New York's Bryant Park - What Makes a Great Urban Park

N.Y. City's Bryant Park in Summer

This is a revised and enlarged version of a previous post I wrote.....Jan

Bryant Park is one of the most successful outdoor spaces in New York. But why?

Well, it is open on all four sides to the public.  You can enter it easily although there is a distinct separation from the street and a more formal entrance off 6th Avenue.

It is also a mix of overhead trees and open level green space. (I guess each comprises 50 percent of the whole). This is an important and salient design point.

It offers many different active and passive recreational pursuits. Chess tables and sculptures share the park with ice skaters, a carousel and bird watchers.

Chess players in Bryant Park

Ice Skating in Bryant Park

One of the most obvious features of Bryant Park is the perimeter planting of tall Plane Trees. These stately trees were planted years ago and have been pruned to a high canopy which offers filtered shade and a needed buffer from the surrounding skyscrapers.

photo by Jan Johnsen

I took this photo of Bryant Park in the summer. The furniture is lightweight and highly moveable. People can place their seats anywhere they like.  Bravo!

Urbanist William H. Whyte suggested the use of this kind of seating for the park. He wrote in his book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces:

"Chairs enlarge choice: to move into the sun, out of it, to make room for groups, move away from them. The possibility of choice is as important as the exercise of it. If you know you can move if you want to, you feel more comfortable staying put."

 It also shows people sitting in niches set off from the main walk - another great design idea! Set the seating out of the flow of people. It also shows the trees bordering both sides of the paved walkway.

Where did this idea come from?  Well, look at Villa Medici in Italy for this niche idea.

Villa Medici - photo by Hermes, Gardens of a Golden Afternoon

And what about the large central rectangle of lawn that Bryant Park features? It harks back to as Village Green.  This is what 'House and Garden', said of a plan for a 'village green' concept in June, 1926:

"A new prototype of an urban park for American cities features a raised, multipurpose grass terrace surrounded by a double rows of trees. Separation from traffic and street noise is provided by low plantings and balustrades."  from the website, 'Exploring Concepts of Landscape Architecture ' ... Bryant Park is a Village Green.
Bryant Park plan from the book, 'Great City Parks' by Alan Tate

Now contrast that scene with this one:

I took this photo years ago of a vest pocket park in New Orleans. It, too, has trees on both sides of the paved area. It also has seats in niches. So why is this so unappealing while the other park is so inviting?

Gary O Robinette termed it, 'Reduction'.

In Bryant Park, the width of the paved walk is small compared to the height of the trees bordering it....You feel enclosed, embraced and sheltered.

from the book, 'Plants/People/ and Environmental Quality' by Gary O. Robinette

The ratio of the trees to the paved area in the New Orleans park is very different. The trees are too small, too far apart and the paved zone is too wide....They should have placed the trees closer to each other tather than hugging the walls.  The  widecentral paved area has no reason for being...A narrower walk with wide planting beds would have created a softer, sheltered space.

There is no buffer from the street. No activities are offered or planned for. It is a dead end space - no flow.

As Gertrude Stein said (a sculpture of her is in Bryant Park) "there is no there, there"..she was describing Los Angeles but it could apply to this New Orleans park.

Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park - given to the park by Maury Leibovitz (he was a client of mine and had this statue at his house before donating to the park)


  1. My daughter and I shared a picnic lunch there in June! Thanks for bringing back those lovely memories. what a lovely feeling that was sitting at the side of the path, and those trees had such a lovely filtered light! Georgous park.

  2. Splendid blog - My garden is my chance to escape for some beautiful silence too. I agree with your argument about proportions being key to the experience of gardens.

  3. Lovely post Jan!! Thank you for sharing

  4. When I first moved to NYC, I lived across the street from a pocket garden on E 51st Street. It was an oasis in the heat and a calm in the city storm. NYC has many such amazing, out of the way gardens that are well supported and they make city living that much more pleasurable. Great post.

  5. Hi, My name is John Beaudry. I have been wanting to write to tell you that I love your blog and your work. Your posts are interesting, current, inspiring, and you have such great pictures. You must spend a great deal of time writing...or you are simply very gifted!

    I am writing a book Called Bungalow Garden Design and am blogging it as I write it at

    I also have an FB page under the same title. I hope you enjoy my site as much as I enjoy yours!



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