This article has been updated to reflect changes since its original publishing.
The COVID pandemic spurred a newfound appreciation for New York City’s parks and the myriad ways they can benefit our health, both mental and physical. The turbulent time also inspired historians, journalists, and others to look back at the history of public health in New York, specifically at other epidemics, such as cholera, tuberculosis, and the Spanish flu, to understand how the City has responded.
Past outbreaks spurred major changes to sanitation and urban design, which often led to the development of critical public health infrastructure. These innovations enabled the City to not only rebound but, in many cases, thrive. In the aftermath of the cholera epidemic of 1832, which was caused by polluted water and killed 3,500 residents (then 1.5% of the population), the City constructed the Croton Aqueduct System to supply its residents with fresh water from upstate New York. This was arguably one of the most important factors in allowing the City to become the metropolis it is today. Although this and other advancements do not diminish the suffering and loss that occurred, they do offer a valuable (and perhaps hopeful) perspective on the City’s resilience and creativity.
The City’s water supply system had a big presence in Central Park. In
the middle of it were two large receiving reservoirs holding
tanks for water that was piped downtown. But Central Park didn’t just
provide a home for a piece of this infrastructure; the Park itself
functioned as critical public health infrastructure. Prevailing
theories about disease and the urgent need to address public health
directly informed the creation, purpose, and design of Central Park.
‘Lungs of the City’
While there were many motivations to create a large park in center of the City, public health was front and center. Sanitary reformers and park advocates commonly referred to parks as the “lungs of the city” and “breathing spaces.” As open spaces they provided invaluable relief from the congestion of the growing City. Many also believed that parks could function more specifically to address health concerns by purifying disease-ridden air (which we now know was based on an erroneous understanding of the origins and spread of disease).
Congested urban areas—where overcrowded cemeteries, polluting industries, and densely packed residences all existed in close proximity and with limited access to fresh water and proper sanitation—were certainly breeding grounds for disease. But until there was widespread acceptance of the germ theory of disease, formulated by Louis Pasteur beginning in the 1850s, it was commonly believed that disease was caused by miasmas, gasses that emanated from decomposing matter. Following this understanding, fresh air and open space were believed to disperse and sanitize these harmful gasses.
This was the public health context in which Central Park co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who had lost his first child to cholera, began to formulate his theories about the health benefits of public parks. In one of his most well-known essays he declared that one purpose of parks was to provide “Opportunity and inducement to escape at frequent intervals from the confined and vitiated air of the commercial quarter” and to “supply the lungs with air screened and purified by trees and recently acted upon by sunlight.” Even though Olmsted didn’t totally understand how vegetation improved air quality—believing that foliage and sunlight “disinfected” the air—his emphasis on fresh air as one of the foremost health benefits of a park was accurate.
Guidebooks and newspaper articles extolled the Park’s “pure” air as a health benefit but also a pleasure—more than just the “lungs of the City”—demonstrating an early understanding of the link between mental and physical health. A passage from an early guidebook is telling: “The fresh air, that smells of field and woodland; the quiet of some solitary nook, or the festive atmosphere of any denser crowd; the decorative architecture, the pleasure-boats . . .—all these influences have a strangely powerful force. They compel the soul. It is almost impossible to do any thing in the park but rest, breath sweet air, and enjoy.” This restorative power of the Park was a holistic and even intoxicating experience of fresh air, landscape, people, architecture, and recreation.
While the Park’s pure air was all-encompassing, it was somewhat intangible. A more prominent and visible statement of Central Park’s role in benefiting public health was the presence of water and the abundance in which it appeared. In addition to the massive reservoirs holding the City’s drinking water, the Park included ornamental fountains, drinking fountains, natural springs, and numerous water bodies, streams, and waterfalls. All these features combined to make water a primary feature of the Park’s landscapes and an expression of its purpose to provide a healthful escape from urban life.
Bethesda Fountain was created to symbolize the role of fresh water in the City and its connection to the Park. The fountain, by the sculptor Emma Stebbins, celebrates the creation of the Croton Aqueduct System through its depiction of a biblical verse: an angel touching the waters of Bethesda in Jerusalem, which was famous for its healing properties. To Stebbins, and many others, New York’s fresh water had a similar effect. She wrote, “We have no less healing, comfort and purification freely sent to us through the blessed gift of pure, wholesome water, which to all the countless homes of this great city comes like an angel visitant.” This fountain, prominently located in the heart of the Park, was the only work of art to be commissioned as part of the Park’s design, clearly highlighting the value and importance of fresh water.
The fresh water ended up in people’s homes, but it also coursed through the Park and was available for drinking in numerous fountains. Before the creation of the aqueduct system, residents drank from wells and small reservoirs—or if they could afford it, purchased bottled water. Drinking water in a public park was a completely novel experience. One guidebook encouraged the public to “drink our fill, for the great reservoirs yonder are our inexhaustible cisterns.” Drinking pure water was the ideal accompaniment to breathing in pure air.
Angel of the Waters is located at the edge of the Lake, which forms a stunning backdrop. The largest of the Park’s naturalistic water bodies, the Lake was part of the first section of the Park to be opened to the public in the winter of 1858. And so New Yorkers’ first experience of the Park was of water, through the scenery of the Lake, with its undulating, rocky shoreline and the activity of ice skating.
Across the Lake, visible from Bethesda Terrace, is the Ramble, the Park’s most well-known woodland landscape, in which water also plays a significant role. The stream known as the Gill meanders through this area—expanding into small pools, tumbling down cascades, and crossed by rustic wooden bridges—before emptying into the Lake. The Ramble was inspired by the upstate landscapes of the Catskills and the Adirondacks and the Gill is a big part of what transports visitors there.
Like the water supply system, Central Park was a sign of the City’s commitment to public health and planning for its future. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us discovered a newfound appreciation for Central Park—from the fresh air that greeted us as we escaped our homes and the City streets to the beauty of the Park’s landscapes and the respite and recreational experiences they offered. New Yorkers may also have taken a moment to appreciate our access to clean water, necessary for preventing the spread of disease. By looking back to the origins and history of Central Park, we can deepen our appreciation of the Park and recognize it as one of the first places to enjoy fresh air and water—as essential to our health and wellbeing then as they are now.
We highlight a few trailblazing, but little known, women who inspired or funded a variety of features in Central Park.
About the Conservancy
During a year like no other, New Yorkers have rediscovered local parks as essential sources of mental and physical wellbeing and reconnected with our intrinsic human need to spend time outdoors.
Park HistoryFor many New Yorkers right now, Central Park and the City’s other open spaces are more valuable and meaningful than ever.
The site of Seneca Village in Central Park resembles many other Park landscapes, with rolling hills, winding paths, trees, playgrounds, and rock outcrops.
Tags: Conservancy Staff / Trees / History / Nature Lovers / Park Experts