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central park


In the mid-l800s, 500,000 people were living in New York City, with most city dwellers housed in crowded, cramped quarters below 38th Street. To escape the din of city life, people sought refuge in such pastoral spaces as Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
The first public ure to champion the need for open green space within the city was Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant. In 1844, he called for the creation of a large public park. Landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing joined Bryant in his pleas, and together they pressed officials to set aside land before it was swallowed up by the fast-developing city. In a moment of rare political consensus, both parties at that time endorsed the idea of a large public park. Between 1853 and 1856, the commissioners paid more than $5 million for land from 59th Street to 106th Street, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues.

Then, in 1857, the independent board of commissioners sponsored a public competition to design the new Central Park.

Out of 33 entries, the commissioners chose the Greensward by Frederick Law Olmsted, superintendent of the Park work crews, and Calvert Vaux, the British architect who had convinced the commissioners to hold a design competition.

The varied terrain of the topography set aside for the Park invited pastoral, picturesque, and formal landscapes, all of which were included in Olmsted and Vaux's . Achieving their vision, however, was a challenge to both architect and engineer, as the area was rocky, swampy, and muddy. The soil was inadequate to sustain the trees and shrubs Olmsted and Vaux ned, so 500,000 cubic feet of topsoil was sectiuned in from New Jersey. Lacking modern machinery, workers manually dug up earth, and blasted out huge boulders with gunpowder. More than 10 million cartloads of materials and debris were sectiuned in and out on horse-drawn carts. Thirty-six bridges and arches were built and six man-made water bodies, fed from the City's water supply, were created.

Andrew Haswell Green served as comptroller and treasurer of the board of commissioners from 1857 to 1871, when the Park was under construction.  Green recognized the brilliance of Olmsted and Vaux's when other commissioners were ready to dismiss it. It is because of Green's support and protection of the Greensward that so much of Central Park is true to its original design. 

Most of the landscapes of Central Park were completed twenty years after the design competition was announced. Hampered by an endless series of political battles, Olmsted and Vaux officially resigned many times for either aesthetic or political reasons. Olmsted was finally removed in 1877; Vaux stayed on and off until his death in 1895. In his 1882 essay 'Spoils of the Park' Olmsted noted that because of Central Park's uniqueness it needed an innovative form of management. He recommended that an executive office, a skilled landscape architect, and an unpaid and informed board of directors oversee the decisions for the Park.

Together, Olmsted and Vaux are considered to be the founders of the profession of landscape architecture in America. Despite the challenges of building the Park, its immediate success launched the urban parks movement of the 19th century.

Near the end of the century, the public demand for recreational space and the advent of automobiles placed new pressures on the Park. In the 1910s and 1920s, however, neglect posed an even greater threat to the Park than sporting events or cars. For decades after Vaux's death, there were only intermittent efforts to improve the lawns, replace dead trees and shrubs, or to end littering and vandalism.

The election of Fiorello LaGuardia in 1934 gave Central Park a powerful advocate. LaGuardia unified New York's five parks departments and handed the reins to Robert Moses, who had built Long Island's first parkways and created Jones Beach. Moses immediately set out to clean up the Park.

Soon, flowers bloomed where there had been bare dirt, reseeded lawns returned to lush green, walks were repaved, and drinking fountains repaired. The City filled in the lower Reservoir with earth to create the Great Lawn. But Olmsted and Vaux's original vision for rural scenery was of minor interest to Moses, whose generation saw the need for recreational facilities. During the Moses' 30-year tenure, he secured New Deal funds to underwrite the costs for playgrounds, ballfields, handball courts, and the Wollman Rink. He also raised money from individuals to create such popular attractions as the Hans Christian Andersen and Alice in Wonderland sculptures, the Chess and Checkers House, and the Carousel. In 1964, Central Park was declared a National Historic Landmark.

The early 1960s saw the start of some popular annual performances in the Park. In 1962, the Public Theatre's 'Shakespeare in the Park' debuted. In 1961 and 1965, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, respectively, began their series of summer performances on Sheep Meadow.

Already declared a National Historic Landmark, Central Park was named New York City's first Scenic Landmark in 1974, although neither designation secured funds for the Park's much needed restoration or maintenance.

Moses's departure from his position as parks commissioner in 1960 marked the beginning of a twenty-year period of decline for the Park. The Park was the setting for summer concerts, New Year's Eve celebrations, peace rallies, protest marches, Love-Ins, and Be-Ins. But these public gatherings took a heavy toll on the Park's landscapes. The once-green grass, trampled on and without proper maintenance, began to look more like a dust bowl than a great lawn. Broken park fixtures were strewn about, benches were missing their wooden slats, and the tops of lampposts were missing. Graffiti covered almost every available stone or wood surface.

By the late 1970s, the condition of Central Park had so deteriorated that a number of advocacy groups were formed to raise money, volunteers, and awareness of the situation. Chief among these groups were the Central Park Task Force and the Central Park Community Fund. Needing an entree into the direct care of the Park, they approached Mayor Edward Koch and Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis. Under their leadership, the Central Park Conservancy was founded in 1980. William Beinecke was named Chairman, and Elizabeth "Betsy" Barlow (now Rogers) filled the newly created post of Central Park Administrator. Thus began a new phase of in the life of Central Park.

