Prospect Park

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Park Entrance [6]
Current map [5]



Fallkill Falls [3]

Located in New York City's most populated borough, Prospect Park is a 585-acre urban park in Brooklyn. [3] Almost 150 years old, it has gone through many changes. When architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux constructed this blend of natural beauty and practicality, Prospect Park became a significant piece of New York history. With many diverse attractions such as, the Prospect Park Zoo and a 60-acre lake, both locals and tourists enjoy the benefits of their ambitious vision. This park hosts more than 8,000,000 visitors a year; this rather impressive statistic is an excellent example of Prospect Park's contribution to Brooklyn life. This overwhelming number of visitors is not only accredited to Prospect Park's entertaining attractions, but also the penchant of park staff to spend a lot of time keeping them in working order. The Prospect Park Alliance is an organization that devotes numerous hours to cleanliness and upkeep of the park, keeping it in mint condition year round. It is safe to say that the original blueprints once dreamed up by Olmsted and Vaux came to fruition and continue to impact New York life.

History of Prospect Park

1870 map [4]

The “independent City of Brooklyn had the third largest population in the United States” in the late 1850’s, and an interest had arisen among the citizens to create a great public park, similar to the new Central Park in Manhattan [3]. In 1859, the Legislature of the State of New York passed an act “To Authorize, the Selection and Location of Certain Grounds for Public Parks, and also for a Parade Ground for the City of Brooklyn,” after which fifteen commissioners made proposals about seven appropriate sites, the largest of these being “Mount Prospect Park” [3]. The name originated from “the bill on which the reservoir was located, near the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and present Eastern Parkway” [3]. This site was chosen because the commissioners agreed it would be beneficial to preserve an undeveloped area around the reservoir to keep the water clean. The commissioners claimed that creating the park had economic and humanitarian interests for Brooklyn as well. The proposals for the park area included a site of historical significance: the location of the easternmost encounter of the Battle of Long Island of the American Revolution.

The proposal suggested the park cover about 320 acres. In 1860, an act was passed to acquire the designated land, and the idea of Prospect Park started to become a reality. James T. Stranahan was elected president of the Board of Commissioners, and his wealth greatly influenced the creation of Prospect Park. The commissioners hired Egbert L Viele, the original Chief Engineer for Central Park, who generated his ideas in his “1861 Plan for the Improvement of Prospect Park.” (This plan gave Prospect Park its current name.) His design was expected to cost around $300,000.

In 1861, the Civil War broke out, bringing the Prospect Park project to a standstill. The project’s commissioners decided in 1862 that the Prospect Park would be the greatest natural park in the United States, and began making estimates that ended up totaling to more than $1,350,000.

Vaux’s eight years of experience as consulting architect in the creation of Central Park made him qualified to help design Prospect Park. He created a sketch plan in 1864 changing certain aspects of the park’s original design, such as shape, size, and location, and this plan ultimately became what Prospect Park looks like today. This report later led to the creation of a whole new plan by Vaux, and his partner Olmsted. Olmsted was more familiar with landscaping and growing plants, and Vaux was more familiar with architecture, and together they created the Report of Olmsted, Vaux and Company in 1866, which became “the official birth certificate of Prospect Park” [3].

“Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux officially were made Landscape Architects of Prospect Park on May 29th and given complete responsibility for everything that was to transpire in the venture. They were asked to prepare details of their plan and to organize a working force. The Legislature of the State of New York passed an act on 30 April 1866 sanctioning the change in land designation. The cost of the park during the seven-year administration of Olmsted and Vaux was tremendous. The land alone had cost more than $4,000,000. Improvements amounted to upwards of $5,000,000, the equivalent of almost $25,000,000 in terms of the market value of the dollar today. Prospect Park was the largest single investment made by the City of Brooklyn up to that time, and it is unlikely that any, before or since, has reaped such high dividends in profits of intrinsic value” [3].

Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted, a historic image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

F.L. Olmsted (1822-1903), along with Calvert Vaux, was the mastermind behind many of New York City's big parks, such as Central Park and Prospect Park. He was born in Hartford, Connecticut, into the eighth generation of Olmsted's to live in the city. His childhood and adolescence were quite interesting and provide us with a little insight into how he became such a prolific, successful, and paramount landscape architect of his time. Although his mother died when he as only 4 years of age, he was educated mostly by ministers from outlying towns. His father was a successful dry-goods merchant and apparently loved beautiful scenery. As such, Frederick Olmsted spent a lot of time vacationing with his family "on tours in search of the picturesque" around upstate New York and Northern New England [9]. It is safe to say that by means of such a naturally enriching childhood, Olmsted was able to gain a love of sorts for the infinite beauty of the outdoors.

Unfortunately, in 1837 Olmsted suffered from severe sumac poisoning which weakened his eyes and prevented him from continuing his education at the prestigious Yale University. However, this did not stop his feverish passion for the great outdoors. He spent the next several years gaining experience by means of various ventures. He ran a farm on Staten Island from 1848 to 1855. He also spent his time studying surveying and engineering as well as chemistry. In 1850, he spent six months hiking through Europe and the British Isles with two friends, encountering numerous scenic parks, countrysides, as well as estates. Eventually, Olmsted used these years of work and adventure to establish the profession of landscape architecture, and pursue his passion to create the magnificent parks and scenic natural reserves that grace our cities to this day.

Olmsted's Vision for Prospect Park and other Urban Parks

Viele's plan for Prospect Park, 1861. (Annual Reports of the Brooklyn Park Commissioners)
Olmsted and Vaux's plan for Prospct Park, 1866. (Annual Reports of the Brooklyn Park Commissioners)

Frederick L. Olmsted's purpose for the parks that he designed was to improve the quality of life in America. Although this may seem like quite a large impact for a park to have on the overall quality of living in the country, he was very passionate about this vision. "These included the large urban park, devoted primarily to the experience of scenery and designed so as to counteract the artificiality of the city and the stress of urban life; the "parkway," a wide urban greenway carrying several different modes of transportation (most important a smooth-surfaced drive reserved for private carriages) which connected parks and extended the benefits of public greenspace throughout the city; the park system, offering a wide range of public recreation facilities for all residents in a city; the scenic reservation, protecting areas of special scenic beauty from destruction and commercial exploitation; the residential suburb, separating place of work from place of residence and devoted to creating a sense of community and a setting for domestic life; the grounds of the private residence, where gardening could develop both the aesthetic awareness and the individuality of its occupants, and containing numerous "attractive open-air apartments" that permitted household activities to be moved outdoors; the campuses of residential institutions, where a domestic scale for the buildings would provide a training ground for civilized life; and the grounds of government buildings, where the function of the buildings would be made more efficient and their dignity of appearance increase by careful planning."[9] As I mentioned before, many of Olmsted's inspirations came from his journeys around the world. From his particular experiences in Panama, he received many of his ideas for urban parks. We can see that he had somewhat of a disdain for the urban city life and what it has done to the natural surroundings. For this reason, he looked for ways to make his parks pastoral and picturesque. He put parkways so that people could ride carriages and walk in order to take in the beauty of nature within the city. He placed vines, shrubs, bushes, and creepers to add mystery to the surroundings. Essentially, everything was created with an intent for people to get "lost" and become immersed in the beauty of the nature that they so quickly forget in the urban environment.

The physical embodiments of Olmsted's style could also have related to his own mental and emotional states."It is as though such masterpieces as Central Park, Prospect Park, and Franklin Park sprung directly from those archetypal images of Parental nurturing, images that also provided Olmsted the psychic and physical energy to sustain him in his battles with the 'practical men', the politicians and capitalists who wielded power in urban America." [1]. This quote seems to make Olmsted and his accomplishments all the more impressive. He gave the world these parks in all their sweeping majesty, but apparently he had much bureaucracy to deal with that tried to tie down his visions. Frederick Olmsted should get more credit than he does and his incredibly innovative urban parks deserve more national recognition. "It is time that such projects as Central Park, Prospect Park, and the 'Emerald Necklace' of the Boston park system are ranked alongside the traditional 'monuments' of American culture in the more familiar genres of literature, painting, architecture, and music." [1] This is a powerful statement that seems to truly represent the influence that Olmsted has had upon the design of America, as well as on United States culture as a whole.

