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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

An Improved Prospect
In 1980, Prospect Park lay in shambles. Now, after carefully researched restoration, it looks almost as if Olmsted and Vaux had designed it yesterday.
By Anne Schwartz

Walking into Brooklyn’s Prospect Park is like stepping into a nineteenth-century landscape painting. The sweeping vista of the Long Meadow, interrupted by gracefully arching trees, stretches for nearly a mile along one side of the park. The greensward gives way to a wooded, mountainous scene with cascades, pools, and a brook cutting through a stony ravine. When it leaves the forest, the water quietly winds through streams and pools toward the shining stillness of a wide lake.

Many people consider the 526-acre park to be the finest work of its creators, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, America’s great pioneers of urban park design. It is more scenic, more removed from the city, more unified than Central Park, their first and more well-known park. In 1888, Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, called it “an urban park unsurpassed in any part of the world in the breadth and repose of its rural beauty.”

Frederic Charles

Olmsted and Vaux themselves had great ambitions for Prospect Park, seeing an opportunity to achieve their aesthetic and philosophical ideal of a retreat for crowded city folk. It would be both a tranquil, picturesque landscape and a place where people of all social classes could come together “for the single purpose of enjoyment.”

Today, two-thirds of the way into the most significant reconstruction of the park since it was built in the 1860s, the landscape is the closest it has been to Olmsted and Vaux’s vision for probably a century. On a sunny weekend day, the park’s grassy expanses and remote-seeming forest are full of people of every race and ethnicity strolling, birdwatching, picnicking, tossing balls, or just sitting on a bench, enjoying “the sense of enlarged freedom” the designers set out to provide. For the park to achieve this state, however, it took more than 20 years of greatly improved management, community involvement, tens of million of dollars of public and private funding, and careful planning that balanced historic accuracy with sound ecological practices.

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