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The design of New York City’s Central Park was the result of an 1858 competition won by American journalist and agriculturalist Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and British-born and trained architect Calvert Vaux (1925-1895). The period of original construction spanned the years between 1858 and 1873, with sections of the Park opened as they were completed. Encompassing some 843 acres (341 ha) in the center of Manhattan, Central Park is a magisterial composition, whose landscapes and structural features are placed to take advantage of the natural topography of the site, creating a varied tableau of harmonious naturalism and scenic beauty indicative of the picturesque landscape design tradition.
Olmsted and Vaux named their plan “Greensward” after their preferred landscape type of sweeping meadows designed to appear limitless to park visitors. These grand pastoral scenes were complemented by serene water bodies and carefully juxtaposed with the intimacy of picturesque woodlands featuring dense plantings, meandering streams, and dramatic rockwork arranged to include naturalistic caves, grottos and cascades. Moving though these orchestrated views would be the antidote to the congestion and unforgiving pace of work and the crowded conditions in which much of the soaring population of New York lived.
Because the designers recognized a need for civic socialization in their plan, they created a formal Mall, the grand elm-lined promenade and the main architectural feature, Bethesda Terrace, a two-tiered esplanade featuring elaborate carvings and a central sculptural fountain that eventually became Angel of the Waters when American artist Emma Stebbins was awarded the commission.
Visitors experience these varied park scenes through a brilliant system of intertwined recreational roads: twenty-eight miles (45 km) of pedestrian paths, six miles (10 km) of undulating drives to be shared by both equestrians and carriages, and a rural bridle trail exclusively for horseback riding. The park’s six-mile (10 km) tree-lined perimeter offers an urban promenade that acts as a visual barrier between the city and the park. To ensure the safety and psychological peace of mind for all park visitors, Calvert Vaux and assistant architect Jacob Wrey Mould created a series of ornamental bridges that separated walkways for quiet strolling from the faster horse and carriage traffic.
The design competition required the inclusion of transverse roads to cross the Park at intervals and be open to city traffic both day and night. The creation of four below- grade roadways—65th Street, 79th Street, 86th Street and 96th Street—are Olmsted and Vaux’s most innovative feature. These external arteries, artfully camouflaged behind dense vegetation, ensure visitors the continuity of a purely rural experience within the boundaries of the park.
The Park was also designed as a vital cultural resource, offering flexible spaces for music and the visual arts, passive recreation such as sketching and birding and active sports such as boating, ice-skating, baseball, tennis and croquet, and an outdoor classroom for the appreciation and study of botany.
As a work of comprehensive and picturesque landscape design on a grand scale, Central Park stands apart as a creative work that also had a great impact on the surrounding city, and on designers and urban planners influenced by its approach. A milestone in the development of landscape architecture and urban planning, it created a model that is still looked to for urban parks. The scale of the park, its artful landscape effects, its accessibility, and the great range of leisure activities that it made possible contributed to new modes and attitudes about life in big cities. This was made possible by the the government’s decision to set aside this very large space for public recreation, a striking assertion of progressive social policy. While part of an existing current of thought relating to the value and design of urban parks, Central Park’s scale, creativity, and success gave the movement great impetus.
Criterion (i): Central Park is a masterpiece of landscape architecture and has become one of the most significant, enduring and influential works of its kind. It was a groundbreaking endeavor in several ways. First, the original topography, characterized by massive rock outcrops and swampy low-lying wetlands, was transformed into a complex naturalistic landscape, an artistic composition of meadows, lakes, and woodlands designed to imitate nature. The emphasis on curvilinear paths and roads, limitless views, and dense plantings belies the park’s confinement within the City’s rigid grid system of streets. Second, the architectural and ornamental elements designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould—bridges and arches of stone, cast-iron and wood; the Victorian gothic Dairy, Ladies Pavilion, and Belvedere Castle; sculptural works; and the Terrace; as well as over one hundred rustic features—constitute a remarkable concentration of nineteenth century decorative arts in a landscape context. Finally, Central Park is a complex work of art that is also an important example of cultural thought reflecting the time and place of its creation. For the designers the purpose of the Park was not merely a visual experience but, more importantly, a deeply emotional and psychological one that mirrors the inspiration one receives from great art, music and literature and the grandeur of Nature. Its enduring value is seen in its lasting success.
Criterion (ii): Central Park’s designers and the citizens of New York who promoted the need for parks in the city were influenced by 19th-century European ideas on the value of parks in providing physical and mental respite for the inhabitants of increasingly crowded cities, and by examples constructed there. Olmsted and Vaux, with brilliant method, capitalized on the city’s decision to set aside an extremely large area for a park to create an immersive experience of nature in a city. The scale, beauty, creativity and success of this work made it one of the foremost instruments for the dissemination of ideas of city planning to address pressing social problems, to promote the value of parkland in both urban and wild contexts, and to expand the profession of landscape architecture.
Criterion (iv): Central Park is an outstanding example of a type of designed landscape that illustrates the beginning of the modern movement for urban parks during a period of rapid industrialization and urban growth around the turn of the 20th century. Its intricate design with elements consciously provided for the respite of city dwellers, and its large size which enabled these elements to be fully elaborated in many ways make Central Park a significant prototype.
Central Park continues to be used and enjoyed in precisely the way that its creators intended: as a therapeutic contrast to the bustle of the city’s streets. It allows New Yorkers to escape urban stresses, connecting with nature, and with each other. The landscape design and the key elements that contribute to the design, including the circulation system and architectural elements, are essentially complete and intact. There have been subsequent additions of sculptures, gardens, playgrounds, sports, and entertainment and maintenance facilities; however, the grand Olmsted/Vaux vision has been preserved. Starting in the 1920s the park saw the beginning of new demands for single-use active recreational, cultural or entertainment facilities: the formalization of the Zoo, perimeter playgrounds, skating rinks, tennis courts, ballfields, an open-air theater and restaurants. Nonetheless, the park’s practical design and its large size enable these elements to exist, for the most part, without detracting from the park’s bucolic environment. A significant public-private partnership established in 1980 was able to reverse decades of neglect and return the park to excellent condition. A master plan provides guidance for the gradual restoration and maintenance of the entire landscape. Situated in the center of Manhattan, the park has always been surrounded by urban development, and this contrast is one of the characteristic features of Central Park, though the scale of nearby buildings, especially at the southern end, has gradually increased.
The features contributing to the authenticity of Central Park’s original design include the circulation system of pedestrian paths, bridle paths and carriage drives, the constructed meadows, woodlands and water bodies, the locations and routes of water features, and Victorian structures such as buildings, bridges, and rustic architecture. Although some changes have naturally taken place throughout the park’s history, the park’s original design is well documented through original drawings, written reports and historic photographs. They provide excellent support to park managers to ensure that critical attributes are maintained or returned as close as possible to their authentic states.
There are at this time no urban public parks on the World Heritage List. In the context of Europe and North America, which experienced rapid urbanization and industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there are antecedents of Central Park of various kinds in European cities and particularly in major cities of the United Kingdom, including Birkenhead Park. Olmsted, working both with Vaux and on his own, was a prolific designer of parks in the United States, many of which show important aspects of his design approach and philosophy. However, Central Park’s scale, reknown and resounding success in achieving its original intent have combined to set it apart.