Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to New York City, green space is not a mirage or confined to an East Village mural.
Residents and frequent visitors alike know one of the “concrete jungle’s” biggest assets is actually, green space!
The government agency in charge of managing parks claims there are over 1,700 parks and playgrounds across the five boroughs.
And, in the Big Apple, it’s not just quantity that counts. The city’s parks reflect the diversity and widespread interests of residents. From a quiet spot for contemplation and meditation to aggressive competition on the b-ball court, there’s a park for every mood and inclination.
The importance of creating and supporting inviting public spaces is a green thread running though the city’s rich history. It connects the parade grounds of Bowling Green Park in the 1680s to visionaries Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vauxrom almost two hundred years later, all the way through to present day with the evolution of the acclaimed High Line.
Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island have great parks too, of course, but for this post, we’ll focus on the juicy slice of pie that is Manhattan.
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No doubt any conversation that involves the words “new york” and “park,” should begin with Olmsted and Vaux’s grand vision. As I once heard a savvy New Yorker say, “The most astounding thing about Central Park is that it exists.” In a realm where every inch of space is prized and 100-square-feet is considered home sweet home, 843 glorious acres have survived and thrived for breathing in fresh air.
From the skating rink and zoo on the Park’s southern border to the Lennon memorial, Strawberry Fields, and Great Lawn in the middle then up to the Reservoir and Gardens in the north, every stretch of space offers a new vista and opportunity to do a hellavu lot or nothing at all.
When I think about “best days ever,” more than a few involve Central Park, from freezing my backside off during record low temps in 2014’s NYC Half Marathon to a blue-sky fall day when friends gathered for a picnic in Sheep Meadow. Adding to the perfect-liciousness of the picnic, just when thinking, “A cold beer sure would be nice,” like magic an entrepenuer carrying a giant trash bag of Miller High Life appeared. Soon we were happily basking in the warm glow of hot can beer. The city which caters to every desire came through once again!
The only experience most visitors have in Battery Park is snaking through the queue to board a boat bound for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (which is a must-do experience, by the way.)
Gracing the island’s southernmost tip, the park – one of the city’s oldest – has played a supporting role in America’s history and development serving as the first stomping grounds of Dutch settlers to “New Amsterdam,” then the frontline for batteries of cannon during time of war.
Today Battery Park offers an outdoor stroll through history with memorials dedicated to everything from cannon fire to poetic verse. And, be sure to check out the Seaglass Carousel, a work of art that kids and parents can both enjoy. Of course, the best reason to visit this park is for breathtaking views of New York Harbor and Lady Liberty, along with a sense of being on the edge of the world.
High Line Park
Like thousands of NYC residents and lovers, I feel a special attachment to the High Line through witnessing it’s rebirth from disused rail line to elevated public space. Once the last train ran along these long-vital rails in 1980, the “d-word” echoed through broken windows of surrounding warehouses.
Thankfully, a few visionary forces began to unite – bolstered by a grass-roots community group, Friends of the High Line – to consider alternatives to demolition. With a rails-to-park project in Paris as inspiration, the Highline’s evolution was underway and today the just-shy of one and a half mile park snakes along the West Side through Chelsea and Meatpacking giving locals and visitors a sense of calm and peace, along with fantastic views of the Hudson.
Every walk along the line inspires me to think more creatively about spaces and repurposing. Actually, to more creatively about everything.
Hudson River Park
“Stay away. This is my place,” I would like to say to the thousands of other people taking advantage of this amazing stretch of waterfront. But, then I step back and realize the park’s grandness – in addition to the combo of water and city vistas unfurling on both sides – comes from an abundance of people occupying and enjoying the same space.
Like this city itself, it’s a concept that shouldn’t work. Crowd thousands of people into a miniuscule sliver of space and ask that they run/cycle/play/relax to their ambitious little hearts’ extent while not causing harm (or over-the-top inconvenience) to anyone else. In short, exercise the golden rule in a city widely believed (although actually not true) to be filled with “it’s all about me” people. It’s amazing, and it works.
With dedicated running and cycling lanes weaving along the waterfront from just north of Battery Park up to about 50th Street, where you enter Hudson River Park, you can bike, run, walk, crawl, skate your way from one end of the city through the CP to the northern edge of Manhattan. According to the park’s website, “The Hudson River Park Bikeway is the busiest in the United States.” Show up on a sunny weekend and you won’t doubt that claim for a second. Rent a bike of your own and join the fast moving flow.
