Magazine

Where the Grass is Greener: What to Know About Central Park's Lawns

Sharing a picnic with friends at Sheep Meadow. Watching a free New York Philharmonic performance on the Great Lawn. Dancing at a Great Jazz on the Great Hill concert. What do these classic Central Park moments have in common? They take place on the Park’s lawns—where beautiful, soft, bright green grass provides a comfortable setting and attractive backdrop.

Central Park contains a variety of landscapes—from meadows to woodlands to gardens—and lawns are an important part of the mix. Grass releases oxygen, stabilizes soil, absorbs water from storms, and keeps the air cool. On a hot day, an area covered in natural grass can be 20 degrees cooler than a landscape covered in bare soil and 30 degrees cooler than asphalt, according to the Ohio State University Extension.

With spring here, the Central Park Conservancy is ready to open the Park’s lawns again. To celebrate this beloved warm-weather tradition, we’re sharing what makes the Park’s lawns so special, how the Conservancy cares for them, and tips for your next day of sun-drenched lounging.

Parkgoers sitting under a tree, bathed in shadows as the sun sets.

Central Park’s lawns, like Cedar Hill, provide a sense of openness and expansiveness that’s hard to find in a bustling city. They provide New Yorkers with space for quiet reflection, reading, meeting with friends and family, or admiring the surrounding scenery.

The Evolution of Popular Park Lawns

Lawns are integral to Central Park’s original purpose. After all, the Park’s 1850s design by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux was called the Greensward plan (“Greensward” means “grass-covered ground”).

True to its name, Sheep Meadow hosted a flock of sheep from 1864 to 1934. Olmsted and Vaux believed that these animals enhanced their vision of the Park as a country retreat—while conveniently keeping the grass short. A nearby sheepfold (now Tavern on the Green) housed the flock and its shepherd until the sheep were relocated to Prospect Park in 1934. Beginning in the 1960s, Sheep Meadow became popular as a venue for New Yorkers to come together for concerts, political demonstrations, and other events.

A black-and-white photo showing sheep grazing on the meadow.

In 1871, Jacob Wrey Mould designed an elaborate sheepfold (now Tavern on the Green) to house both the flock and its shepherd that roamed Sheep Meadow. Twice a day, the shepherd stopped traffic on the West Drive so the flock could travel to and from the meadow.

Like other high points in the Park’s north end, the Great Hill was a place of strategic importance during the Revolutionary War. It served as the site of a British encampment for troops that were also active at the nearby elevated areas now known as Fort Clinton and Nutter’s Battery. Beginning in the 1930s, the Great Hill was renovated with the addition of game courts, new paths, and a comfort station.

In contrast, the Great Lawn is a relatively new addition to the Park. It was built in the 1930s to replace a large reservoir that pre-dated the Park, once a key piece of the City’s water distribution system. The Great Lawn—the precise geographical center of Central Park—now features eight ballfields and is surrounded by scenic destinations like the Arthur Ross Pinetum and Turtle Pond.

Decades of overuse and mismanagement took their toll on the Park’s lawns over the years—and many of them were completely deteriorated by the 1970s. When the Conservancy was formed in 1980, several of our first projects included restoring the Park’s beloved lawns so they could begin to balance both active sports use and quiet relaxation.

An archival aerial photo of the Great Lawn showing more dust than grass.

The Great Lawn, like many areas in the Park, suffered from intensive use and inadequate maintenance. Large concerts from the 1960s to the 1980s degraded the Great Lawn and contributed to the area becoming known as “The Great Dust Bowl.”

How the Conservancy Cares for Park Lawns

From Cherry Hill to the East Meadow, lawns now make up 30% of the Park’s 843 acres. And it’s the work of the Conservancy’s landscape management team—led by Director Gary Gentilucci—that keeps them durable and covered in healthy grass.

“What’s beautiful about grass is it’s a perennial,” Gary says. “It’s about lasting through the year. Annual weeds that can be present in lawns naturally die at some point and can leave the soil bare and susceptible to erosion—so having perennial cover is important. With grass, you have a roots system protecting the soil from washing away. That's an important characteristic of turf.”

