Preserving Central Park, Manhattan’s Urban Oasis

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By Beth Saulnier

Photo of Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan has spent nearly his entire career at the Central Park Conservancy. (Photo provided)

When Manhattan’s Central Park was constructed in the mid-1800s, one of its aims was to offer respite from the stresses of city life, particularly for residents who didn’t have the means to vacation in the countryside. A century and a half later, that purpose was underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted numerous New Yorkers to decamp to weekend houses or the homes of far-flung relatives. Those who remained—especially workers in essential jobs during the city’s brutal spring 2020 surge in cases—were badly in need of nature’s balm.

“The park fulfilled its mission, exactly like it was intended to; in many ways, the pandemic really emphasized its importance,” says Christopher Nolan ’89, noting that even when streets were nearly empty the park was alive with activity. “Amid all the anxiety, it functioned as a place of respite and release and provided an escape that helped people get through the pandemic.”

A CALS alum, Nolan is Central Park’s longtime chief landscape architect. On the staff of the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy—the public-private entity that oversees the park—for the past three decades, Nolan guides the restoration and maintenance of a remarkable 843-acre rectangle of greenery that’s located smack in the middle of a sprawling metropolis.

“It’s a defining element of New York, as a community and as a city; like the Brooklyn Bridge, it was one of New York’s great infrastructure investments of the 19th century,” says Nolan, who also holds the city-appointed role of Central Park administrator. “It actually began the urban parks movement, and it was the birthplace of the profession: Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the park’s designers, were the first to use the term ‘landscape architect.’”

The idea is that when people come into the park, it’s an uplifting experience to be connected to the beauty of nature.

That legacy, and the park’s venerable status—it’s both a U.S. National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places—constantly require Nolan and his colleagues to balance tradition with modernity. As he observes, “People don’t come to Central Park to interpret what 19th-century, English-inspired landscape architecture design was about”—so the park’s current caretakers must honor Olmstead and Vaux’s vision while meeting the needs of a varied 21st-century audience, from avid birders and runners to users of its athletic facilities and playgrounds to people who wish simply to stroll.

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“Our driving principle is to preserve the integrity of the original design, so even in the contemporary elements—like some of the recreational amenities—landscape always gets precedent,” says Nolan, whose office is involved in projects as minor as repairing the drainage in a drinking fountain to managing the woodlands in the 36-acre Ramble. “The idea is that when people come into the park, it’s an uplifting experience to be connected to the beauty of nature.”

A park resurrected

A Long Island native, Nolan joined the Conservancy shortly after the creation of a master plan designed to resurrect the park, which was in dire shape following years of neglect due to the city’s financial woes—to the point where, he notes, there was talk of it being taken over by the National Park Service. In the intervening decades, under the nonprofit’s stewardship and thanks to millions in donated funds, it has enjoyed a striking renaissance—including the restoration of Belevedere Castle, Bethesda Terrace, the Great Lawn, and the Harlem Meer.

A view of Central Park
During the pandemic, Central Park has played an essential role for New Yorkers. (Photo provided)

But in some ways, the park has become a victim of its own success: in non-pandemic times, it sees some 40 million individual visits each year. “The numbers are incredible, but there’s an intensity of use and how that affects the landscape,” Nolan says. “It’s a great challenge, and being stewards in the long term influences how we think about restoration and how we operate from a maintenance perspective. Maintaining this trampled landscape—and maintaining the integrity of it, so people feel that they’re in nature—is hard.”

Currently, the park’s most high-profile project is the demolition and rebuilding of a 1960s-era swimming and ice skating complex at the park’s northern reaches, expected to be completed in 2024, for which the Conservancy is contributing $100 million. Like many of the park’s infrastructure projects—whose planning and development play out in the public realm, in a city of 8 million people with an equal number of opinions—it has had some detractors and been the subject of impassioned debate.

“It’s one of the things that makes working here so challenging, but it’s also part of what makes it so engaging,” Nolan says. “We navigate it by having a deep content knowledge about what we’re doing, and by bringing people together to make sure they understand a project’s full context. Often it’s a process of mutual education, and that public dialogue informs our approach. You quickly come to understand that what drives people is a love for the park.”

Published October 5, 2021


  1. Marlise Flannery Landeck, Class of 1959

    To stroll, to sit, to look, to watch. Oh the delightful, interesting, and sometimes astonishing sights one observed. Central Park was and is a beacon, a lure, a positive addition to our lives! To and for all ages. It restored one’s sense of peace, calm and structure.

  2. Daniel+Coates,+MS,+PhD, Class of 1973

    What a treasure is the Park, for people everywhere. It is one every city should devote 800 or more acres in their core to preserving a natural habitat. Dan Coates, Ottawa, Canada

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