‘A Sense of Enlarged Freedom’: Central Park as Sanctuary

“[The beauty of the park] should be the beauty of the fields, the meadow, the prairie, of the green pastures, and the still waters. What we want to gain is tranquility and rest to the mind.”

Frederick Law Olmsted, 1870

A changed City, a rediscovered Park

For many New Yorkers, Central Park and the City’s other open spaces are more valuable and meaningful than ever. Central Park was certainly beloved and well-used before this public health crisis. A visit to the Park for those living in surrounding neighborhoods was a daily activity, to stroll, walk a dog, or visit playgrounds; for others throughout the City, a weekend excursion; and for many from out of town, Central Park is one of New York’s most popular destinations. But in light of the ongoing pandemic, Central Park and other parks throughout the City are the only places New Yorkers can truly escape—from our homes, the relentless news cycle, and our all-consuming worry.

In the press, social media, and casual conversations, those who have been visiting Central Park lately have described it as a “haven,” an “oasis,” and a “sanctuary.” People are finding solace in watching spring unfold, taking long walks, gazing at reflections on water, reading on benches, or studying the activity of birds. Being in Central Park is also remarkable because it provides a sense of community—the loss of which was one of the most profound challenges when the City shut down. In Central Park, there is enough room for social distancing while still being with other people. We can be alone together.

Antique photo showing a couple on a bench by the Lake, with the gentleman wearing a top  hat

Park visitors along the shoreline of the Lake, 1872. Collection of the New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs

This crisis has inspired reflection on the origins and purpose of Central Park. Its designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, intended Central Park as a refuge—not specifically from crisis but from the stresses of urban life, including the physical and spatial constraints of the City. In one of his many writings on the purpose and benefits of parks, Olmsted described the experience of entering Central Park as a “feeling of relief . . . on escaping from the cramped, confined, and controlling circumstances of the streets of the town.” He elaborated on this feeling, calling it “a sense of enlarged freedom” and declared that this was the “most valuable gratification” of a park.

To better understand why this feeling of relief and freedom is so palpable these days, we revisit some of Olmsted and Vaux’s writings. Their declarations of the purpose and value of Central Park can help us understand our experience of the Park today, and particularly its impact on our mental health.

‘Tranquility and rest to the mind’

Olmsted and Vaux created Central Park—the country’s first large urban park—as a refuge from the City in the form of an idealized rural landscape. It’s worth a reminder that although Central Park looks natural, it is not a nature preserve. It’s a built environment, carefully designed to incorporate a variety of types of landscapes and experiences.

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Man walking in the north end of Central Park, ca. 1872. Collection of the New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs

Spread across the Park’s 843 acres are meadows, woodlands, lakes, hills, and streams, accessed and connected by a network of paths, drives, and a bridle path. While the designers did integrate some of the area’s existing topography and geology, the Park’s landscapes were all constructed. This involved tremendous efforts of earth moving, rock blasting, and the installation of miles of underground drainage pipes.

The Park was also designed to include buildings, but these were not the main feature. Calvert Vaux, the chief architect, sought to emphasize that buildings were designed to be secondary to and supportive of landscape when he famously downplayed his contribution by declaring, “Nature first, second, and third—architecture after a while.”

Why were nature and landscape so important? To Olmsted, the beauty of the Park was “the beauty of the fields, the meadow, the prairie, of the green pastures, and the still waters.” This beauty is what provided the greatest contrast to the City, much of which was dark, crowded, and dirty at the time. But the Park wasn’t created for the sake of beauty alone. Creating beautiful naturalistic landscapes was important because of how the experience of these landscapes impacted people.

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Woman and child in the Ramble, ca. 1905. Collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Through the creation of Central Park, Olmsted and Vaux invented landscape architecture as an art of design with a profoundly social purpose. Olmsted was one of many thinkers during the mid-19th century who believed that in the wake of unprecedented industrialization and urbanization, the experience of nature could have restorative and civilizing effects on people living in cities. The purpose of urban parks was certainly to improve physical health through fresh air and opportunities for exercise, and to provide a space for New Yorkers to socialize and congregate. But the designers also emphasized that parks could impact mental health—and were prescient in understanding that physical, social, and mental health were all interconnected. Being in a park provided this “sense of enlarged freedom,” which Olmsted described in another way as “tranquility and rest to the mind.” The primary purpose of parks was to make people feel freer, calmer, and happier.

Over the last few decades, studies in the field of environmental psychology have demonstrated scientifically what Olmsted and some of his peers were articulating based on observation and intuition. These studies show that spending time in nature—and even sustained time looking at a tree through a window—can provide myriad health benefits, one of the most notable being a reduction of stress and anxiety. The current obsession with house plants and the popularity of the Japanese tradition of “forest bathing” attests to the growing awareness of this fact. And this research is being used to advocate for new parks and street trees in urban areas with little access to nature and green space.

Most simply explained, this is because being in nature allows our brains to rest and recover, and our brains can rest and recover in nature because that is where our brains and senses evolved. Being in nature is our natural state. Olmsted was suggesting this connection to nature as something deeply felt when he compared the experience of being in the Park to listening to music, “which goes back of thought, and cannot be fully given the form of words.”

‘Capacity for happiness’

The respite that Central Park provides during this difficult time is a reminder of its essential and timeless purpose. With events canceled, restaurants closed, film shoots suspended, and team sports paused, we are left with the Park in its purest form and purpose as a designed landscape, an open, green space, and a sanctuary—a place to escape the City and commune with nature and fellow New Yorkers. Olmsted, who was so prescient about parks being much more than just amenities but critical to our health and wellbeing, reminds us again how the Park impacts us: “the occasional contemplation of natural scenes increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means for securing that happiness.”

By alleviating some of our stress and allowing us to be together, Central Park can also restore our sense of hope, as it has done during other times of crisis. Times like this also remind us of the reason we need and continue to sustain Central Park: because it sustains us.

Marie Warsh is the Conservancy’s historian.

See quote sources.