American Landscape and Architectural Design 1850-1920

New York City Parks in Use, 1912
by Charles Downing Lay

The playground in a large city, where the congestion is great, must provide facilities for the organized play of many children; organized play, because only by organization can a large number of children be amused in a small place. It must provide, also, for the unorganized play of the smallest children, and for the comfort of their mothers who must be with them. It may well be a concert grove, a meeting-place in the evening, when people of all ages flock to the nearest open spaces to enjoy the air the lights and the cooler breezes. It should be an outdoor club for the neighborhood, and the social center of the district. [1. Lay, p.62]

The modern landscape park, as we know, is a result of modern urbanization and its immediate predecessor was the royal hunting park, which, gradually surrounded by an urban population, was gradually appropriated for its own uses. In this country where all is new the parks were created abruptly because it felt that some sight of rural scenery was necessary for dwellers in a large city. [2. Lay, p.76]

Charles Downing Lay (1877-1956) was the first student to receive a degree in Landscape Architecture at Harvard. He later became the Landscape Architect for the City of New York and, along with Henry Vincent Hubbard, was the founder of the professional journal, Landscape Architecture. His photographs of New York City parks, taken in 1912, reveal his concern for maintaining and creating spaces that were appropriate and useful to an urban population.

New York City offered a compelling problem for Lay. When Vaux and Olmsted designed Central Park in 1850, New York contained only half a million people; as the Landscape Architect fifty years later, Lay was faced with a population of 2,870,000 on Manhattan Island alone and 6,000,000 in the entire city. [3. Lay, p.76] Both his writings and photographs of this period show Lay's concern for the maintenance and creation of parks and playgrounds that would not only enhance city life, but also address how the growing population used the outdoor spaces.

Bibliography for New York City Parks

Lay, Charles Downing. "Playground Design." Landscape Architecture (January 1912, Vol. II, no. 2) 62-75. [1]

Lay, Charles Downing. "Park Design and the Preservation of the Park Idea." Landscape Architecture (January 1921, Vol. XI, no. 2) 76-83. [2, 3]


People gathered in Central Park
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Central Park, Concert on the Mall, 1912

People skating on a lake
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Central Park, Skating Lake, 1912

People skating on a lake
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Central Park, Skating Lake, 1912

Children in a wading pool
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Hudson Park Fountain, 1912

Children crowded in a garden
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon School Garden, 1912

Children playing in a park
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Thomas Jefferson Park, School Gardens

Men riding horses
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Prospect Park, Bridle Path, 1912