The Grammarphobia Blog

Do parkways lead to parks?

Q: During Pat’s last appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show, Leonard said parkways are so named because they lead to parks. What park does the Garden State Parkway lead to? Or the four parkways that form the Belt Parkway in NYC? There are many parkways that don’t lead to parks.

A: You’re right that a lot of parkways don’t lead to parks, but the first parkway apparently did, according to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

The department’s website describes Eastern Parkway, which runs between eastern Brooklyn and Prospect Park, as “the world’s first parkway.”

The department says Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed the parkway as well as the park, coined the term “parkway.”

The parkway, which was built from 1870 to 1874, connects Grand Army Plaza, the main entrance to Prospect Park, and Ralph Avenue to the east.

“Olmsted and Vaux intended Eastern Parkway to be the Brooklyn nucleus of an interconnected park and parkway system for the New York area,” the department says.

Although the plan was never completed, it adds, “their idea of bringing the countryside into the city influenced the construction of major parks and parkways in cities throughout the United States.”

The earliest published reference that we could find for the term “parkway” is in Olmsted and Vaux’s 1868 layout map for the construction of Eastern Parkway:

“City of Brooklyn. Plan of a portion of park way as proposed to be laid out from the eastern part of the City to the Plaza.” (Brooklyn was a city until it was annexed by New York City in 1898.)

So, was Leonard right in saying a parkway leads to a park?

Well, that was what Olmsted and Vaux had in mind when they used the term.

And one of the definitions of “parkway” in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, could be interpreted that way: “a roadway in a park : a landscaped thoroughfare connecting parks.”

However, the primary definition in Webster’s Third describes it as “a broad landscaped thoroughfare; especially : one from which trucks and other heavy vehicles are excluded.”

And the Oxford English Dictionary defines “parkway” similarly: “A broad arterial road planted with trees; an open landscaped highway or boulevard. Occas. also: the planted area of such a highway.”

In other words, a road is usually called a “parkway” today because of the parklike appearance of the planted median strip or side strips.

As for the Garden State Parkway, a reader of the blog comments: “Here in sunny New Jersey we have a different definition of parkway. The road is so-named because that’s where you park (we have a lot of traffic on our roads at rush hour).”

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