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Central Park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in New York City and certainly the very definition of an urban oasis. The 843-acre park is surrounded by a dense population and high rises yet, from the center, feels like a peaceful retreat. The world-famous park has a history that dates back to 1857 when a landscape designer and architect won a competition to expand and improve the site.

America’s First Landscaped Public Park

Central Park was acquired by New York City in the 1850s as wealthy landowners and merchants urged New York to establish its reputation and develop public lands like those in Paris and London. The site of Central Park was not ideal for private development thanks to rocky outcroppings, bluffs, and swamps but its creation did require displacing about 1,600 residents that included German gardeners and Irish farmers.

In 1857, the Central Park Commission held the first landscape design contest in the United States and chose the “Greensward Plan” for the space by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. The design evoked an English pastoral countryside with open meadows. To maintain the uninterrupted expanse of land, the plan included four Transverse Roads beneath the park to carry traffic across the way.

The construction of the park was the most significant public works project in New York in the 19th century. It involved over 20,000 workers to change the land’s topography. More gunpowder was used blasting away the rocky outcroppings than what was deployed during the Battle of Gettysburg. More than 3 million cubic yards of soil was moved to complete this massive project.

The Growing Prominence of Central Park

By 1865, Central Park was receiving over 7 million visitors every year. Wealthy citizens arrived every day for afternoon carriage parades while middle-class residents came for summer concerts and winter ice skating. By the 1880s, the Central Park commissioners began allowing other attractions at the park such as goat rides, tennis, bicycling, and the Carousel. The Central Park Zoo was founded in 1871 and became the most popular features at the park. During this time, the park evolved from a park for the wealthy into a park for everyday people.

Today, Central Park has 21 playgrounds; the Central Park Zoo with a penguin house and polar bears; the Central Park Carousel, which is one of the largest merry-go-rounds in America; two indoor restaurants; and the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre. It continues to host concerts in the summer and spring with ice skating available in the winter.