Prospect Park, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Designed shortly after the Civil War by Central Park masterminds Olmstead and Vaux, this 585-acre oasis includes a zoo, a 60-acre lake and a natural forest. Tate writes in "Great City Parks", "Prospect Park is one of the simplest but most subtle landscape compositions in North America."
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updated 12/6/2009 9:45:55 PM ET 2009-12-07T02:45:55

From botanical gardens to ice skating rinks, from jogging paths to bison paddocks, a great city park can contain multitudes. But beyond their physical features, the best urban oases may well be defined by a feeling.

"Your whole sense of place changes when you go into a successful city park," says Alan Tate, author of "Great City Parks". "They give you a feeling of going away without leaving town."

Tate explains how Frederick Law Olmsted, the founding father of American parks, talked about the need for "long spaces that you could dream away in" — one of the prominent features, in fact, of the Long Meadow in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, which Olmstead designed with Calverty Bowyer Vaux shortly after the Civil War.

Olmstead's work, says Tate, "was very much based on the whole idea of the mental health effects of going into green space."

But if a great city park has a transporting effect, it must also be deeply connected to its urban surroundings.

"It's one of the main differences between a city park and traditional national park, which can stand more or less on its own," says Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land in Washington, D.C. "A great city park has to be a beautiful space that also has a great relationship with the city."

Escape without leaving
The 12 parks on our list, comprising suggestions from Harnik and Tate, run the gamut in size and features, but each in its own way offers a sense of escape.

As an example, Harnik points to Boston's Post Office Square, a small (1.7 acre) space that he says "completely revolutionized" an area of Boston's financial district. Its designers moved a dilapidated concrete parking structure underground and built the park on top of it. Today Post Office Square is packed at lunchtime, and performance spaces and an outdoor restaurant extend its use beyond business hours.

One of the principle features of American city parks, says Tate, is their "sheer size," a legacy of Olmsted and others in the 19th century — who argued for more expansive spaces for city parks.

But vastness alone doesn't make for a great city park. In fact, Tate notes that some of the smallest city enclaves, wherein the noise of a waterfall drowns out the din of traffic, can offer as much respite as a massive metropolitan greenscape.

Central Park, New York
Any discussion of American city parks would be incomplete without mention of the granddaddy of them all, New York's Central Park. "Commenced in 1856, it was the first purpose-built public park in North American," writes Tate. Designed by Calverty Bowyer Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead, Central Park's highlights include the Conservatory Gardens, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and nearly 9,000 benches.
It's the big, famous spaces, however, that are "high in everybody's consciousness," says Harnik. "Central Park in New York or the new Millennium Park in Chicago are very high-visibility parks that get millions of visitors and add a tremendous amount of pizazz to a city."

But there's a world of "more modest neighborhood parks" that Tate says are lesser-known gems.

Patterson Park in Baltimore, for example, is steeped in history; it was the site of Union encampments during the Civil War, and houses several unique, historic buildings. It's also full of present-day pleasures — skating rinks, pavilions and playgrounds — that connect the surrounding neighbors to the space.


© 2012 Forbes.com

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