The City and the Central Park Conservancy worked together to begin the long process of restoring the Park. The City issued bonds to fund a variety of capital projects while the Conservancy sought private funding to complement the City contributions. Work unrolled on Sheep Meadow, the Dairy, and the Pond.

In the early 1980s, the Central Park Conservancy commissioned ten studies of the Park, covering its topography, hydrology, architectural features, circulation, drainage utilities, trees and other vegetation, as well as a security analysis and a Park user study. The results of these studies were used to create Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan. Published in 1985, this master focused public and private resources on three tasks: rebuilding the Park's architectural heritage (both structural and landscape); re-greening the Park and providing constant horticultural care for its meadows, woodlands, and gardens; and providing programs and security for Park visitors.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Conservancy worked with the City on many joint restoration projects. The Parks Department's capital funds, for example, paid for the early restoration of Belvedere Castle while the Conservancy raised money for the surrounding landscape. The design work for the restoration of the Harlem Meer was funded in 1986 by a private grant. In 1990, public monies funded the dredging of the Meer and the removal of its Moses-era concrete curbing. Private monies then paid to t a naturalistic shoreline and to build The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center.

This era saw the completion of many other projects, including the reopening of Conservatory Garden, the restoration of Shakespeare Garden, Strawberry Fields, and the Conservancy's first woodland restoration project that included the cascades in the Ravine. Also during this period, the Women's Committee of the Central Park Conservancy created its Adopt-A-Bench, Tree Trust, and Playground Partners programs, all of which continue to raise private funds to support Conservancy initiatives.

1993 marked the start of the Central Park Conservancy's 'The Wonder of New York Campaign.' With the overwhelming support of thousands of individual New Yorkers, foundations, and corporations, the three-year campaign raised nearly $77.2 million. At the centerpiece of this fundraising effort was the restoration project that would transform the 'Great Dust Bowl' into the 55 acres surrounding the Great Lawn and Turtle Pond.

To effectively maintain the Park, the Conservancy instituted a revolutionary new zone management system in 1995. The Park was divided into 49 zones, each with a dedicated gardener who provides a uniformed presence and is held accountable for his or her zone.

In February 1998, a new era began when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, and Conservancy Chairman Ira Millstein signed a management contract between the City and the Conservancy intended to ensure the continuing maintenance, capital restoration, and public programming for the Park. This contract affirmed the City's confidence in its nearly twenty-year partnership with the Conservancy. Under the agreement, the Conservancy  receives an annual fee for services, determined by a formula based upon the Conservancy's success in raising and spending a specified minimum amount of private funds in the Park on an annual basis.

Since the creation of this public/private partnership, the Conservancy has completed many more projects as part of its mission to restore, manage, and preserve Central Park for the enjoyment of present and future generations. These include the restoration of the Reservoir landscapes and fence, installation of the irrigation system at Sheep Meadow, and the restoration of the Pond and the Pool. Most recently, the Conservancy completed the restoration of the Heckscher Playground and Ballfields, the West 110th Street Playground, and Minton Tile Ceiling at Bethesda Terrace, a historic preservation project that entailed the detailed restoration and reinstallation of 49 panels with almost 16,000 elaborately patterned encaustic tiles.

2008 and beyond

Thanks to the generosity of many individuals, corporations, foundations, and the City of New York, the Conservancy has invested more than $450 million to date into the Park, making it a model for urban parks worldwide. The Conservancy provides 85% of Central Park's $27 million annual operating budget and is responsible for all basic care of the Park. In addition, the Conservancy funds many public programs in the Park, from cultural series such as the Harlem Meer Performance Festival, to sports and recreation activities like climbing and fitness programs, and volunteer-led free walking tours. Educational programs such as Central Park Scholars and Camp Central Park promote learning and leadership to the next generation of Park stewards.

Just as in the time of Olmsted and Vaux, Central Park is once again a leader in the urban parks movement. The Conservancy model has set new standards of excellence in park care, with parks across the city and around the world replicating the model. While the Conservancy's primary mission is the care of Central Park, helping other parks is a natural extension of our core mission. The Conservancy's technical and managerial expertise in horticulture, design, construction, and administration is helping to bring other parks to higher standards and, in doing so, improving the quality of life for communities across the city.

Today Central Park has never been more beautiful or better managed, and the Conservancy is proud to be the leader of the Park's longest period of sustained health and beauty. Olmsted and Vaux would be gratified that their beloved masterpiece is at last under the expert care of an executive who is both an able manager and a professional landscape architect, Conservancy President and Central Park Administrator Douglas Blonsky, and a caring Board of Trustees, under the leadership of Thomas L. Kempner Jr., that not only s for the Park today but s for the Park's future. Mistrustful of city government, Olmsted never could have imagined the consummate professionalism of today's Parks Department under the leadership of Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who also has a distinguished career in Park management. 

As we complete the transformation of the Park, the next challenge is to secure its future, and stop the cycles of decline that have plagued the Park throughout its history. Through long-term ning and the establishment of an endowment for Park care, the Conservancy is working to ensure the continued maintenance of New York City's 843-acre oasis. With your support, the Conservancy can continue to restore, manage, and preserve Central Park, for present and future generations.


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