My First Look at the Magic of Landscape Architecture

It was magic, the intentional transformation of a space from what it was to something….else.

New york Central park view in the rain
Central Park Viewed from under a large tree in the rain

I am not a big city girl. My father worked for the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers and I was born overseas and spent much of my younger life in what most would consider strange places. I was raised as a young child in the deserts of Saudi Arabia with beautiful sweeping mounds of red – gold sands as far as the eye can see in all directions surrounding you. Sunrises and sunsets over the sand that make you stop and stare for a while.

From the deserts of Arabia, I was moved to the plains of Oklahoma, where I again fell in love with the open sky and the never ending sea of grasslands. The starry sky, the shape of the gentle hills and valleys, with its gentle breeze blowing softly as it moves through the grass lands. A dance of a million blades at once bending and swaying in unison. Beautiful, every last blade of it. Wide open land and sky as far as the eye can see is all I had ever known. These are the landscapes that had been permanently etched on my memory and I must admit I am still fond of them both today.

From the grasslands of Oklahoma, we moved to Florida the eternal land of sunshine, beaches, flowers, and trees. It is here that I will happily remain for the rest of my existence on this planet. It would be putting it lightly to say that the Florida Landscape I was greeted with was quite as shock to the system. I will admit it took a while for me to be able to appreciate the beauty in the solid wall of tree trunks that seemed to surround me everywhere I went. It was as different from the wide open spaces that I was used to as a landscape that it could possible be. I couldn’t believe trees just grew EVERYWHERE, literally one foot from each other, even out of cracks in sidewalks!

 It was not long before the sheer diversity of plant life around you here in Florida began to entrance me. I began to realize the difference was just that you had to view a landscape in a much closer proximity than I was used to. It was here that I fell in love with flowers, trees and of coarse….beaches. ( Well who needs to see for miles when you can stare out into an endless ocean any time you want to anyway?) 

So I grew up a bit of what I guess nowadays you would consider a country girl, camping on a sand dune, and fishing by the lake with my brother and my dog surrounded by my grassy sea, and finally tromping through the forest in Florida’s beautiful national parks and soaked in the saltwater beaches. I was always bored indoors. Still to this day I prefer to be outside. These are my fondest memories of nature as a child, and the places that I had called home. 

Oh I had been to cities before, but nature was where I felt at home.  In Saudi Arabia we lived near big cities, they were where you went shopping at the gold souks or at the Army base. In Oklahoma, the city was where you went to get groceries, or go to church. Cities were places where you go to visit, and then you went back to nature, back to peace and quiet, to sun and sky, to home.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw New York City. I couldn’t believe how many people there were everywhere I went. After days of wondering about on crowded streets and  subway tunnels with nothing but pavement and towering buildings all around me, I was convinced I could never exist in such a place. Horns were honking, people rushing, pushing, spitting, (GROSS, did he just spit right in front of me!) cutting in front of you like you were not even standing there. I was amazed that I could feel so lonely in a sea full of people. There was no connection, not to the people, not to the land, not to the buildings. I was an isolated person in the middle of a sea of isolated people.

There were no friendly smiles, polite side steps to clear your path, no “Hi, did you find everything okay today?” at the counter when you made a purchase, like there would have been when shopping at home. Instead of a smile and a friendly greeting you got a glare because you had to ask the street vendor with no sign or price or personality for that matter, did he have some mustard for your pretzel that you just bought from him, a glare!

There were no plants or trees to make you feel comfortable, just buildings and cars and streets and masses of people. It’s no wonder everyone was so grumpy here. Why did people choose to exist like this?

After just a few days of wonderful Broadway shows, shopping and general sight seeing, the never ending rows of buildings and crowded streets had begun to wear on me. I began to look at the faces of those around me, it seemed that people in general seemed to have just lost any sense of common courtesy in this concrete jungle. In fact, while I was standing there contemplating the attitude of the people around me, a taxi driver literally stopped in the middle of the road with cars honking and people yelling curses at him out their windows. He got out of his car, walked across two lanes of traffic, cut in front of everybody at a corner food cart, got his sandwich and then proceeded to get back in his car as he flipped everybody ‘the bird’ and proceeded to drive down the street! Was this why you hear ‘Yankee’ so much in the south? I seemed to be the only one around me that was amazed at what had just happened. Was everyone either miserable or rude here?

To say the least, I had had enough. It probably didn’t help that it was a rainy day, where was the light? Where was the green? Were those few potted plants on that balcony all the green these people ever got to see? I missed GREEN.

So, I decided to meet my sister at the Museum of Natural Science and History, soothe my increasingly irritated mood and get back to some nature where I belonged. Who needed more shopping anyway?

The only problem was, on my map, I seemed to be on the wrong side of Central Park. I took out my cell phone and called my sister to touch base and pick a time to meet. “Oh, you’re right across the park from me, just find a road and cut across the park.” she said. So I pulled out the map I tucked away in my back pocket. I unfolded it and found the little mark in the place of the Museum. I remember thinking “hmm, it doesn’t look that big, I’ll just head straight up this way and then follow this road across” It was the last cohesive thought that I had that day and the beginning of the end of the memory on my brand new 1000 photo SD card I had just bought for my trusty Nikon tourist camera hanging about my neck.