Frederick L. Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (1824-95) first made the design for Prospect Park, they incorporated two existing forests into the plan, Midwood, which was mostly left undisturbed and the Ravine. Over a thirty-year period (1865-1895), the park was designed and constructed. Olmsted's vision for the park was to provide sensations of relaxation. Along with open meadows, splashing waterfalls and wooded walks, his design included other things park visitors might want: refreshments, bridle paths, and places for people-watching. Vaux designed the park’s structures such as bridges, arches, concession areas, and shelters. His signature rustic style complimented the landscape.They included intricate network of wetlands, collectively called the Watercourse. The Watercourse includes the Ravine, Lullwater, Pagoda Pond, Swanboat Lake, and the 60-acre Prospect Lake. These wetlands were created out of a combination of park design and glacial ice. Olmsted and Vaux also planted evergreen trees to try to imitate the Adirondack landscape, however, most of them died. Olmsted and Vaux wanted to mirror natural behaviors of water and also were influenced by the mountain streams and pools of the Adirondack Mountains. They transformed a small kettle pond into a series of pools, a farmland into a lake, and used the natural hilliness of the land to create a valley through for a stream that leads into the Lullwater and the Lake. [3] [7]

Relationships Between Brooklyn Residents and Park

Prospect Park has become a top destination for Brookyln residents and visitors as a result of its main purpose to serve a growing population in Brooklyn. Contained within the park's 585 acres are a zoo, the first urban-area Audubon Center in the nation, an ice rink, a band shell, a carousel, and dozens of athletic and recreational facilities along with the natural and man-made environments. [3]

Historical Ecology of Prospect Park

Wisconsin Glacier Sheet [8]

About fifty to seventy-five thousand years ago, a massive ice sheet called the Wisconsin Glacier moved through New York City , pushing rock, soil, and boulders. When it melted 17,000-20,000 years ago, water flowed to the sea, creating streams and rivers that carved through rock. Large pieces of the glacier broke off, melted, and left huge craters filled with water called kettle ponds. These ponds helped to create the Park’s watercourse, starting with Fallkill Falls and then into the Ravine, Lullwater and the Lake. Where waters were shallow or flowed slowly, seeds and spores were able to take root and grow, creating generations of plants that grew and decomposed, building peat-rich (partially decayed plant material) sediments. About 8,000 years ago, thick forests developed. Due to the diversified amount of plants growing in these fertile areas, many animals came to feed off of the vegetation. So, predators, like snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), wolves (Canis lupus), several species of hawks, and humans (Homo sapiens) came to the wetlands. [7]

Current Ecology of Prospect Park

Out of all the boroughs in New York City, Brooklyn is the least forested and most of the forests (about 100 acres) lies within Prospect Park. Fertile, moist and well-drained soils in Prospect Park help in growth of a diversity of plants. The forests of Prospect Park are filled with trees, understory, shrubs and groundlayers. Within the undestory are small trees such as sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and dogwood (Cornus florida). Mostly woodland shrubs exist in the Park, ranging from the knee-high lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifloium) to the spicebush (Lindera benzoin), which reaches up to ten feet or more into the understory. Last, the groundlayer is composed of wildflowers and ferns, such as Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), which is near the ground, to Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), which can grow to almost six feet. In Midwood, which is below the terminal moraine (a ridge of boulders, gravel, and sand that marks the end of a glacier’s advance), Tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) dominate the area. The other area, the Ravine, is on the moraine and is a series of small hills and kettle ponds with a small stream within the valley. Besides a few of the evergreens that are left, native oaks, such as the pin oak (Quercus palustris), and non-native Norway maples (Acer platanoides) and sycamore maples (A. pseudoplatanus), have filled the park. In total, the park is home to over 150 tree species and over 30,000 trees with Black Cherry, Norway and Sycamore Maple, Red Oak, and Sweet Gum in the highest numbers and rare ones like Cutleaf Beech, Single Leaf Ash, and Weeping Mulberry. Other vegetation in the park comprise of plants that float on the water’s surface, such as watermeal (Wolffia), to trees of the upland swamp forest, like red oak (Quercus rubra) and silver maple (Acer saccharinum). Pagoda Pond, near the Nethermead, contain swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum), sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), and other species that gives perfume to the air and areas for nesting birds. Though common reeds (Phragmites australis) crowd out cattail in the silted shallows, the area still resembles wet meadow and shrub swamp. [2] [3] [7]

