begins.
The most important aspect in the creation of the beautiful public space that is the Great Lawn, and a reason that I feel so relaxed there, is the greenery and consistent sunlight. In a grey, chaotic concrete city that can often drive people to madness, large natural spaces like Central Park are vital. Everyone has a place to sit or lay down and are all given a respite from deafening city sounds. Spending time in natural places has psychological benefits; personally, coming from living in a town surrounded by National Forest land, green public spaces in New York City, particularly the Great Lawn, are rejuvenating and make me feel at home.