Central Park Conservancy

When the Central Park Conservancy started working in the Park in 1980, the playgrounds, like the rest of the Park, were in a state of serious deterioration (image 29). Most of the playgrounds, which by this time numbered twenty-three, had not been substantially renovated since they were first constructed almost fifty years before. (19) The decade-old adventure-style playgrounds were beginning to fall into disrepair (image 30). The Conservancy’s management and restoration plan, Rebuilding Central Park (1985), focused on the monumental task of rebuilding the Park’s infrastructure and circulation and knitting the fragmented and deteriorated landscape back together. In the broader recommendations for the Park’s renewal, playgrounds were not discussed as a system or individually in any detail. The need for significant renovation and reconstruction was obvious, however, and projects were undertaken as funding was secured.

The first playground to be reconstructed by the Conservancy was the Billy Johnson Playground at East 67th Street (image 31). This playground was the result of a design competition to create a naturalistic play environment inspired by the Park’s landscapes. The winning competition entry was submitted by M. Paul Friedberg, the landscape architect who had created the first adventure-style playground in New York City and who later designed TimberForm. His proposal was an adventure-style playground that deviated from the typical, geometric style, illustrating how his idea of a total play environment could be manifested in different forms and materials. Friedberg created a play landscape out of the materials of the Park—plants, stone, and wood—and designed play features inspired by park structures and landscape forms such as a miniature rustic shelter, a bridge evoking the nearby Gapstow Bridge, and a granite slide built into a hill. The playground’s unique and largely interconnected play features provide opportunities for exploration and imaginative play, but unlike the other adventure-style playgrounds, seem to be an extension of the Park environment.

Other playground reconstructions in the late 1980s and through the 1990s largely included the installation of timber structures and post-and-platform play equipment (image 32). Most of these playgrounds had not been reconstructed since the Moses era, and the new equipment and improved infrastructure (funds permitting) resulted in significant improvements. In addition to the modular systems, these playgrounds also typically included swings, small sandboxes, and play sprinklers. Many of Central Park’s playgrounds still include this type of equipment.