Infrastructure Past, Present, and Future Casebook/Central Park

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Central Park

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This casebook is a case study on New York City's Central Park by Audrey Hayes, Hunter Hill, Eryn Undan, and Wilfredo Villatoro and as part of the Infrastructure Past, Present and Future: GOVT 490-004 (Synthesis Seminar for Policy & Government) / CEIE 499-003 (Special Topics in Civil Engineering) Fall 2022 course at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government and the Volgenau School of Engineering Sid and Reva Dewberry Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering. Modeled after the Transportation Systems Casebook. Under the instruction of Prof. Jonathan Gifford.

What is Central Park?

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Central Park is a public park located in the center of Manhattan, New York City. It was the first landscaped public park ever built in the United States, as well as the most frequently visited one with over 40 million guests annually[1]. It is owned by NYC Parks, and operated by the Central Park Conservancy. Central Park spans 843 acres and is home to a plethora of natural landscapes, attractions, and events. Today, Central Park holds events such as concerts and weddings. In addition to this, Central Park is home to several visitor centers and restaurants, along with the Central Park Zoo. As for recreational activities, visitors enjoy taking yoga classes, utilizing bike rentals, as well as picnics and horse and carriage tours within the park. Considering its many points of interest and rich history, Central Park is widely regarded as one of the most famous public parks. In fact, over 200 featured movies include Central Park in their setting, making it the most filmed public park in the world[2]. Building Central Park cost about $14 million dollars in original construction and approximately $1 billion in restoration and maintenance costs up-to-date[3].

Central Park’s construction began in 1858 with the goal of fulfilling the recreational needs of residents in the growing New York City. Government officials held a competition to determine how the park would be built; a total of 33 entries were taken into account, and the


winning design “Greensward Plan” came forward as a product of Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux[4]. Their design featured rural landscapes that would give New York City residents a way to experience more naturesque environments– without the troubles of having to travel far from the city. Olmsted believed that it was important to mold Central Park into a universal space where men, women, and children of all backgrounds were welcome.


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Central Park is located in an area previously known as Seneca Village, which was a predominately African-American neighborhood. Seneca Village's residents were some of the only Black property owners of the early to late 1850s. This is important because of laws at the time that only allowed property owners to be able to vote. It was a safe haven for immigrants and people of color from more built up areas southern of Seneca Village. The demographics of this area were mostly Black, Irish, and some German immigrants. The land was obtained through eminent domain.

Timeline of Events

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  • 1825:Seneca Village is founded when John and Elizabeth Whitehead sell 200 lots of their land between what is now West 82nd to 89th Street of Central Park[5]
  • 1853:New York State Legislature passes a law that said the United States’ first major public park would be built in Manhattan between 5th and 6th Avenues[6]
  • 1857:Remaining residents are forced to vacate Seneca Village; site clearing begins[7]
  • 1858:Design competition is held to determine how Central Park should be constructed
  • 1862:The Central Park design plans by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux are finalized
  • 1863:The city purchases 64 lots from Courtlandt Palmer, a hardware business owner, as part of a plan for park extension[8]

Construction and Opening

  • 1858:Construction begins and the first section of Central Park, “The Lake”, opens to the public after only a few months[9]
  • 1876:Central Park is officially completed
  • 1881:The Obelisk (Cleopatra’s Needle), which was created in Egypt about 3,500 years ago, is first displayed in Central Park[10]
  • 1934:Central Park gets a “revival” when Robert Moses is appointed NYC Parks Commissioner[11]
  • 1960:Robert Moses resigns from his position as Commissioner, without leaving any plans on how to proceed with further maintaining the park
  • 1963:Central Park is officially named a National Historic Landmark
  • 1979:The park’s infrastructure has been suffering for some time now; volunteer groups have been attempting to deal with these issues. Elizabeth Barlow, the director of the Central Park Task Force, is the first to hold the position of Central Park Administrator

