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The democratic beauty of Central Park

In a brief interview, the philosopher Joshua Cohen reflects on the beauty of Central Park, noting how "the park provides an experience of beauty and is also ... driven by a remarkable intellectual idea: the democratic idea of an experience of beauty for the people". As an example of the park's beauty he highlights the ceiling of the Bethesda Terrace, shown above (you may click the image to view a larger version that shows much more detail; and see here for more images of the terrace):

In the foyer of the Bethesda Terrace theres a fantastic ceiling made with more than 15000 tiles. Theyre encaustic tiles which means that the color and geometric design on the surface goes all they way through: it is not a glaze but multi-coloured clay. The ceiling was designed by British architect, Jacob Wrey Mould, based on his two-year-long study of the Alhambra. So this public park in New York City includes a structure with a ceiling based on one of the most beautiful works of architecture in the world. In Central Park, the Terrace serves as an architectural platform for the experience of natural beauty.

Cohen also remarks on the idea that genuine beauty can be appreciated only by an aristocratic elite:

[Park designer Frederick Law] Olmsted had spent the 1850s working as a journalist, writing about slavery and aristocracy. He thought that the conflict between North and South in the United States was part of a global fight between democratic and aristocratic models of society. Theres an aristocratic criticism of democracy that goes all the way back to Plato, that when you try to do things for everyone you end up with lowest common denominator crap. Olmsted saw building Central Park as a way of proving the aristocrats wrong. It was built by a democratic society for a democratic societyfor the peopleand was incredibly beautiful. His bet was that people would be drawn to it.

Photograph by Francisco Diez from New Jersey, USA [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author

John Schwenkler is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.



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Speaking of the democratic beauty of central park-and by extension of all public parks; I am appalled at the anti democratic policy that I experienced about a month ago concerning a public playground .As part of my routine excercise program-I try to walk from my home to Flushing and back at least 3 times a week.Sometimes on my walk back I like to stop in a particular playground[a public playground] to just sit there and relax a few minutes. I do this in the morning-where it's quiet and peaceful and I love the huge trees and just the whole configuration of this particular playground. The aesthetics of this playground just resonates with me.It's peaceful,calming ,soothing and pleasnt. In the summer when it was really hot ,the sprinklers would be on and I would cool off in the sprinklers.The whole experience is delightful, a part of my day and routine I look forward to and enjoy. For years there has been the same park employee there . Last month i again stopped to relax under a tree there and for the first time-the park employee came up to me and told me I had to leave.She said [in a rather beligerent tone ] didn't you read the sign out side the park?I had not of course -why would I-the park was open and the beauty of it was inviting and that was enough for me -and sure enough it was posted that no adults were permitted in the playground without children.I understand the fear of pedophiles luring children who play in playgrounds. I understand that we can't single out men and not women as potential pedophiles[and there certainly are women pedophiles as the bizarre increase in female teachers lusting after young male students indicates].I understand all that yet still-where was the common sense of this park employee and of this policy? The park was completely empty.Not one man ,woman or child was in that park beside me and the park emplyee. As is often the case that time of morning when I'm there.Since then as I walk by there it remains either completely empty in the mornings or perhaps a few adults and their children are there.I've witnessed an older woman who went into this playground starting to do her chinese excercise program like wise being thrown out of this otherwise empty playground.This democratization of artistocratic aesthetics and leisure is manifest in the creation of this beautiful playground yet now we have the absurd situation of having a beautful playground remaining empty of people because of policies poorly implemented[devoid of common sense ].Either have separate but equal public playgrounds[one for adults and their children and another for adults only]or let park employees use discretion and common sense.if in the morning the park is empty of children let adults use it.I have complained to the city and they said thy'd get back to me.So far nothing.I also am now aware that as part of this playground there actually is a separated ramp where adults are allowed to go and sit in an enclosed space with no trees and a bare white facade to look at. It looks and feels like a prison yard[though I'm sure prison yards by today standards are not as bleak as this enclusure is].I have no desire to sit in a concrete enclosure facing a blank concrete wall and I have have yet to see any one else sitting there the sixties there was a song about how inhuman[inhumane] were signs that said "keep off the grass" .Now the public parks actually say -keep out.Unbelievable!

The late philosopher Denis Dutton argued in his book "The Art Instinct" that judgments of beauty were nearly universal, transcending cultural and historical differences as well as class differences. The "Savannah Hypothesis" explains why Central Park appeals to the inner cave man in all of us "Studies of landscape preferences repeatedly show a human liking for alternating copses of trees and open spaces, often hilly land, with animals, water, and a path or river bank that winds into an inviting yet mysterious, bluish distance. This preference for the landscapes of the Pleistocene era, which has been experimentally verified as a cross-cultural constant today, shows up in the painting of early European artists, such as Albrecht Altdorfer and Salvador Rosa, and is found today on calendars in kitchens and offices worldwide. . . It can be seen in the design of public parks from New York to Kyoto to Melbourne."

New Orleans City Part was designed by the same Olmsted firm that designed Central Park. This one has a different feeling == the park is flat but the continuing panorama of clouds above the thousands of live oaks and other large trees has a harmonious beauty that inspires civility. All sorts of people picnic there. I've lived near the park for 60 odd years have never even heard of anything dreadful happening there. Is it the lovely white swans there that inspire the serenity? I'm convinced that purely natural settings within a city are civilizing, no matter what the reason(s) might be. I've also read that studies show that crime is lower in neighborhoods with lots of trees. Sure, there are probably concomitant sociological reasons for that, but still, the relationship is there, and I think we ignore it at our peril. This is, of course, related to the gun violence issue. How many trees are there in the slums? Yes, call me a tree-hugger. I especially love them in the city.

Olmstead also designed Mont-Royal in Montreal. I doubt he had the Savannah in mind when he did Central Park, but he did have some kind of batty plan to make Mont Royal actually look like a mountain by thinning out the trees as you climbed higher. Fortunately, his designs were reworked in some places, so instead of a bald mountain, there's a forest in the park. This got thinned out in the 50s in an attempt to cut down on all the shagging going on in the trees, but they reversed that eventually.

I have a special place in my heart for Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, America's largest urban park and home to America's first (and still best) zoo.

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