Inside the Urban Paradise

New York Post


Perry Chiarmonte and Leonard Greene

In a city filled with attractions and entertainment, Central Park — the emerald jewel of Manhattan — draws more visitors every year than Broadway, the Yankees or the Empire State Building combined, a new study of the park has found.

Central Park gets more than 37 million visits a year, from New Yorkers and tourists alike who do more walking and picnicking than running and cycling, according to the most in-depth study ever done on the park. The visits to the park were made by 9 million individuals, many of whom visited several times a year — a head count that is nearly three times higher than estimates made in the 1970s, when decades of decline left the park in tatters.

From the enchantment of the Wollman Rink to the grandeur of the Great Lawn, Central Park now draws eager visitors from all over the world who go for nature walks, take pictures, play softball, toss a Frisbee, see a concert or walk their dogs.

“In the summer, we usually come to Sheep Meadow with the children and have picnics and enjoy the day outside,” said Joann Varela, 36, who loves the park so much that she brings her family over from Brooklyn. “It’s worth coming here from Brooklyn,” Varela said. “We used to live on the Upper East Side and used to love coming here all the time. We still do.” She is not alone. Now more than ever, New Yorkers use the park as their back yard, and they include it at the top of their list of places they tell their friends and family from out of town to visit, according to the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit agency that runs the park for the city and conducted the comprehensive study. By comparison, annual attendance at Broadway theaters is roughly 12 million, the Yankees draw about 4 million spectators and the Empire State Building was visited by 2.8 million people last year. But the 843-acre park is used more now, by more people, in more ways than ever before — facts made readily apparent by the crowds that clog its more popular corners, like Strawberry Fields or the Conservatory Garden.
“It’s the lungs of the city,” said conservancy President Doug Blonsky. “It’s truly the place where you can come in and breathe and get away from the hustle and bustle.” Blonsky said his agency commissioned what amounts to a Central Park census — the first since the park’s birth in 1873 — to measure an entire year of public use to develop a model to collect credible statistics about one of the world’s most heavily visited urban parks.

Blonsky said it was important to understand how many visitors that meant, where they come from, what they are doing, and what they think. The result is myriad trends and details as vast as the famed Reservoir. For instance, researchers learned the answer to one of the park’s great debates. Which neighborhood uses the park more: the Upper East Side or the Upper West Side. According to the study, 25 percent of the visits, 9.2 million, came from the Upper West Side, with 16 percent, 6 million, coming from the Upper East Side. About 6 percent of the visits, 2 million, came from Midtown, and 8 percent, 1.8 million, came from Harlem, East Harlem and Morningside Heights. Nearly 70 percent of Central Park visits, 26 million, were made by New Yorkers, including 8 percent, 3 million, from the outer boroughs. Most visitors surveyed said they appreciate the park’s scenic landscape, while others said they enjoyed getting a break from the traffic and the noise of the city.

“I come here to run and bike all the time,” said Jason, 37, an Upper East Side resident who likes running along the Reservoir. “It’s nice scenery. It’s quiet. No cars. It doesn’t even feel like you’re running in the city.” Attitudes about the park — especially among tourists — have evolved in the decades since the economic and social crises of the ’70s, Blonsky said. The renaissance is directly connected to restoration projects that brought the park back to life.

Blonsky’s next challenge is to get the word out about the park’s northern areas. According to the study, the park’s south side near 59th Street drew 27 million visits. The north side, near 110th Street, drew 9 million visits. “The south end of the park gets such a huge amount of people because of the tourism,” Blonsky said. “We’d like to see them go up to 104th Street because that’s one of the beautiful areas of the park.”