Influence of the Central Park Conservancy to Present

  • 1980:Several advocacy groups including the Central Park Task Force come together to form the Central Park Conservancy, a private non-profit group that works under contract with New York City and NYC Parks. From this point on, the Conservancy is in charge of operating and maintaining Central Park
  • 1990:The Central Park Conservancy has now contributed over 50% of Central Park’s budget[12]
  • 2017:Restoration of the Ravine in North Woods was completed, which included the reconstruction of older bridges, paths, and drainage infrastructure[13]
  • 2019: Renovations of the Safari Playground (originally built in 1936) have been completed, with new creative and safe playground elements along with wheelchair accessibility ramps that lead into the space[14]
  • 2022:Construction for the restoration of the Conservatory Garden is currently ongoing; it has not been significantly restored since 1983[15]

Institutions and Involved Actors

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The initiative to build Central Park was carried out in 1951 by the New York City government under Mayor Ambrose Kingsland. Kingsland proposed to the New York City Common Council to acquire a 750-acre (300 ha) between the 59th and 106th streets and Fifth and Eighth avenues. To ensure the completion of the park, the state legislature passed a bill to authorize the appointment of four Democratic and seven Republican commissioners who had exclusive control over the planning and construction of Central Park. There was a design contest that received 33 entries. The commission selected the Greensward Plan, submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted, a writer and farmer from Connecticut, and Calvert Vaux, a young English architect.

The construction required workers to move nearly 5 million cubic yards of stone, earth, and topsoil, build 36 bridges and arches, and construct 11 overpasses over transverse roads. The park also required the plantation of 500,000 trees, shrubs, and vines. Over 20,000 workers were needed to build Central Park, most of them Irish and German immigrants who were underpaid, overworked, and uninsured.

Upon the park's completion, there was no board to oversee the park's maintenance, which led to contamination and deterioration of the park in the upcoming decades. In the early 1900s, advocacy groups were formed, such as the Parks and Playground Association, the Parks Conservation Association, and the Central Park Association. These associations were merged into the Park Association of New York City in 1928. Despite the presence of the Park Association of New York City, the lack of funding and expansion led to a decaying state of Central Park as New Yorkers shifted their attention to other sites such as Coney Island and Broadway Theaters.

Central Park experienced a revival in 1934 when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed Robert Moses as NYC Parks Commissioner. Moses received federal funding to develop massive planning projects citywide, including 19 playgrounds, ballfields, handball courts, and Wollman Rink in Central Park. The estimated funding received from the federal government was 2 million dollars ($43 million today). Moses would remain as NYC Parks Commissioner until 1960.

As usual, the park again started to face contamination, deterioration, and pollution, which was neglected due to the lack of budget to sustain a significant renovation of Central Park. In 1975, the Central Park Task Force was founded to raise capital for the revival of Central Park. In 1980, a 200-million-dollar endowment was given to Central Park under the efforts of the Central Park Conservancy. The Central Park Conservancy continued to fundraise money for renovations which have averaged between 50 to 100 million every decade in addition to the yearly budget. In 1993, the Conservancy and the City signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) recognizing the Conservancy as the entity responsible for the day-to-day maintenance and operation of the park. The agreement was renewed in 2006 and again in 2013, reiterating the City's continued trust in the Conservancy. The current contract will expire in 2013, when a new deal may be settled.

Funding and Financing

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  • 1851 to 1965: Total cost of park was 14 million U.S Dollars which was 7 million more than the estimated 5 million. The land itself was 7.1 million dollars which was almost the same amount Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867.
  • 1928: The Park Association of New York City is created which allocates a yearly budget to the maintenance of the park.
  • 1934: The federal program New Deal granted Robert Moses with 2 million dollars to renovate the park.
  • 1975: The Central Park Task Force is founded, which led to the creation of the Central Park Conservancy.
  • 1980: A 200-million-dollar endowment was given to Central Park.
  • 1986: The Conservancy’s first capital campaign raised $50 million over a five-year period.
  • 1993: Through overwhelming support of thousands of New Yorkers and many corporations and foundations, the Conservancy raised a total of nearly $77.2 million, which is used to restore the Park’s remaining major landscapes—Summit Rock, Merchant’s Gate, Naturalist’s Walk, Turtle Pond, the Great Lawn, and North Meadow.
  • 2006: The Conservancy launches the Campaign for Central Park, $100 million including $50 million capital for major landscapes remaining to be restored (Lake and Met to Meer), and $50 million for long-term operating support. Campaign is expanded to include additional capital projects, increasing the total campaign to $126 million.
  • 2013: The Conservancy secured a $100 million gift towards restoration and management of the Park. Roughly half is directed toward a 10-year capital program for the park. 60 million dollars are given from the city towards the estimated $170 million capital program.
  • 2022: Negotiations have begun between the Conservancy and New York City, which might reach an unprecedented 300-million-dollar donation from the City.

