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A couple relaxes on one of Central Park's many, many benches. (Photograph by Liz Ranola, My Shot)

Behind the Scenes in Central Park

It has been said that Central Park was the first place in New York City where people from all walks of life could gather and relax together. This still rings true today, with the 843-acre park drawing 40 million visitors a year.

More than any other landmark, Central Park reflects the brilliance of New York. And, unlike tourist hotspots like Times Square, Central Park is a favorite among locals — an almost impossibly quiet pause amid the super-urban hoopla. Is there anything more enchanting than strolling along the elm-shaded Mall in the summer, or climbing Belvedere Castle for a view of the Great Lawn?

Before the Central Park opened, in 1857, the center of Manhattan life was downtown. The park would help drive people uptown with elevated railways and, eventually, upscale apartment buildings like The Dakota. In 1859, Calvert Vaux, an English architect who had never designed a park, and Frederick Law Olmsted, a journalist who had never designed anything at all, won a design contest to improve the park, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the park’s early years, there were signs saying “no running, no strenuous activity at any time.” Today, the New York City marathon concludes in Central Park, and thousands of people get their daily runs and bike rides in — not to mention the 30 tennis courts, and Pilgrim Hill is a popular spot for sledding in the winter.

The Central Park Conservancy has been responsible for maintaining and preserving the park for decades, and has been credited with bringing it back to its former glory after a period of decay in the 1970s.

How do you keep the most famous park in the world beautiful and running smoothly? The conservancy’s president and CEO, Doug Blonsky, gave me the inside scoop on his labor of love:

Know Your Zones
According to Blonsky, the conservancy launched a pioneering “zone management” system in which the park’s 843 acres are divided into 49 zones. Each zone is managed by an expert gardener who makes sure the landscapes and resources in their zone are in tip-top shape. On its busiest day, upwards of 200,000 people pass through Central Park’s gates, “so we do everything to make sure the Park is ready: repair playgrounds and benches, pick up trash, rake leaves, mow lawns, clean water bodies, and so much more,” Blonsky said.

The Park’s Most Popular Spots
Blonsky said more than 75 percent of all visitors keep to the South End of Central Park (below 80th Street). Highlights there include Bethesda Terrace, the Great LawnSheep Meadow, and Strawberry Fields — the living memorial to John Lennon.

The “Secret Spot” in Central Park
In the North End of the park, you can escape from the city in a way you can’t anywhere else. The pools, stone arches, and dense woodlands there are beautiful. “You’d never know you’re in the middle of Manhattan,” Blonsky said.

Can’t-Miss Trees and Flowers
In the spring, Blonsky recommends visiting the Yoshino cherry trees along the east side of the Reservoir, and points out that some of the park’s original oaks can be found in the park’s North End (“They’re nearly 160 years old!”). He said that while visitors often overlook the woodlands on that end of the park, they’re a unique discovery, intended by the park’s original designers to be the “Manhattan Adirondacks.” Tip: Stop by the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center at 110th Street between Lenox Avenue and Fifth Avenue to get the most up-to-date information on the park and its programs.

A Park of Love
Central Park has provided a beautiful backdrop for countless weddings and proposals. “One of the most popular places for weddings is the gorgeous Conservatory Garden at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue,” Blonsky said. “In 2012, 140 weddings took place there – and more than 200 couples took their official wedding photos there.”

Bring Your Binoculars
Central Park provides vital stopover grounds where birds can rest and feed during fall and spring migration seasons (approximately 230 different bird species can be found in the park throughout the year). “We introduce and maintain a diverse array of plants to supply food and shelter to animals, including birds,” Blonsky said. To help birders explore the park, the conservancy has developed Discovery Kit backpacks for visitors to borrow, free of charge. “Each one contains binoculars, a guidebook, maps, and sketching materials,” Blonsky said. Pick yours up at Belvedere Castle or the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center.

A Park for All Seasons
Spring and summer bring the most visitors to the park. “To prepare for the crowds, we seed and mow the lawns and keep them closed for the winter so the grass will survive the coldest months,” Blonsky said. The work continue year-round: “All through the winter, we shovel and clear the 51 miles of paths throughout the park,” he said. “We rake the leaves that fall from the park’s more than 21,000 trees throughout autumn, and are continuously maintaining the Park’s 21 playgrounds and 9,000 benches.”

Keeping the Park Healthy
The conservancy doesn’t just manage Central Park; it’s also responsible for raising 85 percent of the $46 million it takes to keep it operating each year. “Our two biggest annual fundraisers are Autumn in Central Park, which takes place in November, and the Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon, which takes place in spring,” Blonsky said. “We also couldn’t do what we do without our 35,000 members.

Free to See
Since the park is so large, it’s a good idea to start with a free tour led by the fine folks at the Central Park Conservancy. “As Central Park experts, we love to share our knowledge of the park’s history, its landscapes, its design, and its flora with the public,” Blonsky said. He also recommended downloading the conservancy’s free app. “It helps you search for events, landscapes, and points of interest throughout Central Park,” he said.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her travels on Twitter @anniefitz.