Introduction

Play and playgrounds in Central Park have always been defined in part by their relationship to the larger landscape and purpose of the Park. Olmsted and Vaux designed the landscape as “a single work of art” and attempted to accommodate children’s needs within it. This proved challenging and was not sustainable into the twentieth century as population growth, the emergence of a new playground model, and evolving ideas about recreation created a demand for new facilities and spaces.

Although the 1930s addition of perimeter playgrounds served an important purpose, it was also the beginning of a trend toward fencing off parts of the Park for specific activities—one that continued throughout the Moses administration with the creation of fenced-in bird sanctuaries, ballfields, an expanded zoo, skating rinks, and other facilities. The result was a gradual conversion of the Park into more of a collection of distinct objects, amenities, and attractions than a total composition experienced primarily by moving through it. Many visitors whose primary use of the Park is focused on these facilities continue to perceive the Park this way, and it is easy to see why: Such additions impart a more urban or developed character that conflicts with the original intent of the Park as a naturalistic reprieve from the city. The adventure-style playgrounds of the late 1960s and early 1970s represented a reaction to the Moses-era playgrounds and a new approach to playground design, but they remained internally focused facilities, rebuilt in the footprints of the playgrounds that preceded them and surrounded by high fences.

At some point during the last thirty years, the Central Park Conservancy has either reconstructed or renovated each of the Park’s playgrounds. The most recent reconstructions have been the most comprehensive in scope: In addition to including significant infrastructure upgrades, they have been designed to better integrate the playgrounds in the Park, emphasizing that what is unique about Central Park’s playgrounds is that they are in Central Park.