Prospect Park has provided an escape from everyday city life since the mid-nineteenth century. Although many have focused on this important and enduring function, the park’s varied expanses of meadows, woods, and water were designed to offer far more. Civic leaders viewed the park as integral to the success of the rapidly growing and modernizing city of Brooklyn. They emphasized the park’s social, spiritual, and public health benefits. Civic leaders also wanted the park and its adjacent Eastern and Ocean parkways to shape the city’s development. This would, they hoped, enhance Brooklyn’s reputation as an attractive, healthful, and desirable place to live.
American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and English architect Calvert Vaux were largely responsible for the form that the Park eventually assumed. They designed Prospect Park starting in 1865 while they continued their initial collaboration, Central Park. The partners learned from their experience in New York: Their effort in Brooklyn more fully reflected their design theories and ideological goals. The wide shape of the Brooklyn park and the absence of transverse drives or a reservoir, as required in Central Park, permitted Olmsted and Vaux to create a more cohesive design. Prospect Park contained more varied topography and a greater sense of depth and size in 585 acres than Central Park’s 843 acres. Some years after he left New York to start a thriving and influential landscape architecture firm, Olmsted summarized his feelings about Prospect Park to Brooklyn Park Commission President James Stranahan, stating, “I am prouder of it than anything I had to do with.”
The Park comprises a living, layered history. Additions have been made to its mid- nineteenth century romantic landscape architecture and architecture over the years as design tastes and ideas of recreation have changed. Fortunately, few of these have compromised the Park’s original design, which means that visitors can enjoy a relatively vast, open, unprogrammed space in the middle of one of the world’s most populous cities. Like most public spaces, Prospect Park has experienced cycles of decline and regeneration in relation to the City’s financial health. The Park reached its lowest point during New York City’s budget crisis of the late 1960s and ’70s. As with Central Park, local citizens formed groups to preserve and restore Prospect Park. The Prospect Park Alliance, a private-public partnership with the City of New York and the surrounding community, formed in 1987. (It was modeled on the Central Park Conservancy, which formed in 1980.) The Alliance has restored several of the Park’s landscapes, such as the Ravine. It has also restored key structures, such as the Carousel and various bridges and arches. Its most recent project entails a major restoration along a segment of the Lake shoreline adjacent to the Concert Grove.