Last weekened, on a perfect day in New York City, Jon Cotner led a small group of participants on the second of two interactive walks through Central Park. Cotner is an artist whose work centers on walking and talking. He’s co-written a book of dialogues conducted while strolling around the city, and in past projects, he’s linked lines of poetry to a walk in an old-growth forest and fed participants one-liners guaranteed to spark conversation with another person out on a city street.
Walking and talking is a little addictive: half of the people on Sunday’s walk had participated in one of Cotner’s projects before. This newest walk was called “Recreation” and was meant to explore the physical landscape of the park, as well as its social overlay. On this Sunday, the social overlay was out in full force, tanning, tossing Frisbees, reading, napping, sitting, strolling. Frederick Law Olmsted, the park’s designer and one-time superintendent, Cotner told us, had written that the park should “secure pure and wholesome air, to act through the lungs.” He also wanted to provide “an antithesis of objects of vision to those of the streets and houses.” And on a perfect day like Sunday, it’s easy to see that he succeeded, providing a place for urbanites to go, sit on the cool grass, and take off their shoes.
But to achieve that vision, to provide New Yorkers with a space other than the city street—a space resembling nature—required massive effort and incredible forethought. During the park’s construction, “on any given day, there would be thousands of workers here, moving earth,” Cotner said. Lined up end-to-end, the number of trucks it required to move the amount of dirt excavated from the park would stretch 30,000 miles.
Past the edge of Sheep Meadow, for instance, stands a grove of elm trees, one of the largest stands left in the country. From middle of the sunny field, the trees looked inviting. Olmsted wanted it that way, Cotner told us—when the elms were first planted, they were spindly little things, but Olmsted spaced them so New Yorkers lying in the meadow wouldn’t feel the trees closing in on them as they grew. Elsewhere in the park, the trees are denser. Here, the elms resolve unexpectedly into straight lines, forming arcades that run beside the only straight road in the park.
As an ever-growing portion of the population shifts to cities, natural spaces like these are going to become more important. At the beginning of the walk, Cotner told us, “Central Park wasn’t intended to be a condemnation of this intense progress”—the creep of buildings north along Manhattan. “It was meant to accommodate such developments.” Spaces like Central Park help people crowd together, saving land and energy: As Cotner put it, the park “reconciles... the urban with the rural.” If we’re going to live in cities, we’re going to need more places like Central Park, which can deliver the experience of the natural world to those who crave it.
“Olmsted understood that we need spaces to ‘ramble,’” Cotner wrote to me later. “His work allows and encourages rambling. It’s the antithesis of rushing linearly from A to B, hoping to abolish distance as fast as possible, more or less wishing you arrived at your destination before setting out in the first place.”
Midway through the walk, our group stopped at Bethesda Terrace, which looks out over the park. All I could see were trees stretching skyward—from this perspective, the city had disappeared. But a plane, flying low in the sky, came into view. I took a few steps forward, and a building appeared. The city is here, too.
Future walks guided by Cotner include “We’re Floating,” a tour inspired by the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho in Roosevelt Park in Battery Park City in July. In August and September he’ll be leading “Island Night,” walks through Fire Island that run from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Get in touch with him for more information.