Purpose and Overview of this Study

This planning study is intended to inform and guide the continued stewardship of Central Park’s twenty-one playgrounds. For the past thirty years, the Conservancy has worked to restore the Park as a whole, bringing it back from a state of severe decline following one of the worst periods of neglect and deterioration in its history. As a result of this ongoing effort, rooted in a comprehensive approach to planning, restoration, and maintenance, the Park has experienced the longest period of sustained management in its more than one-hundred-fifty-year history and is more well-used than ever before. In the course of this transformation, the playgrounds have been renovated or reconstructed one by one as the need and opportunity aligned, with nearly three decades separating the earliest of these projects from the work completed in recent years. Building on the accomplishments and experience of the last thirty years, the goal is to reexamine the playgrounds as a system for the first time since they were built in the 1930s, with the same comprehensive and consistent approach that has been applied to the restoration and management of the Park as a whole.

Central Park’s renewal has been grounded in a thorough understanding and appreciation of its history, from the essential purpose and vision behind its creation to the many changes and additions that, through the years, have both complemented and compromised that purpose and vision. Likewise, addressing the Park’s playgrounds comprehensively as a system requires an understanding of their history and an appreciation of their place in the larger history and purpose of the Park. This study therefore begins with a detailed history of play and playgrounds in the Park from its inception to the present. It is followed by a section on play today, which discusses current use of the Park by children and families in the context of contemporary theories of play and current design practice. The discussion of the history of play and playgrounds in the Park and of play today forms the basis of the planning goals and design objectives outlined in this document to guide the continued renewal and ongoing stewardship of the playgrounds.

These planning goals and design objectives are supported by analysis of the playgrounds and their surrounding park context, including identification of opportunities and discussion of a preliminary design direction for work in the playgrounds going forward. The site analysis of each of the playgrounds is based on an evaluation of the existing conditions and the infrastructure that supports it, along with extensive observation of playground use and interviews with playground users. But a comprehensive approach to the playgrounds as a system—one that supports the Park’s greater purpose and is integrated with its broader restoration—requires that they be considered in the context of the surrounding parkland and the full complement of play opportunities it offers. Children have always played in the Park: climbing rocks, sledding, and playing games on lawns are but a few examples. The playgrounds, added as discrete amenities years after the original Park was built, are physically distinct from the broader landscape and have evolved as isolated facilities. But the landscape has inherent recreational value for children, and the transformation of the Park during the past thirty years has increased opportunities for play as well as for improved connections between the playgrounds and the Park. The planning analysis, therefore, discusses the playgrounds in the context of their surroundings, providing a framework to evaluate and address their relationship to the larger experience of the Park.