A red tractor mower in stark relief on a green lawn, framed by dark brown tree trunks.

Central Park lawns may close throughout the spring, fall, and summer for routine maintenance like overseeding, aerating, and mowing, which keep the lawns healthy and durable for millions of visitors each year.

The Conservancy cares for the Park's lawns by monitoring their conditions, mowing, overseeding, aerating, and sampling the soil. Overseeding (the practice of planting seeds on top of existing grass) keeps the lawns lush and thick. Aerating (poking holes in the soil to give it air) relieves stress on the grass from foot traffic. Mowing the lawns on a regular schedule keeps the grass an ideal height of three inches. All these steps together are necessary for maintaining lawn health when millions of people visit the Park each year.

Just under 10 staff members make up the turf care team, all talented operators who use a lot of different equipment—from tractors and mowers to soil aerators and seed spreaders. What sets the Conservancy apart in caring for the Park’s lawns is that our mechanics and other staff are trained to perform our own equipment maintenance and repairs, essential to lawn care. “Without the equipment, a lot of this work can’t get done,” Gary says.

A Conservancy staff member peers out of an electric utility vehicle at a curving row of park benches.

After a lawn has been overseeded and aerated, Conservancy staff use a vehicle to spread the seed and break up the soil so seeds can settle in, germinate, and grow.

Covering projects big and small, Conservancy staff always have the Park’s health top of mind. “Nine years ago, when I started here,” Gary explains, “it was the end of the restoration of the East Meadow—irrigation was placed, drainage improved, and soil amended. That work continues throughout the Park on a smaller scale. Year in and year out, our staff’s challenge is to recognize when lawns are in need—stabilizing soil in one location or improving the quality of a lawn in another location for use. The quality of a lawn is often improved by relieving soil compaction with aeration and raising the density of grass through overseeding.”

Park Lawns Throughout the Seasons

The opening of the Park’s lawns for spring is an exciting annual tradition for New Yorkers, who are eager to take to the expansive greenspace and comfortably relax.

But why are Park lawns closed in the winter? Because grass stops growing in the cold weather, causing active use from visitors to rub it away (which wouldn’t make for a very pleasant spring, summer, and fall!). The one exception is when it snows. The Conservancy opens lawns when they're covered with at least six inches of snow because it protects the grass from use, heavy winds, bright sun, and other elements that can harm it.

Three parkgoers building a snowman in the middle of a blizzard.

Visitors build a snowman on the Great Lawn during a heavy snowfall. When lawns are covered in more than six inches of snow, the Conservancy opens them because snow protects the dormant grass from damage.

While we know visitors want to soak up as much time as possible on the lawns, Conservancy staff need to close them during routine maintenance, after sundown, and following inclement weather. So when you notice the fence to your favorite lawn is closed, remember that this ensures our staff can clear and care for the lawns before the next day's use. “When it rains,” for instance, “soil is susceptible to compacting and damage,” Gary says. “We pause and let nature take its course.” How can visitors tell if a lawn is closed? Look for a red flag on the grass or visit our alerts page.

Lawn care is a year-round endeavor. In the fall, Conservancy staff push air through the lawns’ sprinklers to drain them of water that could freeze and expand in the pipes in the wintertime.

How to Be a Friend to Central Park's Lawns

Planning your next Central Park picnic or day in the sun? Gary explains that blankets and cloth materials are great to use and gentle on the Park's lawns—but it’s best to leave tarps, plastic, and inflatable couches at home. Because they heat up so easily, they can burn the grass below them—even in just a few hours.

Wherever visitors spend time in the Park, we also ask that patrons put trash and recycling in receptacles instead of leaving garbage in the landscapes. When trash is left on the Park’s lawns, it takes Conservancy staff longer to perform basic tasks like mowing and opening the lawns for visitors on time each morning.

Central Park’s lawns offer many environmental benefits, and it’s up to all New Yorkers and visitors to keep them healthy. Next time you’re watching a softball game at the Great Lawn or reading a book on Sheep Meadow, remember all that goes into keeping these iconic City landscapes thriving and beautiful.