Economic Benefits and Consequences

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The current value of the land in Central Park is estimated to be about $528.8 billion. A 2009 study found that the park increased the city’s annual tax revenue by more than $656 million, visitors spent more than $395 million due to the park, in-park businesses such as concessions generated $135.5 million, and the 4,000 hours of annual film shoots and other photography generated $135.6 millions of economic output. In 2013, about 550,000 people lived within a ten-minute walk (about 0.5 miles or 0.80 kilometers) of the park's boundaries, and 1.15 million more people could get to the park within a half-hour subway ride.

In 2014 the Central Park Conservancy directly employed 453 people, with a payroll of nearly $21.4 million; and spent approximately $15 million on purchases of goods and services (including construction) from New York City businesses. Visits to Central Park in 2014 are estimated to have totaled 41.8 million, an average of nearly 115,000 visits per day. Using data obtained from the New York City Department of Finance, we estimate that in fiscal year 2014, proximity to Central Park added more than $26.0 billion to the market value of properties on the blocks closest to the park – from Lexington Avenue on the east to Amsterdam Avenue on the west, and from 53rd Street on the south to 116th Street on the north.


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  1. Central Park’s initial price seems steep but has ultimately worth it
  2. Parks within cities are one of  the few non-rival non-excludable aspects
  3. Equal accessibility was a key goal by Olmsted “The larger a town becomes simply because of its advantages for commercial purposes, the greater will be the convenience available to those who live in and near”[12]
  4. Central Park not only provides a lot for the community but also increases the value in the property around it significantly.
  5. Thanks to good planning, the park is accessible via the 1,2,3,4,5,6,A,B,C,D,N,E,Q, and M trains either directly on at, or within a short walking distance, not to mention being the heart of Manhattan

Discussion Questions

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  • The maintenance of Central Park is above 50+ million per year, which only directly supports less than 1,000 jobs. Is this expensive budget line item justifiable?
  • The presence of Central Park directly increases the cost of land, making it a highly commercial area. Should Central Park be replicated in other cities, given the risk of displacing communities?
  • Is the success of Central Park directly related to its massive 840 acres of land, or would multiple smaller parks have had the same effect?
  • The response time of public safety officials to Central Park is increased significantly due to its size. Should scenery be sacrificed to increase public safety?


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[16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] [29]

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  16. New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. (n.d.). Central Park. Central Park : NYC Parks. Retrieved October 21, 2022, from
  17. THIRTEEN Media With Impact. (2022, February 3). Did You Know? Fun Facts About NYC's Parks. Treasures of New York. Retrieved October 21, 2022, from
  18. Kang, T. (2017, June 1). 160 years of Central Park: A brief history. Central Park Conservancy. Retrieved October 21, 2022, from
  19. Miller. (2022). Before Central Park. Columbia University Press.
  20. Before Central Park: The Story of Seneca Village. Central Park Conservancy. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2022, from
  21. How the Obelisk Made its Home in Central Park. Central Park Conservancy. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2022, from
  22. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Manhattan. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from
  23. Restoration of the Ravine. Central Park Conservancy. (n.d.). Retrieved November 1, 2022, from
  24. Restoration of the Conservatory Garden. Central Park Conservancy. (n.d.). Retrieved November 1, 2022, from
  25. Blackmar, E., & Rosenzweig, R. (2020, March 9). History of Central Park. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from
  26. Safari Playground Reconstruction. Central Park Conservancy. (n.d.). Retrieved November 1, 2022, from
  27. Central Park Conservancy. (2015). The Central Park Effect: Assessing the Value of Central Park’s Contribution to New York City’s Economy. SCRIBD.
  28. Crompton, J. L. (2021). A Review of the Economic Data Emanating from the Development of Central Park and Its Influence on the Construction of Early Urban Parks in the United States. Journal of Planning History, 20(2), 134–156.
  29. Cooke, O. (2007). A Class Approach to Municipal Privatization: The Privatization of New York City’s Central Park. International Labor and Working-Class History, 71, 112–132.