Thursday, April 2, 2009

Rebuilding Cities: Buffalo NY

Nicolai Ouroussoff had a great article in Sunday's NY Times: Reinventing America's Cities: The Time Is Now. The article outlines the need for coordinated planning and, can I say: "big" ideas for making US cities more attractive and livable.

He discusses specific plans for New Orleans, Los Angeles, the Bronx and my hometown Buffalo, as well as more general concepts that would help. I was particularly interested in his description of Buffalo, especially the problematic plan by the US Department of Homeland Security to greatly expand the Peace Bridge Customs area. Ouroussoff mentions that preservationists in Buffalo are fighting the plan, I wish them good luck!

Buffalo could be a poster child for the problems with urban redevelopment projects. Ouroussoff mentions that an aerial freeway was built through one of Fredrick Law Olmsted Sr's parks ... actually it's worse, another two freeways were built: a surface freeway through Olmsted's Delaware Park and a depressed freeway through Olmsted's Humboldt Parkway (which also happened to be an African American neighborhood). The city's light rail system was build mostly underground thus reducing the possibility for community development similar to Portland Oregon around its surface LRT line (not to mention drastically increasing construction and operating costs).

A real problem hindering big planning ideas is that cities like Buffalo need to think small. In other words how to best grow into smaller cities. That goes against the traditional political and business "boosterism" but it's reality. And, smaller could really be beautiful.

Why not simply tear down the freeways - there's less traffic? Replace them with surface boulevards like San Francisco or Milwaukee or re-route the traffic. Rebuild the parks they run through: daylight the Scajaquada Creek from Delaware Park to the Niagara River.

Why not use the existing International Railway Bridge to create a "moving inspection" system for homeland security. Trucks would be loaded on railcars and be inspected on a continuous system of automatic sensors located along the railway track. Not only would such a system eliminate the need for increasing the Peace Bridge inspection facilities, but it would reduce emissions and increase the efficiency of freight transport (less waiting at inspection). Such a system could be a model for other border crossings. In the long term it could increase the amount of freight shipped by rail.

Why not develop a program to focus redevelopment in certain neighborhoods and create a 21st Century equivalent for Olmsted's park system? Such a plan would reduce infrastructure costs and help create the kind of environment that could attract new residents and businesses to Buffalo. The parks could even offer 'economic crisis victory' gardens to nearby residents.

Why not preserve the grain elevators and Buffalo River area as an urban park the way many Ruhr District cities have done. But, the list of ideas is endless.

This kind of planning calls for creativity - which is clearly available - and government programs like those called for in Ouroussoff's article. Let's hope that the Obama Administration doesn't stop thinking about tomorrow.

Ouroussoff mentions that Europe looked to the USA in the past for planning ideas and now the US is looking at Europe. But there is an Architect Engineer from 1890s Vienna, Otto Wagner, that also provides a clue. He planned Vienna's urban transport system combining existing rail lines with new lines and building stations, bridges and facilities that, while serving engineering functions very well, are also beautiful. He did the same with flood facilities. I think there's a lot to learn from his work as well. The photos with the posting are from my flickr photos Vienna Public Transport Otto Wagner.

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