Freshwater wetlands provide habitat for native wildlife,for example, amphibians like the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum). Wood frogs (Rana sylvatica), spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), and Fowler’s toads (Bufo woodhousei fowleri) also breed in kettle ponds. The terrace of the Boathouse offers a view of the Lullwater, where mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) paddle through the high grasses to the open water. Black-crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) roost in the willow trees (Salix alba). The open water of the Lake is home to many familiar and exotic species of birds, from American wigeons (Anas americana) to coots (Fulica) and pied-billed grebes (Podilymbus podiceps). Wetlands also provide resting, breeding, and feeding grounds for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds each year. Around 200 species of birds can be seen in the park each season, which is why the park was declared an Important Birding Area in New York State by the National Audubon Society. Other birds include rare ones like Pied-Billed Grebe, the American Bittern, and the Saw-Whet Owl, and common inhabitants, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Scarlet Tanager, Downy Woodpecker, Green Heron, Red-tailed Hawk and 18 Duck species. [3]

1. Japanese Red Pine 2. White Mulberry 3. London Planetree 4. Bald Cypress 5. Camperdown Elm 6. Sophora Tree 7. Weeping Beech 8. Lacebark Pine 9. Sophora Tree 10. Osage Orange 11. Pignut Hickory 12. Tulip Tree 13. White Oak 14. Tulip Tree [3]

Below we have several pictures of Prospect park as it is today. These were meant to show the beauty and aesthetic appeal that Prospect park holds for locals and tourists alike. We did these as an exercise to better acquaint ourselves with the park and to show some intricate shots that you won't see in any guidebook. Enjoy!


1) "The Reformist Vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and the Poetics of Park Design" Author: George L. Scheper Source: The New England Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 3 (Sep., 1989), pp. 369-402 Published by: The New England Quarterly, Inc.

2) "The Forests of New York City Prospect Park" Source: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation 02 Oct 2001. Web. 28 Sept 2009. Published by: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation

3) "Prospect Park Alliance: Official Website of Prospect Park"

4) Jett, Rob. "Prospect Park Hawk Update." The City Birder: My Red-tailed Hawks and Other Wildlife Observation from Around Brooklyn and NYC. 09 Jul 2008. 16 Nov 2009. <>

5) "Prospect Park Map." Mappery: Real Life Maps. 05 Nov 2007. 16 Nov 2009. <>

6) Urban75. "Prospect Park: A Brooklyn Park in Winter." New York. Dec 2006. 16 Nov 2009. <>

7) "Prospect Park." New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. 05 Nov 2009. <>

8) "Glacial Maximum ca 15,000 Years BP." Cosmographic Research Institute. 03 Nov 2009. <>

9) "About Olmsted And The Olmsted Legacy." National Association for Olmsted Parks. 15 Nov 2009. <>

10) “The Ecological History of an Urban Park” Author: Robert E. Loeb Source: Journal of Forest History, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Jul., 1989), pp. 134-143 Published by: Forest History Society and American Society for Environmental History

11) "From Promenade to Park: The Gregarious Origins of Brooklyn's Park Movement" Authors: Daniel M. Bluestone Source: American Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Winter, 1987), pp. 529-550 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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