Along the way, you move through worlds celebrating almost every recreation possible. If sailing is your thing, check out the outposts in Tribeca and Chelsea offering newbies and salty dogs a chance to go with the wind.
Feel like a tennis match? You’ll need to sign up, but court use near Houston is free and comes with a view. Prefer to take a swing? Check out the driving range around 23rd Street.
There is also a mind-boggling array of active options at Chelsea Piers, from bowling to rock climbing, with a little Zumba sprinkled in the middle.
Celebrate your athletic prowess with a cocktail at one of the city’s coolest and most unique spots, the Frying Pan. This historic lightship, docked near 23rd Street, is open from late spring through fall.
Madison Square Park
While most of the city’s parks boast interesting public art, Madison Square Park is the most consistently surprising (oxymoron?) and interesting. This is always one of our first stops to check out the latest temporary exhibit – and while there we inevitably stumble upon a live music, dance, or theatre performance. Currently the park is filled with gleaming canopies from Brooklyn-based artist Teresita Fernández.
Other features include a dog run, making this patch of green space ultra popular with canine-loving residents. If that wasn’t enough, there’s an oh-so popular outpost of celebrity chef Danny Meyer’s burger joint, Shake Shack. You can’t miss it, just look for the never-short-enough line.
If Central Park is NYC’s living room, then Union Square is its pantry and catch-all closet. This transit hub always offers an interesting mix, from markets and art to protests and parades.
For proof that New Yorkers are passionate about organic and sustainable eats, visit the Green Market held on Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday year round. Attracting over 140 vendors and 60,000 visitors in peak season, this isn’t your average farmers’ market.
Every day also offers an eclectic assortment of artists showcasing their latest city skyline painting or jazz recording. It’s a great spot for souvenir shopping.
Washington Square Park
While concert-goers all over the city fork over a small fortune to see celebrated artists in hallowed venues, thrifty locals enjoy sounds alfresco from a bench near the park’s Instagram-popular arch. Located in the heart of Greenwich Village and NYU, Washington Square Park is a haven for musicians to practice, perform, and collaborate. From hippies with guitars to classical string ensembles, there is always something to hear, here.
Walking by this week, a grand piano perched on the sidewalk caught our attention. Within minutes a pianist appeared, crowd gathered, and we were treated to a sunny winter’s day concert.
For picnic perfection, grab a falafel from nearby Mamouns on Sullivan Street, nab a park bench, and watch and listen to the city’s rhythm.
This entry may elicit some head scratching from NYC-ers, but it’s a place we find ourselves often – and hey, this is my list so I get to include it. We discovered this a beautiful pocket park in route to our favorite dumpling joint, New Green Bo, on Bayard Street.
Columbus Park was named after, you guessed it, that famous Italian explorer credited with discovering America. While it’s been called by many names – the most infamous being Five Points Park, during its time as a contentious gathering spot for different immigrant groups – we simply refer to it as Chinatown Park.
Almost any day of the week, you’ll find tables of men and women, usually separately, engaged in ultra serious games of checkers. If you’re lucky, you’ll also happen into a performance of traditional music played by a talented ensemble of park regulars.
“Where the hell is Randall’s Island?” I remember asking years ago as we purchased tickets to a Farm Aid concert. Arriving for that event grandly by water taxi, we knew this beautiful patch of green was something special. Then, we learned about the nearly eight miles of biking and running trails…sweet greeness!
Since that time years ago, we “pop over” to Randall’s Island for leg-stretchings at every opportunity, usually via the footbridge at 103rd Street.
A new footbridge connecting the park to the Bronx is also in the works.
A floating patch of green in New York Harbor, Governor’s Island was a military base for almost two hundred years. Recently opened to the public as the “big island’s” ultimate satellite oasis, the park offers thirty plus acres with rolling hills (built on and of recycled materials, ie. NYC’s massive amount of trash.)
During warm months, the park hosts grand events including one of NYC’s most coveted photo ops, the Jazz Age lawn party, featuring big band music, dancing, and frolicking in the park in period dress. Perfection.