 I walked through the jungle of people on the sidewalk and took a right hand turn, I remember twisting my map about in front of me trying to decide if I was on the right road and looking up only to stop, dead in place, and stare.

Within that brief period of walking away from the outskirts of central park the landscape around me had transformed. It was like I was instantly in another place. It was amazing, I remember thinking I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life. This place, this enormous wonderful wonderland of trees and grass and plants, with flowers blooming and ferns swaying, wait, was that a breeze? This was why these people could live here. I took a long deep breath and relaxed, this was the sanity I had been looking for. The calm in the middle of the crazy storm that was this city. This “park” was peace. 

I glanced down at my map again, where was I, was this only a few blocks away from anywhere in this whole city? Amazing, this park was pure genius! This was what you needed to come to on a visit to New York City! Macy’s had nothing on this place. What Empire State building? This is where you want to go, Central Park is surely the greatest treasure this city holds!

As the noise of the nearby streets faded into the background around me, I began to notice a change, not just in the Landscape, but a change on the faces of the people that passed me. The bikers, did they just nod and move over to the other side of the road when they saw me in their way? Surely not, I must have been imagining things. These New Yorkers did not do such things.

Then I noticed, the people on the park benches were sitting and chatting with each other, smiles… I saw smiles. A man walked over to someone, bent down and started playing with his puppy, talking to someone he clearly didn’t know. Naah, he must have known him, maybe they were supposed to meet here. Hmm, wrong again, he just gave the dog one final pat on the head and then got up and walked away. How normal that had seemed. What had happened to all those angry unhappy people?

I wandered about, and like the crazy tourist that I was, taking pictures of everything! Everywhere I went there were beautiful trees and plants and flowers, open expanses of grass that just invited you to walk this way, to run, to play. People playing soccer, walking dogs, riding bikes, pushing strollers, happy people everywhere. The loneliness of this city seemed to disappear. It was like magic, like somehow this place had been transformed into… something ‘else’.  

Hours had passed, I had gotten lost, found my way, and gotten lost again! Never in my life had I had such a good time being lost, I think I would have wandered about forever if my cell phone had not rang. It was my sister wondering where I was. She had finally decided to go see the museum without me, sure I would catch up soon, but was beginning to worry. I had totally forgot that I was supposed to have met her at the museum! Ah yes , I was supposed to cut across this place, not wonder about in it. That’s right, the road, I had a vague recollection of trying to walk back to a road. The park just seemed to have kept drawing me back in!

Reality set back in and as I made my way back towards the  edge of the park, I realized that I was hungry. It was nearly four in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten lunch. So I found a hotdog stand on the outskirts of the park and stood in line studying my wrinkled map again. “Hi, what can I get for you today?” This time I was the one staring at the vendor not the other way around! Did he just speak to me in a pleasant voice? I placed my order and started to think. What had made the change? These were obviously still New Yorkers, they lived here, were they just not headed to work, was this just there day off and that was why they were so relaxed? These could not be the same people that were in the streets and on the subway, could they?

I sat on a park bench and watched people as I ate. There were people in line in business suits and heels, and they were smiling, and it wasn’t even their day off. Sitting there lost in thought, I hear ” Where are you from?” I hadn’t noticed someone had sat down near me. I smiled, “What gave it away, my tourist camera?” I said as I pointed to my giant camera still hanging from my neck. She laughed, “No it was the coat, and the tan.” she said. “It’s not cold.” I was confused, I looked around and I was wearing a thick coat and shivering and everyone else had on maybe a long sleeved light shirt and seemed to be fine! We laughed for a minute as I explained I was from Florida and this was as cold as it gets for me! I told her that I had to buy the coat here, because I was freezing, my Florida winter clothes just were not enough for the fall weather in New York City. I finished my food, smiling inside at my own ridiculous need for what must have seemed to these people an out of place Eskimo parka and realized that was the first conversation I had with someone I did not know all week! What was the difference?

Then it hit me, it is this place, Central Park changes people’s moods. I was no longer sick of New York City. I was relaxed and having a good time. I no longer felt lonely, I felt connected to the land and the people around me. I no longer felt like I could never exist in such a place. Instead of missing home, I was thinking I had only gotten to see one half of this park and wondering what the other half was like. Would I have time tomorrow to come back and find out?

Needless to say, I never made it to the museum that day. What I got instead was an in depth and personal understanding of what landscape architecture was all about. I saw my surroundings for the art that they truly were. A massive living canvas carefully created in the artists imagination. A world within a world, all its own. An idea brought to life by the hands of diligent planners, workers and designers. A thriving, ever changing masterpiece carefully cultivated and lovingly cared for. It was magic, the intentional transformation of a space from what it was to something …’else’.