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Central Park: A Design for Democracy

Image by Christine Baker Parrish
Feb 1 2017
Sara Button

When I was eight years old, my family moved. One of the perks of our new home was that we were adjacent to a park. There were a couple playgrounds, some good trees for climbing, and during the summer, the city pool was open. My brother and I spent countless hours there playing with friends, or at the little public library on its corner, or at soccer practice on its fields. Families and groups of friends held cookouts, and the neighborhood celebrated Fourth of July together there. Despite the many years I benefited from the park on a daily basis, I had never thought about what—if anything—had gone into its design, construction, or maintenance. Last week, that changed.

On January 19, 2017, political philosopher Dr. Joshua Cohen presented “Central Park: A Design for Democracy,” a lecture that kicked off a two-day conference honoring his extensive and enduring work and teaching in the fields of philosophy, political thought, and social science.

When introducing him, Stanford professor Debra Satz summed up what we would witness over the course of the event: “It’s a sign of Josh’s unique sensibility: his uncanny ability to find lessons for political philosophy and political practice in phenomena like Central Park.” Indeed, Cohen managed not only to prompt his audience to think about landscape architecture and design, but also about the much bigger notions of equality, beauty, productive disagreement, and democracy itself.

Cohen’s presentation was originally developed to explore the intersection of beauty and technology in a great product. For a faculty member at Apple University, it should come as no surprise that such an intersection might be critical to examine; Steve Jobs himself cited calligraphy as a major source of design inspiration for the Mac, and the company strives to marry the liberal arts and STEM. When Cohen was deciding what sort of product might qualify, he thought of Central Park.

He admitted that thinking about Central Park as a product might feel a little strange. “After all,” he said, “when you’re in the park experiencing the beauty of the place, with the sun shimmering through the trees, it’s easy to feel like it was always that way, and that the human contribution was to put a nice low stone wall around the outside, some nice simple park benches on the inside, and otherwise leave nature’s good work alone.”

But here’s the thing: the land where Central Park exists was not a beautiful part of the city. In fact, Cohen revealed that it was, as observed by engineer Egbert Viele at the time, a “pestilential spot,” a rocky swamp “filled with miasmatic odors.” The sense of beauty is part of the design, Cohen argued, in part because its effortlessness was illusory.

Famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who won the park’s design contest in 1858, were still interested in creating something beautiful on that “pestilential spot.” New York City was dreary, dirty, and densely crowded; Olmsted and Vaux’s park would provide a natural haven that aimed to replicate a vacation in the Adirondacks that most New Yorkers couldn’t afford. This related to their interest, too, in creating a park that revolved around the values of democracy itself. In other words, a park for all.

Cohen led the audience through the intricacies of the design process, highlighting the details that Olmsted and Vaux found important in order to execute their vision of the park. For example, the winding paths may seem like they were meandering because of the topography of the park; however, their intersections and forks allowed for the placement of beautiful bridges or vistas, surprising and delighting patrons at literally every turn.

One part of the lecture that featured well this deliberation and attention to the democratic ideals of the park appropriately included the audience. Everyone had a sort of “place mat” showing the park design and four proposed amendments to its layout from 1860-1955: building more bridle paths, constructing new entrances, adding more playgrounds, and transforming the Ramble (the park’s most densely wooded area) into a recreation center for the elderly. We were urged to consider the proposals and decide whether each would uphold or undermine Central Park’s purpose as a democratic place of natural beauty for all to enjoy. After some brief murmurings with neighbors, the audience had majorities on a couple of changes, but were most split on a question of the number of playgrounds. Cohen used this exercise with the audience as an opportunity not only to reveal what had happened in each historical instance, but also to articulate four approaches to (mostly productive) disagreement using examples from the park.

Post-Olmsted and Vaux, Central Park had its rough patches--periods of decay and neglect and high crime. But thanks to the efforts of people like landscape designer Elizabeth Barlow Rogers and others who wanted to continue fulfilling the original designers’ aspirations for the space, Central Park is thriving today. Advocates spurred the establishment of the Central Park Conservancy in 1980, which is now not only responsible for most of the park budget, but also manages beautification and maintenance for Central Park and its more than forty million annual visitors.

A lively Q & A ended Cohen’s session, with queries from audience members that also included his former students and colleagues present for the conference that began the next morning. Questions ranged from aesthetics, race, design principles, and historical context. The two-and-a-half-hour event felt half as long, and by its end, I had a burning desire to re-explore Central Park. In fact, I would venture to say with confidence that I’ll never look at parks the same way again.

Sara Button

SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.