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Why Central Park in New York is based on Birkenhead Park in Wirral

In the heart of Manhattan, amid canyons of steel and bustling roads hogged by roaring yellow taxis, a magnificent park unfurls as the predominant green space of a sprawling metropolis.

Spanning 800 acres of pleasant terrain, dotted with more than 24,000 trees and offering some 9,000 benches, Central Park is an oasis of culture and nature, a hub of stunning versatility that enthrals 35 million visitors annually.

In every way, it is the world's most famous park. Yet quite remarkably, this landmark of global renown has close ties to Wirral and is forever indebted to Birkenhead, which, boasting the world's first publicly-funded park, was a source of wonder and inspiration to the man who ultimately designed New York's famous backyard.

Indeed, Central Park shows plenty of similarities to its Birkenhead forebear, with many of its lakes cast in the same shape and its general concept of creating a rural idyll in an urban jungle copied to great effect. Quite simply, without Birkenhead Park, there would be no Central Park, at least not in the wonderful guise we adore today.

The first publicly-funded park in the world

The initial idea for a park in Wirral's heartland was proffered by Sir William Jackson, a local industrialist, who outlined his vision to an improvement committee within Birkenhead's government in 1841. The commission officially sanctioned the project and managed to secure public funds for its completion. This was truly a historic case, spawning what many believe to be the first publicly-financed park in the world.

There was evidently a dire need for such open space as industrialisation encroached on Victorian Birkenhead. "Bricks and mortar are so fast taking the place of green fields, and sooty vapours are so thickly mingling with the fragrant breezes, that Birkenhead will soon no longer be in the country," wrote the Liverpool Courier in 1842. "It is therefore good policy to provide a healthy and agreeable place of resort to secure the permanent benefits of pure air and exercise, at a moderate distance from the town, while this can be done at a comparatively trifling cost."

The improvement commission purchased 226 acres of marshy land in Birkenhead and hired influential architect Joseph Paxton to design the park. A noted gardener at Chatsworth House, and later the visionary behind the famous Crystal Palace, Paxton wanted the prospective Birkenhead Park to be natural and informal, with many different types of shrubs, trees, lakes and bridges providing surprising vistas. Paxton wanted to create a countryside retreat in a fairly built-up area, a place of rest and relaxation in a town of increasing noise and activity.

Work began in 1844, overseen by Edward Kemp, a renowned landscapist. It took 1,000 men over three years to make Paxton's design spring from fantasy to reality. Finally, in April 1847, Birkenhead Park was opened in a ceremony attended by more than 10,000 people. The congested town could breathe at last.

With its contrasting colours, thriving wildlife and grand front entrance redolent of Paris' Arc de Triomphe, the park was a sight to behold. Birkenhead had every right to be proud.

The genius of Frederick Law Olmstead

In 1850, the park's splendour was experienced firsthand by American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who travelled to Liverpool via ship and visited Wirral as a matter of urgency. In later writings, Olmsted concluded that Birkenhead was a "model town built in all accordance with the advanced science, taste and enterprising spirits that are supposed to distinguish the nineteenth century."

Of Birkenhead Park, Olmsted wrote how "five minutes of admiration and a few more spent studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty" left him "ready to admit that, in democratic America, there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People's Garden."

Olmsted waxed lyrical about the park's gardening, labelling it "perfect" and marvelling at the ingenuity on display. 

"I cannot undertake to describe the effect of so much taste and skill as had evidently been employed," he wrote. "I will only tell you that we passed by winding paths, over acres and acres, with a constant varying surface, where on all sides were growing every variety of shrubs and flowers, with more than natural grace, all set in borders of greenest, closest turf, and all kept with consummate neatness."

How was Central Park built?

While Olmsted was enjoying the sights and sounds of Wirral, back home in New York, the need for a similar green space reached a critical mass. Between 1821 and 1855, the city's population quadrupled from 125,000 to over 515,000 as the settlement morphed into a chaotic metropolis and a nerve centre for the nation's activity.

As New York grew, so too did the need for a natural, communal space away from the clattering howl and filthy pollution of city life. Local residents campaigned for a park, citing a desire for fresh air and room dedicated to societal activity. In agreement, the New York legislature sought to buy land for such a venture and, after several aborted attempts, ultimately settled on a 700-acre plot between 59th and 106th streets in Manhattan.

At a princely cost of $5 million dollars, the city purchased land that would soon be fashioned into the grandest park of all-time. The State appointed a Central Park Commission tasked with giving structure to the populace's yearning for a park.

The link between Birkenhead Park and Central Park

The commission's first objective was to conjure a design of some sort; a challenge it passed on to the citizenry in the form of an open design contest. Essentially, anybody could submit their vision for the city's new park, so long as it included specific features such as a tower, flower garden, an ice rink and three baseball diamonds to quench the nation's nascent fascination with the sport.

Once all the entries were collected, one stood out more than most, mainly for its innovative ideas for minimising traffic and providing varied views throughout the park. With haste, the winning designers were announced as Calvert Vaux and one Mr Frederick Law Olmsted, whose vision, dubbed the Greenswald Plan, was heavily influenced by the experiences of Birkenhead Park.

The winning design shared many similarities with Wirral's park, such as bridges, surfaces and lakes of striking symmetry. Olmsted and Vaux also drew inspiration from Derby Arboretum and traditional American cemeteries, which in the absence of parks, had been the country's primary source of communal outdoor space to that point.

More than 5 million cubic yards of stone and topsoil were deployed in moulding New York's masterful park, which transformed an unpromising bog of quarries and pig farms into a space of unending enchantment.

In summer, baseball was played before excited crowds and concerts drew people from their cramped downtown dwellings. In winter, folks skated on the rink and enjoyed the crisp air, hitherto a novelty in New York. Similarly, on weekends, cars were not allowed to pass through the park, protecting the sanctity of its purpose: to provide respite from the hubbub of daily life.

The greatest park in the world

Over the next 150 years, Gotham's green retreat suffered periods of decline and neglect but always came back better than before. Pioneers such as Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and city planning tzsar Robert Moses set the park on course for prosperity, before the spirit and endeavour of well-meaning residents in the 1980s and 1990s helped it evolve into the beloved tourist attraction we know today.

Similarly, Birkenhead Park has had tough times, and many would argue that the park is currently in quite a sorry state compared to its halcyon days. Yet Wirral's defining outdoor space still looms large in the history books, mainly for its trailblazing influence around the globe.

Central Park is now the pre-eminent park in the greatest, most important city on earth. However, as Wirral residents, we have a right to feel proud that, without the template from our neck of the woods, New York would never have created such a landmark and the world may never have grown to appreciate the magnificence of rural respite in the bog of urban existence.

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